Conflict & Justice

Why that Australian hostage taker was a delusional phony

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Young Muslim women lay flowers at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district on December 16, 2014.

Credit:

Peter Parks

BANGKOK — The Iranian-born Australian who overran a Sydney chocolate shop on Monday was hardly a fearsome terrorist operative.

He was more of a self-aggrandizing creep.

Ostracized by Australia’s Islamic community, Man Haron Monis, dubiously called himself “sheikh.” He mailed crude insults to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The 50-year-old was fond of preying on women and racked up dozens of sexual assault charges.

He also appeared to be a fanboy of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and declared support for the “caliphate” online. It’s a scintillating detail but rather meaningless. No evidence suggests the brutal proto-state in Iraq and Syria knew Monis existed before he held 17 hostage and was then shot dead by police.

On his website, Monis spouted the rhetoric of global jihad. He called for Muslims to fight the “terrorism of America and its allies including Australia.” But the attention seeker was likely exploiting outsized panic over ISIS for attention.

If so, it’s working. His militancy has helped some media outlets transform a narcissistic criminal into a harbinger of global terror. Case in point: a CNN headline proclaiming that “the threat of ‘lone wolf’ attacks looms large in Australia.”

Violent jihad does indeed loom over select parts of the Asia-Pacific region, where Australia is an anchor of the Anglo-sphere. But Monis probably wouldn’t have lasted among the region’s genuinely fearsome Islamic militants.

Here’s a brief rundown:

Militants of Patani (Thailand): They seldom make international headlines. But their war to break off a separate Islamic state in Thailand’s deep south is now Asia-Pacific’s bloodiest Islamic insurgency. This struggle has tallied more than 6,200 conflict deaths in the last decade. That’s more than the Gaza Strip in that same period.

These insurgents don’t answer to a single commander. They don’t fight under the same banner. They’re scattered into cells adept at ambush attacks and roadside bombs. Social media posts by self-proclaimed jihadis suggest some admire slick ISIS propaganda.

But like other Muslim rebellions in the Asia-Pacific region, they’re driven by local grievances over land and power, not the Islamic State’s call to arms.

Watch: Red Light Jihad, Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s strangest party town.

Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Philippines): More bandits than jihadists, Abu Sayyaf specializes in kidnappings and extortion in the name of Islam. So does a separate allied group known as BIFF.

Video clips have emerged showing some of the groups’ radicals pledging support for ISIS from their hideouts on Philippine islands. But it’s unclear how many (if any) have joined the fight in Syria or Iraq. The pledge could be a cheap tactic to turbo-charge the small groups’ hardcore bonafides.

It’s worth noting that Monis — a lifelong Shia until a very recent conversion — would have had trouble fitting in with the ISIS and its disciples, who are strident Sunnis. Their ideology often preaches the eradication of the Shia, a minority branch of Islam centered in Iran.

Jemaah Islamiyah (Indonesia): The organization known as JI became infamous in the post-Sept. 11 era as one of the Asia-Pacific region’s most menacing jihadi groups. They had high-level links to Al Qaeda. They killed 200 people (many Australian) in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.

A JI splinter group is also accused of plotting a 2009 hotel bombing that killed nine people in Jakarta. Among the dead: an Australian official whose family Monis enjoyed harassing by mail.

Today, however, JI is a shattered and impotent shell of its former self. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned that the group “was the inspiration for terrorist attacks that took almost 100 Australian lives ... and, yes, I do note that Jemaah Islamiyah now claims to be aligned” with ISIS.

Indeed, the network’s elders do urge followers to support ISIS. Indonesian authorities believe some affiliates are joining ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But these jihadis are streaming over in dribs and drabs with numbers likely no higher than the low hundreds, according to most estimates.

Nothing suggests these underground operatives would have had any use for Monis. Secretive insurgent cells will tend to avoid a loudmouth so desperate for attention that he hassles annoyed passersby on the street.