The modest reporting, the calm containment, and the cold water being put on run away claims of terror inspired paranoia was simply too good to be true. Australian officials and crude terror analysts have pounced on the Sydney café siege as a baptism, carefully ignoring features of the perpetrator’s past, while highlighting others. For others, it is a magnificent deliverance from mediocre distance and relevance in the canon of terror alerts and terror targeting. And just to prove the point, Australian papers made a point of having a “world reacts” section.
Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan are the wounded poster victims of terror attacks – they have every reason to wish to be off that list. But there are countries whose governments react like pining unrequited lovers – they are simply missing out on the demolishing car bomb or such attacks the Peshawar school attack that left 141 dead. All those resources, all that security, with nowhere to go.
After all, the Australian security apparatus has sought to justify its own dear existence since September 11, 2001, ramping up the rhetoric, and expenditure, to justify its position in the global response to “wars” on the flexible abstraction that is terror. There have been convictions. There have been charges, the latest coming in light of the huff and puff of the September raids in western Sydney and Brisbane. But these are small in the scheme of things. As writer Max Blumenthal pointed out, “There are a few places in the world that are actually under siege. Sydney is not one of them” (Twitter, Dec 14).
While the Sydney holdup says absolutely nothing about a terror “wave”, it is being read as part of a current, with Australia being caught in it. Admittedly, there are a few commentators insisting that the siege was not a terrorist take-over that resulted in the deaths of three people, with promise of more. It was, rather, the criminal action of a disturbed individual with an extensive record with the authorities. “Terrorist actors believe the violence they perpetrate is furthering [an ideological, political or social] cause,” argued Curtin University academic Anne Aly (The Guardian, Dec 16). “Monis’s case is different.” Granting the title of “terrorist” to Monis gave him “recognition, renown and the attention of the world media.”
But now there are those insisting that the event reflects the vulnerability of Australia – the “soft target” designation that suggests meekness before the terrorist virus. Australian presses picked up on the “soft” designation from British historian Michael Burleigh, who has made it his business to find extremism everywhere. “I suspect that cities in Australia and Canada are seen as relatively soft targets, compared with London where you can’t turn a corner without seeing a heavily armed policeman nowadays” (Daily Mail, Dec 15). While his writings do exude a smooth, historical punch, his political pontificating is scatty at best.
More troubling is the inconsistent record Australian authorities have shown towards the hostage taker, who has gone through various metamorphoses as Man Haron Monis, Manteghi Boroujerdi and Mohammad Hassan Manteghi. Very little of this past sketchiness has been covered in the Australian media circuit. Instead, Monis has essentially been given the brush of scatter-brained anonymity – at least till the holdup of the café.
Monis has, in fact, crafted his enigmatic persona from the start, suggesting in an interview with the ABC in 2001 as Boroujerdi that he had been associated with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Compared to Iran and other countries of the Middle East, Monis would claim that his adopted country was, in fact, “heaven”.
To suggest, therefore, that Monis is at the vanguard of “lone wolf” terrorist attacks framed by the jihadi narrative is spectacularly ill-informed. The Religion Report on Radio National (Jan 31, 2001) did introduce Monis as the “Ayatollah Manteghi Boroujerdi, “a liberal cleric who fled Iran four years ago after being critical of the Iranian regime.” The transcript goes so far as to claim Boroujerdi was “dangerously liberal, as his views have led to his wife and two daughters being held hostage in Iran.”
The National Post (Dec 15), a Canadian publication, also picked up on the hostage takers’ manufactured past, noting how he adopted the amateurish moniker Sheik Haron only after arriving in Australia, advertising in ethnic, non-Islamic community papers on his proficiency in astrology, numerology and black magic.
Much of his ideological and religious approach fit a certain bill, the man of costumes and disguises. His own website revealed his fraudulence, displaying a distinct ignorance of religious formalities for someone supposedly versed in Islamic scholarship.
For all of that, it was a pose that worked for the less cerebrally though more sensationally endowed. Commentator Irfan Yusuf would write with some exasperation in Crikey (Oct 23, 2009) about the persistent mania of press outlets eager for a saucy scoop in obtaining condemnations among Islamic leaders of “Sheik Haron”. Why, pressed Yusuf, “use the imbecilic correspondence of a fake sheik to cast aspersions on 360,000 people, most of whom (including their religious leaders) have never heard of him”?
One day, the parading poseur could see in Australia a near perfect society; the next, he would write scathing notes to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, doing so on the pretext of discouraging conflict. He would impersonate an ISIS supporter, suggesting that he had been “converted” a month prior, though any conviction on his part always seemed unconvincing. Always in his background lurked accusations on his part of meddling by Iranian and Australian secret services.
A year prior to Yusuf’s piece, there were calls from a Shia leader in Australia, Kamal Mousselmani, to investigate the credentials of Boroujerdi, suggesting that his claims to be a spiritual leader were fanciful at best. With the arithmetic on the subject simply not adding up, the surveillance and security apparatus has come up short, with lethal results. Worse still, there is more than a faint whiff that the security forces would have known about the fake sheik’s record, his posing, and his various disguises. The counterfeit religious figure eventually became a very dead one, taking two very genuine hostages with him.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org