As the world knows now, terror has struck Australia’s shores like a lighting bolt. As Australians woke up yesterday, most likely nobody could have predicted what would happen or could expect that by 10am the entire country’s attention would be focused on a hostage situation in Sydney.
What we know so far is fragmented and at times contradictory. However, from what we can gather, at 9:45am an unknown man entered the Lindt Cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place and took over 20 people hostage. The first images that emerged were of two terrified women holding a black Islamic Shahada flag up against the window.
It was initially reported, incorrectly, that this was the flag of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the presence of this flag at the beginning of the hostage crisis stamped the event with overtones of an Islamist extremist attack.
For most of the day, there were no developments in the hostage case. Police acted swiftly and sealed off most of downtown Sydney, with the news and social media lighting up as people sought out and traded what information they could find. The information was incomplete, inconsistent, and sometimes completely false. Then at mid afternoon we saw the dramatic images of at first 3 people and then later another 2 escaping from the cafe and running into the arms of police. For many, the defining image of the siege was a cafe employee running into the arms of a heavily armed tactical response officer
As night fell though, the siege appeared to settle down, as the hostage taker reportedly released a number of demands. These have not been confirmed by police, but have been reported to include the provision of an Islamic State flag to the hostage taker, along with the demand to talk to the Prime Minister.
What we know at this stage is that just after 2am, police seemed to storm the building. Witnesses report explosions plus several volleys of gunfire. Hostages then started streaming out of the building, some assisted by police. The confrontation ended with 3 dead, including the hostage taker, and a number injured, including a police officer who was shot in the attack.
It is far too early to speculate about what happened. There will be an immense media beat-up in the next few weeks and months, and the Police and security services will conduct their own investigation.
From what we can surmise so far though, police could have entered the building based on an imminent threat to the hostage’s safety. In hostage situations like this, the strategy employed by police is usually to wait out the hostage taker while the threat to the hostages is minimized. During this time hostage negotiators will attempt to contact the assailant and understand the situation more fully. There is often a dialogue back to forth. The best solution is for the hostage taker to reach some agreement with police and release some or all of the hostages. It is suggested that the exit of the 5 hostages earlier in the day could have been a negotiated release by police, though it is unclear if their escaped or were released.
Police will move in on a hostage taker if there is the belief that there is clear and present danger to the hostages, or if there is an open opportunity to defuse the situation quickly and safely. While we don’t know what sparked the attack, the gunman inside could have acted in a hostile manner towards the hostages or gave police reason to believe he was about to do so. This seems likely, as police had been content to wait out the siege for almost 16 hours previously, before moving in.
From watching the video of the live assault, at first one can hear a muffled shot, perhaps from inside the cafe. Police at this stage started to push into the building, leading to another single shot, followed shortly by a volley of shots as police opened fire. At around the 16 – 18 second mark the police seem to have thrown up to 4 flashbang like devices into the building, followed by bright flashes of light before they make entry and hostages are rescued from the building.
As expected the confrontation was over in seconds. My initial belief, based on the very limited amount of data which is available, is that the hostage taker could have fired a shot (the initial shot heard) which then sparked the police storming the cafe. It is hard to know what could have happened however, as the footage is not have a great quality, and down not show any other angles. More details will emerge shortly, and I will attempt to analyze these as they come to light.
Expect more shortly, and our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by this terrible attack.