The gunman who entered the Lindt Cafe in Sydney this morning, who has been identified by police as Man Haron Monis, is almost certainly a total amateur, without military experience or any significant connection to one of the Islamist movements in the Middle East. Taking over 20 people hostage, on his own, doesn't prove much planning. How was he thinking he could remain awake and alert for long hours while negotiating with the authorities who use psychological warfare experts in these cases? Some of the hostages succeeded in sending out messages with their mobile phones while others escaped, or perhaps were released since Monis must have realized that if he allowed too many to remain, they could overpower him.
If this wasn't an incident in which lives are at immediate risk, the fact that he needed to demand the authorities supply him with an ISIS flag to put up in the cafe window, and hadn't arrived prepared, would be almost comic. But by paralyzing the financial center of Australia's largest city, he has refocused attention on "lone wolf" attackers, who while sympathizing with groups like the Islamic State, are at the most connected with them only through reading their material online.
In the last few months, particularly since the attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum where Mehdi Nemmouche, an ISIS fighter returning from a year in Syria, murdered four, the West has been mainly concerned with veterans returning from Syria and Iraq, planning attacks in their home countries. Some of these Jihadists are working together or even coordinating with their commanders back in the Middle East. The pattern began in July 2005 with the attacks on public transport in London, carried out by four suicide bombers, all British citizens brought up in the United Kingdom, radicalized there, and then travelling to Pakistan to train in Jihadist camps. Young men who can roam freely in their country, while planning to attack soldiers or civilians, and Jewish targets, such as Mohammed Merah, who returned from Afghanistan to his home town of Toulouse and killed three French soldiers and four Jews outside the Otzar Hatorah school in 2012.
Since the murders in Brussels, Western security services have greatly improved their capability to detect and track down the hundreds of Islamists who've returned from Syria. Hundreds have been arrested and questioned and dozens of plots have been aborted. There are thousands of Western citizens who have joined ISIS and other similar groups but intelligence agencies in general are succeeding, largely through international cooperation, to identify and keep tabs on them once they return. Recently they have begun zeroing on "recruitment centers" in makeshift mosques operated by radical preachers and other local set-ups, young people thinking of traveling to Syria have been dissuaded, sometimes through confiscation of their passports.
But not everyone who hasn't got an opportunity to go off and fight is deterred. The "lone wolves" are just as big a threat as those who have actually been to Syria. There is a clear connection, not organizational, but in inspiration between men such as Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist who shot dead 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009, the Tsarnayev brothers who planted improvised bombs at the Boston Marathon last year killing two, the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London by two knife-wielding converts to Islam and the two recent attacks in Canada in which two soldiers were killed.
In all these cases, it was "do-it-yourself" Jihad, carried out by individuals who lived and grew up nearby, fellow citizens with the opportunity to lead normal Western lives. The motive was similar in all cases, revenge for their countries - the U.S., Canada, Britain - involvement in the warfare in the Middle East. And in all cases there doesn't seem to have been a guiding hand, beyond the will to be part of a global Jihad movement, wreaking vengeance on the West for its role in the deaths of believers.
The latest attack in Australia, an active member of the international coalition against ISIS, is coming shortly after a call by the organization upon Muslims living in the West to take part not only in the fighting in Iraq and Syria, but is also in their home countries. States like Jordan, Turkey and Tunisia, which supply many more volunteers than the West, have an implied silent agreement with ISIS - keep the Jihad far away and we won't fight you. The West, led by the Obama administration, which has taken ISIS head-on, has to face the headache of not only dealing with those who return, but also with a second wave of wannabes who unable to travel to the Middle East, are inspired by radical Islamic ideology, read some basic pointers online, and go out to find a target down the road.
Detecting these potential homegrown attackers is much more difficult and necessitates a Sisyphean and legally problematic search effort on the Internet social networks. The arrest this week in Bangalore of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a 24 year-old Indian citizen, who using the Twitter handle @shamiwitness, had become a central conduit for ISIS propaganda online, underlines the difficulty of such operations. Biswas was arrested only after his identity was uncovered by a British television channel and he is being charged now under laws which bear little relation to what he actually did. Biswas operated independently and had no real connection with ISIS. It's impossible of course to investigate everyone who followed and identified with him online. Widespread action against online Jihad supporters will quite rightly have the entire civil rights community up in arms.
The worst implications of a wave of amateur terror attacks will be for Muslim communities in the West, whose members are rapidly being seen by many as suspects by association. Ironically, the flag obtained for Monis and placed in the cafe window was not an ISIS flag, but one which simply had on it the Shahada, the basic affirmation of Muslim faith, which while it has been used by radical groups, is a holy symbol for all believing Muslims and to many, this use is a desecration of their faith.
Muslim leaders in Australia are already making major efforts to distance themselves in every possible way from the Sydney attack, in statements, joint Muslim-Christian-Jewish prayer sessions for the safety of the hostages, and close cooperation with the authorities. But ultimately, just as the attacks are the actions of individuals acting against the wishes of their communities, so the relations between Muslims and other Australians are dependent mainly on the initiative of ordinary citizens. There is at least one optimistic piece of news today - a public campaign that has taken off online under the headline #Illridewithyou in which members of the public identify with their Muslim neighbors who have been harassed on public transport and offer to accompany them or give them rides.
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