Lessons from Sydney attack: How an individual's madness can turn into a major terror threat

Australians across their vibrant nation must be an embarrassed and worried lot. Embarrassed because they thought they had a foolproof immigration system which could successfully filter out all undesirable applicants for entry. Now they have been at the receiving end from the hands of an Iranian immigrant, Man Haron Monis, with an unstable mind and a colourful criminal record, who barged into a popular coffee shop the Lindt in downtown Sydney on a busy Monday morning and held scores of customers hostage for more than twelve hours. This is the irony of any system which claims it was impenetrable and solid.
Australians must also be worried and frightened because they do not know when the next attack would come. Any expert who now says he had anticipated the Sydney attack may be labelled without contradiction as one who is being extremely economical with the truth. The attack in the heart of the country’s most populous and pretty city was totally unexpected and has shocked the entire nation.

Sydney has no doubt a substantial immigrant population. It resembles New York in many ways, including a vibrant mixed society. Yesterday’s hostage taking had all the drama of 9/11, but fell far short of the latter in dimensions and preparations. As of now there is no indication that anybody other than the Iranian madcap who perished in the storming operation by the New South Wales was responsible. It however raises the fundamental question whether the 50-years old Monis fell within the conventional definition of ‘terrorist’. The only evidence that suggests he was indeed a supporter of terror was gleaned from the Arabic banner with an embossed message (shahada) that he carried inside the coffee shop and forced the hostages to hold and display to the public outside passing by the shop. When translated, the writing on the banner meant ‘oneness of God’.

 Lessons from Sydney attack: How an individuals madness can turn into a major terror threat

A hostage is carried by police rescue after armed response officers entered the building a cafe siege in the central business district of Sydney on 16 December 2014. PTI

Whether Monis was acting in concert or alone will be known only in due course. All impression till now suggests the latter. The fact is Monis had a substantial record for violent crime. It is somewhat intriguing that in spite of this he was not in the police radar immediately before the outrage. If someone like Monis had been locked up to foil any possible future crime, human rights activists would have cried foul. It is unfortunate that these overzealous activists in most parts of the world, and especially in India, tie up the hands of the police even where preventive custody is warranted and is also permitted by statues.

The Sydney attack has once again abundantly proved that the terrorist has a huge surprise element in his armour in outwitting the police. No terror outfit would ever give up this advantage. This is why all of them believe in a cloak and dagger style. This is again why they resort more and more to the internet, especially the social media to exchange vital information within their organisations.

The point of interest to many law enforcement agencies across the globe, including ours, is how to protect our citizens against an individual’s madness. Interestingly, according to the Guardian, it was only in August that the then Director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) David Irvine said: "A recurring nightmare has been the so-called lone wolf, radicalised over the internet, who had managed to avoid coming across our radar." Irvine’s fears have in fact come true.

In my view it is irrelevant whether the Sydney incident was an act of terror or not.

The more pertinent point is what we should do to protect ourselves against the sudden act of violence of a lone wolf. (Readers may recall what Norway witnessed in 2011 when an unstable Anders Behring Beivik (32) caused explosions in a government building in Oslo, and later opened fire at a defenceless crowd on an island, killing in all 77 people. We know that there are many of that kind in our society who border on the insane. We need to neutralize them either through constant surveillance or a period of detention in a regular judicial facility. Or else we would be frequent victims of their madness.

The first step in any exercise against violent attacks by a single terrorist or any other person is to tighten the flow of illegal guns into India. Experience shows that all systems built against such illegal traffic are dangerously ineffective and porous. There is increasing belief that powerful fire arms are indeed available in our country for a price and without difficulty. A corrupt bureaucracy –- both the police and Customs -- connives at this. We saw this in the 1993 Bombay blast. History could repeat itself unless we are on guard. This is particularly so at a time when the growth of the Islamic State remains unchecked, and this deadly organization has attracted volunteers from India.

Monitoring of internet traffic has assumed importance in the past few months. The latest episode involving a Bengali youth based in Bengaluru and working for an MNC, who was exploiting a Twitter handle for disseminating Islamic State propaganda does not surprise many experts. Just as in the case of the four youths going to Iraq from Kalyan (Maharashtra) a few months ago to be part of the jihad, there could be many more involved who have not come to the notice of intelligence authorities. We have to presume that what we know is only a fraction of what is happening on the ground and that we need to sharpen intelligence collection. It is this preparedness for the ‘worst case scenario’ that can keep our agencies on their toes.

Finally, there is a need to sensitize our population on terror threats. Like in the case of fire safety, we must make it mandatory for every public place, such as hotels, restaurants, movie theatres and auditoriums to have a drill in place to meet a contingency similar to what happened in Sydney. This suggestion is eminently practicable. Only a cynic will spurn such a move that is aimed solely at public safety.

(The writer is a former CBI director)

Updated Date: Dec 16, 2014 19:52:17 IST