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Hostage Drama Unfolds Violently In Sydney

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's trace what's known about the man who took many people hostage in a cafe in Sydney. His name was Man Haron Monis, and even before he took more than a dozen people hostage this week, he was linked to a series of offenses in Australia. Journalist Stuart Cohen is covering this story in Sydney. Welcome to the program.

STUART COHEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what have Australian authorities been able to learn about this man?

COHEN: Well, Man Haron Monis was known to police for quite some time, not for his involvement in extremist groups but as you said for a long history of violent crime. He was an Iranian refugee who came over to Australia in the mid-'90s, so he's been here for nearly two decades. And he's committed a long series of violent crimes. He was out on bail facing multiple charges of sexual assault as well as being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife who was stabbed and then set on fire by Monis'S current girlfriend. He was also convicted several years ago for sending hate mail to the families of Australian soldiers who died overseas fighting in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Given that long list of appalling charges - and to be fair not in every case convictions but charges - how is this man walking free?

COHEN: Well, that's one thing that lawmakers are looking into right now. The feeling is this is because there was a relaxing last year in the rules in the state of New South Wales where Sydney is that made it easier for him to get out on bail. That's now actually set to change at the beginning of the new year with some new stricter bail regulations that are coming into play. The question's also been asked, why wasn't he on some kind of terrorist watch list so that officials could act if he did something like this or looked like he was about to do something like this?

But again, the thing was he wasn't on some kind of terrorist watch list because he was never charged with any terrorism-related crime or associated with any extremist groups. So there was no reason to put him on a watch list. And here, counterterrorism experts and even the prime minister have said multiple times there's simply no way to watch every person who's committed some kind of violent crime just in case they might one day do something like this.

INSKEEP: So, in the end, do authorities think that what they're confronted with here is something that can properly be called a terror attack, or is this man - his own operation operating for his own purposes?

COHEN: Well, you know, one of the things that the government was concerned about, especially when they raised the terror level back in September, was what the prime minister called these lone-wolf attacks of, you know, individuals who are radicalized and then sort of independently commit terror acts on behalf of some sort of radical group.

But frankly, Australian officials are trying to play down the terrorist link in this case. I mean, yes, he did force the hostages to hold up that banner with the Muslim decoration of faith in the window of the cafe, and he did invoke Islam in some of his demands. But Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set on more than one occasion that Monis was simply trying to cloak his actions with the symbols of an extremist group. And there's a sentiment that this was just a random act of violence by a mentally unstable person with a history of violence probably more akin to, say, a shooting rampage on a college campus than it was a coordinated terrorist attack directed by some extremist group in the Middle East.

INSKEEP: Reporter Stuart Cohen is in Sydney. Thanks very much.

COHEN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And here's the latest we have on another attack, this one in Pakistan. And this one linked to a major militant group. Pakistan's Taliban have attacked a school in the city of Peshawar. That's near the border with Afghanistan. This is a school run by the military primarily for the children of military families, but it was children in this school. The Taliban say they're retaliating for an army offensive against them. And they, today, have killed dozens, scores of students, many believed to be wounded as well. One parent is quoted as saying, "my son was in uniform in the morning and in a casket now." We'll bring you more as we learn it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.