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Sydney hostage taker Man Haron Monis pledged allegiance to ISIS on his website

Man Haron Monis.
Man Haron Monis.
(YouTube/ABC News)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

It's still not yet clear why Sydney hostage taker Man Haron Monis held up the Lindt cafe, an act that ultimately claimed three lives, including his own. But we're starting to learn some things — including that he had more than an affinity for ISIS. According to a portion of his now-deleted website (which you can see here) translated from Arabic by Foundation for the Defense of Democracy's Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Monis pledged allegiance to ISIS before the attack.

"In a long and rambling Arabic passage," Gartenstein-Ross explained over the phone, "he talks about how there's the Khalifa, the caliphate of the age, and how he's proud to declare allegiance to the caliphate."

The caliphate is another way of saying ISIS.

This doesn't mean Monis had any actual connection to ISIS. In fact, it'd be shocking if he did. Nor does it mean that Monis was a calculating, rational terrorist who could be said to have taken up the ISIS cause, rather than an insane person merely latching on to ISIS rhetoric. It does, however, mean that Monis almost certainly had some political motivations on his mind when he decided to launch the attack that claimed injured four and claimed three peoples's lives — including his own.

This doesn't mean Monis is an ISIS agent or that he's acting on its behalf

sydney flag

The fact that Monis declared his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ISIS doesn't mean he's a part of it. "I can't imagine that they expended resources on this, given that this guy was a fruitcake," Gartenstein-Ross said.

What's more, he was clearly on police radar — making him a terrible choice for jihadists' normally savvy recruiters. He had been sentenced to jail for writing horrific letters to the families of killed Australian soldiers, which turned into a high-profile legal case. He had also been charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and 50 allegations of "indecent and sexual assault." Terrorist leaders, according to Gartenstein-Ross, don't usually recruit people who have drawn that much official attention.

Moreover, it's not clear that ISIS propaganda or social media is the main reason Monis decided to hold up the café. That could have been mental illness. "In terms of the driving force for what radicalized him, that can't be known at this time," Gartenstein-Ross says. "He's an extraordinarily strange individual."

Will McCants, director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, agrees that any connection to ISIS leadership or propaganda outlets is tenuous as of right now. "He sounds like a crazy person who's glommed on to the violent cause du jour," McCants says.

It's not like Monis was a particularly sophisticated ISIS supporter. "He doesn't fit your typical profile of an ISIS fanboy," McCants says. "He wasn't attracted to Salafism [the Islamist strain associated with jihadism], they tend not to be of Iranian background, and they'd get their own flag right." (Monis brought a black flag with Arabic writing to the cafe and asked hostages to hold it up; it was not the ISIS flag.)

"Early on, when I saw the picture of the flag," McCants recalls, "I said 'what kind of ISIS fanboy is this?'"

Monis clearly had some political grievances


So Monis almost certainly wasn't linked to ISIS leadership, and may well have just been a crazy person who draped himself in pro-ISIS rhetoric. But statements are still important, as they leave little doubt that Monis had religious-political grievances in mind when he attacked.

"What he says — multiple times — is that Islam is the religion of peace, and that's why we oppose the terrorism of the United States and Australia," Gartenstein-Ross explains. "In terms of what he claims for inspiration for the attack, it's clearly Islamic State."

That's enough, according to Gartenstein-Ross, to characterize Monis's act as "political-religious terrorism."

That matters because it gives us a fuller picture of Monis's thought process before the attack. Understanding why Monis chose to do this helps us get a better handle on future killings — and how far-away events in the Middle East can motivate violence in the West even without actual influence by ISIS recruiters or propaganda.

We'll learn a lot more about Monis in the coming days and weeks, including about any connections he might have — or not have — to ISIS.

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