Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday that the motivation behind the hostage-taking of some 50 people at a Sydney coffee shop was not yet clear, “although there are obviously some indications” the incident was politically motivated.
The hostages were forced to display an Islamic flag bearing the shehada (the Muslim affirmation of faith) at the windows of the shop.
The shehada is frequently found on flags belonging to jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front and Somalia’s al-Shabab. The Islamic creed reads “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is his messenger.” Earlier, reports mistakenly said the flag displayed at the coffee shop window belonged to the Islamic State.
“We don’t yet know the motivation of the perpetrator, we don’t know whether this is politically motivated although obviously there are some indications that it could be,” Abbott said in a press conference in Canberra Monday, hours after the incident at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in central Sydney began.
Police have said they were dealing with a hostage crisis involving an armed man, but also did not rule out the possibility that it is a terror attack. Police said that contact with the assailant has not yet been made, but there are indications officers have spoken to some of the hostages.
The US consulate located near the cafe was evacuated and the State Department issued a security warning to American citizens.
The Israeli embassy in Australia published a tweet expressing Israel’s sympathy for the hostages .
“There are people who wish to do us harm,” Abbott said during the press conference.
“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves. Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society. Nothing should ever change that,” he said, urging people to “go about their business.”
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the individuals caught up in the distressing, terrifying situation,” the PM said, before urging the media to “exercise caution in their reporting.”
According to the CEO of the cafe, there were believed to be between 40 to 50 people inside the shop, including 10 staff members. Early reports said there were at least 12 people inside, a significantly lower number.
The hostages were being made to stand with their hands up against the windows of the shop for the past several hours.
An armed man bearing a black headband could be seen though the doors of the cafe. Australian TV showed the man holding a young woman as a human shield as he paced by the windows.
This is an alleged image of the ringleader in the hostage situation in #Sydney
— Conflict News (@Conflicts) December 15, 2014
Australia’s New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione confirmed that police were dealing with “an armed offender holding an undisclosed number of hostages.”
He added that the motivation behind the incident was “still being determined,” but police were not ruling out that it could be an ongoing terror attack.
Speaking at a briefing with reporters, Scipione said that police have not yet been in direct contact with the armed man and were trying to determine his identity.
New South Wales’ Premier Mike Baird said that Australians were “being tested today in Sydney. The police is being tested, the is public tested. Whatever the test, we will face it head on. We will remain a democratic, civil society.”
There were conflicting reports about the weapon used by the man, with some saying a pistol and others saying a sawed off handgun. There were unconfirmed reports that the man also had explosives.
— Bianca Britton (@biancabritton) December 14, 2014
— Zaid Benjamin (@zaidbenjamin) December 15, 2014
— Erienne Lette (@ErienneLette) December 14, 2014
The incident began at 9:45 am local time Monday when a call came through to emergency services that a hold-up at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in the city was under way.
The cafe is located inside Martin Place, a pedestrian mall in the city’s busy business and banking district. In September, Australian police said they uncovered an Islamic State-linked terrorist plot to randomly kidnap and behead Australians in the area of Martin Place.
Australia’s 9news reported that the perpetrator said he has “devices” around the city and demanded to speak with the Australian prime minister.
Security has been tightened around Jewish community buildings in the city.
— BuzzFeed Australia (@BuzzFeedOz) December 15, 2014
Police and security forces were at the scene and the area around the cafe was closed off to traffic and pedestrians. Earlier reports claimed the airspace over the city was shut down, but a statement from the airport said it was not the case and the airport was fully operational.
In September, Australian police uncovered a major terrorist plot in which Islamic State lone-wolf attackers were ordered to abduct and behead Australian civilians as retribution for Australia’s membership in the international coalition against the extremist jihadist group.
The Islamic State has repeatedly urged followers to carry out attacks in countries that are part of the US-led campaign to stop the group’s advances in Iraq and Syria.
Australia has estimated about 60 of its citizens are fighting for the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. Another 15 Australian fighters had been killed, including two young suicide bombers.
The government has said it believes about 100 Australians are actively supporting extremist groups from within Australia, recruiting fighters and grooming suicide bomber candidates as well as providing funds and equipment.