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Deadly hostage siege in Australia was ‘act of a desperate man’

Australian police stormed a cafe in Sydney where a lone gunman had held several hostages for hours, ending the siege with heavy gunfire. Two hostages were killed, in addition to the suspect. Judy Woodruff learns more from Sydney-based journalist Stuart Cohen, and chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner offers a read on how U.S. intelligence officials are interpreting the attack.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We return now to the deadly hostage standoff in Australia.

    Stuart Cohen is a freelance journalist based in Sydney. He's been reporting the story for NPR.

    I spoke to him a short time ago via Skype.

    Stuart Cohen, thank you for talking with us.

    First of all, what more can you tell us about this incident and about the ending of it, the way police stormed it this cafe at the very end?

  • STUART COHEN, Freelance Journalist:

    Well, it was very much a real surprise ending to this whole siege.

    It all happened in the middle of the night, when it was looking like things had sort of quieted down for the night. Police were just sort of standing around holding their ground. And kind of at the middle of — at 1:00 in the morning, police released the name of the hostage taker, Man Haron Monis.

    And then that was a bit of a surprise there, because they were keeping that name under tight wraps. And then just before 2:00 in the morning, there was a scattering of hostages that suddenly made a break for freedom, came running out of the building. And then, within 30 seconds to a minute, that's when the chaos began, stun grenades were thrown, gunshots were fired, and the police stormed the cafe, all very unexpected in the middle of the night like that.

    But as they said in the press conference, they heard shots fired within the cafe, and they decided that was the time that they need to move, that if they didn't act then, that there was likely going to be more hostages killed.

    There was some question as to whether or not perhaps the gunman had started falling asleep at that time. And that's when some of the hostages tried to make a break for it, and then the gunshots were fired. But that's all going to come out in the investigation in the coming days.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, what more is known about the hostage taker? We know he's Iranian-born.

  • STUART COHEN:

    Yes, he is Iranian-born refugee. He has been in Australia since around 1996 and considers himself a cleric.

    There was a person on ABC television here in Australia saying that he actually was a cleric in Iran before he came to Australia. But he was sort of a self-styled cleric here in Australia. He was considered a bit of a fringe cleric. He was convicted for writing hate mail to — or sending hate mail to the families of dead Australian soldiers who were killed overseas.

    And, more recently, he was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, as well as charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, so really very much a violent criminal who was out on bail.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, very quickly, how much is it believed, how wide is it believed that there are represented in Australia extreme views as those that I guess we're lead to believe Mr. Monis had?

  • STUART COHEN:

    Well, there are some wide views.

    As you recall, back in September, the terrorist raids across Sydney, there was concern that there were some people out there who were getting ready to carry out terrorist attacks. Tony Abbott, the prime minister, talked about the possibility of lone wolf attacks.

    But when it comes to this man, Man Haron Monis, it's starting to come out that he was less of a lone wolf terrorist and more of just a really sort of desperate man. His lawyer told Australian television that this really was the act of a desperate man. This wasn't a person who was carrying out a concerted terrorist attack, but a person who was out on bail for several serious crimes and was really looking at just a desperate act with nothing to lose, not so much someone who was committing a concerted terrorist attack on behalf of ISIS or any other organization.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Stuart Cohen joining us from Sydney, we thank you.

  • STUART COHEN:

    You're welcome, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And now for a read on how U.S. intelligence officials are interpreting the Australia attack, we turn again to our Margaret Warner again.

    So, Margaret, now, we just heard the reporter, Stuart Cohen, saying his lawyer says he thinks this was the act of a desperate man. But there are still questions out there. You have been talking to top intelligence officials. What do they say?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, the U.S., Judy is deferring to Australian authorities to put together the backstory of what took this man over the edge.

    I mean, he clearly had anti-Western, pro-Islamic views. So the U.S. has very close cooperation with them. But they do consider this attack significant, this incident significant, not as brand-new, but as part of a morphing trend.

    In other words, after 9/11, for more than a decade, the thought was the threats to the U.S. would come from some kind of al-Qaida-masterminded large-scale plot. Then you had the sort of lone wolf phenomenon starting in '09, but really starting now with the rise of the I.S. group, specifically calling on their sympathizers to carry out attacks against Westerners in their home countries.

    They see it's just ratcheting up and it just keeps morphing. And so they may — the perpetrator may be desperate, incompetent or deranged, as they often are, but it still is considered a threat by senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials in the U.S. government.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So how much of a threat do they see here in the United States? They are looking for lone wolves all the time. We know that. What is their reading in this country right now?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, the reading in this country is that so far so good. There haven't been many similar attacks here.

    But they point to a couple of things. In September, there was an audio speech given by a spokesman for I.S. calling specifically for attacks on Brits, Americans, Canadians, and Australians and others in the anti-U.S. coalition.

    And you have seen a number — think of those attacks in Canada in October. Think of the hatchet attack of a self — somebody who had just converted to Islam attacked four officers on the street in New York in October. So there is that.

    Secondly, you know, the FBI just two weeks ago last night issued a warning to American service personnel, especially who may be traveling back here for the holidays in their uniforms, saying they had evidence that ISIS, as they said, or ISIL, overseas was looking for like-minded individuals here in the United States to attack some of these soldiers, and warned U.S. service personnel to be very careful in their own social media postings.

    So there is definitely a feeling that, given their more sophisticated social media outreach, the fact that it has become harder and harder to track and stay on top of, that there is a threat.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, in just a few seconds, why don't they think there have been more of these kinds of attacks before?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And, very quickly, one, they do believe the U.S. Muslim community is better at alerting authorities to when a kid seems to be going over the edge.

    But two, there is incredible U.S. surveillance. We have been arguing about that for a year-and-a-half now, the tradeoff between privacy and national security. And the U.S. does collect this metadata. They do try to stay on top of who is connecting with whom. They do try to get into content when they feel they have the ability or the probable cause.

    But they — somebody said to me today, we are lacking the resources to stay on top of this kind of morphing threat.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Margaret Warner, we thank you once again.

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