There is little about the Sydney hostage-taker’s life that makes sense aside from his violent death. That’s because Sheikh Man Haron Monis was a fraud. He was a phony sheikh using an adopted name, preaching religious virtue while he was fighting sexual-assault and murder charges. He carried out his violence in the name of ISIS, the radical Islamist group fighting in Iraq and Syria, but even that connection seems to have existed mainly inside his own head.
Monis has been called a “lone wolf” terrorist, and it’s clear that he was inspired by radical groups like ISIS, though his connections to them appear tenuous. But a lone wolf is a romantic figure and Monis, by all appearances, was a hapless, mentally unhinged sexual predator and hanger-on. A mangy sort. The type whose particular imbalance aligns with the jihadi dog whistle and has lately taken to ISIS, which has called for attacks inside Australia, as the apocalyptics of choice.
In the course of the 17-hour standoff yesterday at the Lindt Chocolat café, Monis demanded the delivery of a black ISIS flag and asked “to please broadcast on all media that this is an attack on Australia by the Islamic State.” Yet ISIS followers online—not typically shy about claiming violence in the group’s name—remained wary, distancing themselves from Monis.
Suspicion of Monis among some Islamists commenting online related to the conflict between the two main branches of Islam—Sunni and Shia. That split is at the root of much of the current violence in Iraq and has bred deep suspicion and hostility among hardline members of the two denominations.
The notion of a “Shia conspiracy” spread by some ISIS supporters and referenced by terrorism analyst J.M. Berger in that tweet, was stoked by Monis’s own background. He was born into the Shia sect of Islam and converted only recently in an act that stands out as one of the deepest contradictions in a man full of them. Monis didn’t just leave the Shia for the Sunni branch of Islam, he opted for the most murderously anti-Shia faction on the planet. It was the equivalent of becoming a black Klansman or Jewish Nazi.
On his website—since shut down—Monis pledged his allegiance to ISIS and denounced “Rafidah,” an Arabic word that means rejectionist and is used as a slur against Shia by Sunni extremists. That’s only the most dramatic example from Monis’s well of derangement and self-hatred. Every facet of his identity, taken alone, seemed at war with every other part of him.
He was an Islamist radical who had a sideline business as an astrologer, a moralist charged with arranging his ex-wife’s murder, a political refugee who loathed the country that took him in.
Though he claimed to be a sheikh, he had none of the qualifications. His sex-offender pedigree was real, though; Australian police have those certificates.
Monis was born Manteghi Bourjerdi into a Shia Muslim family in Iran. There, he was wanted by Iranian authorities for stealing 200,000 U.S. dollars from customers at a travel agency where he worked, Manoto1, a London-based Farsi news agency, reports. In 1996, Bourjerdi was granted political asylum and went to Australia as a refugee. Five years later, in an interview given to Australian Broadcasting Corporation,) Monis grandiosely insinuated ties to Iranian intelligence and praised Australian society.
“Whenever I walk in the street, whenever I go out in Australia, I feel I am in a real religious society. I don’t want to say it is perfect, we don’t have a perfect society on the earth, but when we compare, if we compare Australia with Iran and other countries in the Middle East, we can say it is heaven.”
But assuming things were ever that hopeful, heaven was short-lived, and trouble followed.
Last year Monis gained notoriety in Australia when he pleaded guilty to sending letters to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, comparing their dead children to Nazis, and calling them murderers.
Then there was Monis’s violence toward women.
Last year Monis was charged with being an accessory to the brutal murder of his ex-wife. He was out on bail for the murder case when, in March of this year, he was got in trouble again. This time he was charged with multiple counts of sexually assaulting a young woman who had come to see him for spiritual counseling after seeing his newspaper advertisement offering “astrology, numerology, meditation and black magic.”
Astrology and black magic are forbidden in Islam; not an obscure point and one that Monis likely knew.
Monis’ website claimed that the charges against him were false and politically inspired and that he was an advocate for peace.
Manny Conditsis, Monis’s former lawyer, described him as cut off and damaged by his prison stay. “Knowing that while he was in custody some terrible things happened to him, I thought he may consider that he’s got nothing to lose,” Conditsis told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness.”
What was stronger in Monis’s case, the ideology or the derangement, is impossible to answer—it’s clear though that jihadi incitement and personal demons were not mutually exclusive and appeared to have fed into each other.
In October, after a mentally disturbed man, apparently inspired by ISIS, attacked a group of police officers in New York—which followed a pattern of similar attacks in Canada—I wrote that “those who are moved from seething anger to spontaneous deadly action most often fit the profiles of borderline psychotics more than hard-core believers.” Monis seems to have been both and dedicated to his psychotic beliefs.