The hostage situation began as a man – identified later as Man Haron Monis – took several people hostage at a Lindt Chocolate café and unfurled a black flag in the window. Even without the addition of the flag, the attack was guaranteed to cause a scene, for it happened right across the street from a media source Channel 7 (and not far from the US consulate). As the hostage situation, dubbed a “siege,” unfolded, the flag drew the attention of many analysts across the planet as they tried to figure just what was going on.
Given the media frenzy over the Islamic State thanks to its conquests in Iraq and Syria and online propaganda assault, the flag in the window immediately became synonymous with the Islamic State during the start of the café siege. The link was being drawn between this attack and an alleged Islamic State beheading plot that was foiled in September. With Australia’s inclusion in the anti-Islamic State campaign in Iraq, it is not unfeasible to suspect that the Islamic State would try to attack Australia (and the other participants) in retribution. And there was the flag to prove it.
The only issue is, the flag, known as the Black Standard or the Black Flag of Jihad (or various other names), is not unique to the Islamic State. Many other extremist militias make use of the flag in some iteration and this is a key fact that is eluding many. Mischaracterization of the flag is abound all over the Internet (here’s one such source, with the original article updated to include the Sydney siege), showing a real problem with fighting the Islamic State: most in the mainstream don’t know anything about it or how it differs from, say, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – which happens to use the same flag as the Islamic State despite there being no ties between the two beyond statements of support. This plays right into the Islamic State’s hands, for it can gain propaganda bonuses for attacks it does not orchestrate or otherwise play a role in, beyond messages of encouragement.
Certainly, as investigations continue into the hostage situation, it may become clear that Monis is a sympathizer with the Islamic State. He swore allegiance to the “Caliph of the Muslims” on his website. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot hinted at such by stating that “[Monis] sought to cloak his actions with the symbolism of the ISIL death cult” -- ISIL being another name for the Islamic State. But there is a clear distinction here: the “damaged and unstable” man was inspired by extremism, not an active member of a group. Rather than a plan masterminded by a foreign organization, the Sydney siege appears to the work of a madman using the label of a foreign organization to gain attention. And he got precisely the attention he was looking for, which means it will be even easier for copycats, acting on encouragement from foreign terror organizations, to replicate Monis’ attack.
The above are the important details revealed by the siege. But the uncomfortable facts about it are the apparent warnings sent by Iran to Australia regarding Monis. He had fled Iran and became a refugee in Australia in the 1990s; Iran requested his extradition in 2000. Even with that request rejected – due to the fact that the two countries do not have any extradition agreements – Iran says it repeatedly sent warnings to the Australian government that the man was dangerous.Though Monis had run-ins with the law in the lead-up to the attack in Sydney, these warnings, according to Iran, were ignored.
Iran’s warnings throughout the years were likely discounted for the fact that Iran itself has been shunned by many as a rogue state for its support of terror groups like Hezbollah and its nuclear weapons program. But the fact that it provided these warnings at all shows an uncomfortable truth: Iran can be a source of help to combat extremism, be it organized groups or lone wolves.
That last sentence should not be read too far. Iran likes to stylize itself as being more serious about fighting terrorism than the United States with programs like the “World Against Violence and Extremism", even though it has continually provided arms to Hezbollah and Hamas while aiding Shia death squads in Iraq that are often at least as brutal as the Islamic State. But it can, at times, be useful in fighting the types of extremist groups the West is after as well, namely the Islamic State. The United States has signaled that, despite tacit agreements, no overt cooperation with Iran is happening against the Islamic State. Iran is of the same opinion. Whatever the truthfulness of such assertions, back-channel information sharing, at the very least, may prove helpful in fighting the Islamic State. This is an unpopular opinion, but, assuming the United States played it right, such a component to the anti-Islamic State strategy would never have to be public. And the best part is, with no nuclear deal yet and low oil prices pressuring Iran, the country may be more likely than before to be of assistance if it felt doing so may strengthen its case with respect to the nuclear negotiations.