Who was Sydney hostage taker 'Sheikh Haron'?

The Iranian immigrant to Australia has had an erratic and violent past.

ABC via Reuters TV/Reuters
Iranian refugee Man Haron Monis speaks in this still image taken from undated file footage. Australian security forces on December 15, 2014 stormed the Sydney cafe where several hostages were being held at gunpoint, in a dramatic standoff that had dragged on for more than 16 hours.

The hostage-taking by "Sheik Haron," the Iranian immigrant to Australia who took 17 people hostage  at Sydney, Australia's Lindt Chocolate Cafe in the morning of Dec. 15, is over. Local police are saying three people are dead, including the hostage-taker.

While this has been a traumatic experience for the hostages and their families, with at least one tragic loss of life, Mr. Haron hardly seems to be the terrorist mastermind that some in the Australian press portrayed him as in the first hours of the standoff. He forced employees to place a black banner in the window with the Muslim profession of faith (shahada) written on it in Arabic calligraphy – a generic jihadi symbol that can be easily downloaded from the Internet.

About five of his hostages managed to escape in the first few hours, and the Australian press reported that he asked police to provide him with the official banner of the "Islamic State" (IS). This is the jihadi group that holds territory in Iraq and Syria and has vowed to wipe out or subjugate all the world's other faiths – including Shiites and other Muslims who don't share their views.

Haron had a sordid history since emigrating to Australia in 1996, and appeared to consider himself a recent convert to Sunni Islam from Shiite Islam.

An update on his website labeled "December 14" listed him as a former "rafidi," or "rejector," an Arabic word that is widely used as a pejorative for Shiites among Sunni jihadis.

At around 1:30 a.m. in Sydney on Dec. 15, the owner of a Wikipedia account that has only edited articles related to Haron, updated Haron's page to remove references to him being a Shiite. The page was changed to read that he was a former "rafida," citing Haron's rarely-visited website. The cafe siege began about eight hours later. 

Minor notoriety

Until now, Haron had achieved a minor amount of criminal notoriety in Australia. He mounted a Westboro Baptist Church-style campaign against the widows and loved ones of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, sending offensive letters to them and also to the survivors of an Australian official murdered in the terrorist bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2009. He received 300 hours of community service for those actions.

He had frequently behaved strangely in court, appearing draped in chains for one court date in 2009, and chaining himself to the Sydney courthouse steps, and seeking to represent himself despite repeated warnings from the judge that that would likely increase his chance of conviction.

Last Friday, he lost his final appeal for his conviction of sending threatening letters to the family of dead Australian soldiers.

Over the years, the Australian press has referred to him under a variety of names, including Mohammad Hassan Manteghi, Manteghi Bourjerdi, and more recently "Man Haron Monis" or "Sheikh Haron."

Last year he was charged as an accessory in the April 2013 murder of his ex-wife Noleen Hayson Pal, who was stabbed and set on fire in the stairwell of an apartment building in the Sydney suburb of Werrington. His current wife or girlfriend, Amirah Droudis, was charged with carrying out the murder. At trial, Haron said that the Iranian government and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) were framing him.

The pair were released on bail last December, and the Australian Associated Press wrote at the time:

The Crown alleges that (Monis) went to elaborate lengths to keep himself away from the crime, including faking a heart attack that led to a staged car accident on the day. Prosecutors also say Mr Monis filmed asking someone what time it was and filmed a clock.

He also faked a robbery to his Werrington flat and took out contents insurance on the specific items that he reported stolen on the day of the murder, the crown says.

... the court heard Mr Monis and Ms Pal were involved in a bitter custody battle at the time of her death.

In April of this year, he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in 2002, with prosecutors charging that he had lured the woman to his office with a newspaper ad promoting his services as a "spiritual healer." The Australian Broadcasting Corporation wrote that at the time he allegedly "claimed to be an expert in astrology, numerology, meditation and black magic" and that he told his victim that the sexual assault was part of his spiritual healing technique.

Manteghi allegedly told the woman not to tell anyone what happened. Detectives from the Sex Crimes Squad began investigating the allegations earlier this year.

Detective Inspector Michael Haddow says their investigations have revealed advertisements about the healing centre were placed in Fijian, Chinese, Macedonian, Indian and Spanish local newspapers between 2000 and 2002.

The case quickly swelled to over 50 counts of "sexual assault" and "indecent assault" involving six other women.

Acting alone vs. international conspiracy

Haron wrote on his own website that he "promotes peace" and that all the criminal charges against him are a set-up, comparing himself to Julian Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid facing rape charges in Sweden.

The Australian government also has accused Sheikh Haron for accessory to the murder in 2013, and also the Australian government has claimed that he has sexually and indecently assaulted women in about 2002, about 12 years ago. These cases are in fact political cases against this Muslim activist, not real criminal cases.

The sexual case against this activist is [similar] to the false accusation against the activist Julian Assange which was a political case. Since the Australian government cannot tolerate Sheikh Haron’s activity, is trying to damage his image by these false accusations, and also for putting pressure on him to stop his activity and keep him silent, but God willing Man Haron Monis will not stop his political activity  against oppression and also he does not care if his image will be damaged  amongst the  community as he believes it is not important what people think about him but it is important  that Allah (swt) to be happy with him insha Allah (swt.)

Please note that Sheikh Haron is not a member of any organisation or party. However, he supports his Muslim brothers & sisters, he is against oppression, he promotes peace, he is against war and any western invasion of Muslim countries.

This tragic incident has also helped highlight the exaggerated power and influence given to the Islamic State in many current press accounts. The picture that is emerging is of a troubled man acting alone, rather than a member of an international conspiracy. Thankfully, the death toll is far less than Australia's 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, in which a mentally handicapped man murdered 35, leading to a sweeping tightening of Australia's gun laws. Nevertheless, there will still be headlines like this.

(An earlier version of this story, written before the siege ended, that about 40 people had been taken hostage. The New South Wales police say the number was 17).

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