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World News
Australian Police Sidestep Siege Questions
From the Wall Street Journal of Wed, 17 Dec 2014 23:52:35 EST
Police and intelligence agencies are declining to answer questions about how events at a deadly siege in Sydney unfolded.
Police and intelligence agencies are declining to answer questions about how events at a deadly siege in Sydney unfolded. Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia—Three days after the start of a deadly siege in Sydney that has shaken Australians’ sense of safety, senior police and intelligence agencies are declining to answer key questions about how events unfolded, including how two hostages died.

Lawmakers were left frustrated after Australia’s top police officer, Andrew Colvin, told an intelligence-oversight committee that he couldn’t yet answer questions about whether the two hostages may have died in a crossfire when heavily armed tactical police stormed the Lindt Chocolate Café in central Sydney, bringing a 16-hour-long siege to a bloody end.

The hostage situation in Sydney, Australia, was the latest incident of "lone wolf" terrorism. Researchers have begun building a psychological profile of lone wolves, hoping a better understanding will help authorities prevent future attacks.

Mr. Colvin, who heads the FBI-equivalent Australian Federal Police, cited as the cause of his reticence a judicial investigation. Police have said they surged into the cafe after hearing shots inside.

In a brief opening statement to the committee, Commissioner Colvin said he also wouldn’t be able to answer questions on why the gunman, Man Haron Monis—a self-proclaimed Muslim cleric and refugee from Iran who authorities say had a long history of mental instability, violence, and extreme political and religious views—hadn’t been under tighter surveillance. Mr. Haron died in the final shootout in the cafe.

It could be months before an official explanation of events inside the besieged cafe is given. There will also be an inquest into the three deaths led by an independent coroner, as well as ballistic tests that should determine with more certainty the chain of events.

The absence of answers has created a vacuum that is already being filled by speculation. On Tuesday at a memorial service for the victims at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, an archbishop said both of the hostages who were killed had acted heroically. One had tried to grab the assailant’s gun, which led the police to rush in, the churchman said. Police have declined to confirm that sequence of events.

Lawmakers are concerned that Mr. Haron appears to have slipped through the cracks even after national-security-alert levels were ramped up only two months earlier, following the country’s largest-ever counterterrorism sweep.

“Those events highlight the complex environment that police around this country work in every day to protect the public,” Mr. Colvin said in his prepared statement Wednesday. “I need to say the matter is led by New South Wales state police and we will need to be circumspect.”

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state and where Sydney is located, had itself been on high alert. On Tuesday, as hundreds of mourners laid floral tributes outside the siege site, local police said they would enforce blanket security measures—code-named Operation Hammerhead—ahead of New Year celebrations that routinely draw up to a million people to Sydney’s sprawling harbor shores to witness fireworks.

Hundreds of SWAT-style tactical officers, horse-mounted police, and dog squads will patrol sites such as the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, as well as crowded summer sporting venues.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has branded the siege as a terrorist event, while police have preferred to describe it as the violent act of a “madman.” Still, questions are now being asked across the media about why the domestic spy agency, ASIO, hadn’t been more watchful of Mr. Haron given his history.

Mr. Abbott has conceded that security systems to guard against extremist attacks weren’t effective enough despite the government strengthening national counterterrorism laws just two months ago, as Australia prepared to join U.S.-led action against Islamic State.

“We’ve got to constantly be asking ourselves, ‘is this the best that we can do?’ ” Mr. Abbott said in an interview with a local radio station on Wednesday. He later told journalists he had commissioned an inquiry into why Mr. Haron had been free on bail after being charged as an accomplice in the murder of his ex-wife, and why the security agencies weren’t tracking him. He said he had asked the inquiry to report by the end of January on why Mr. Haron had a gun, why he was granted permanent residency and welfare in Australia, and why he fell off the watch list of security agencies in about 2009.

“If we aren’t good at this, our people suffer,” Mr. Abbott said. “The tragedy of this atrocity is that two delightful Australians, two very decent people, are dead.”

Another question being raised is why tactical police snipers didn’t shoot Mr. Haron from outside the cafe. Asked about this and whether a hostage could have been accidentally shot by police, Mr. Abbott said investigations would uncover what happened.

New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said he wouldn’t pre-empt any investigation, with as many as 70 witnesses to be interviewed, alongside mandatory drug-and-alcohol testing on tactical officers involved in the final raid. “My own personal view is that if they hadn’t have moved when they moved, this could have been much, much worse.”

—Rebecca Thurlow in Sydney contributed to this article.

Write to Rob Taylor at rob.taylor@wsj.com



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