Talk to me: Lessons from the Lindt Café siege

Published by Andrew B Brown on

As featured in Crisis Response Journal | Volume 12 Issue 4 | August 2017.

Historical Background

In 1972 Black September terrorists took eleven Israeli Olympic athletes hostage at the Munich Games. The traditional confrontational police response resulted in the death of the athletes, a police officer and ten terrorists; this event, along with others fuelled concern about the loss of life in hostage incidents.

Motivated, the New York Police Department, utilising the talents of Harvey Schlossberg, a detective with a PhD in psychology and Lieutenant Frank Boltz, they developed tactics that led to the resolution of high conflict incidents without the loss of life, emphasising the importance of:

  • Containing and negotiating with the hostage taker and
  • Understanding the hostage taker’s motivation and personality in a hostage incident;
  • Slowing an incident down so that time can work for the negotiator.

January 19th, 1973 four armed robbers entering Al’s Sporting Good Store threatening employees and customers with sawn off shotguns and handguns were soon shot at by the attending officers injuring one of the perpetrators. Rather than storming the store officers began to negotiate successfully getting a hostage released to talk to police. Demands for a doctor to tend to their wounded companion were met and another hostage was released. Portraying as Black Muslims, several Muslim clergy were allowed to talk to the perpetrators to establish good dialogue through the use of provided walkie-talkies. Sporadic gunfire occurred throughout the incident and eventually the remaining hostages escaped. Without their hostages, the perpetrators had lost their bargaining power and were convinced by negotiators that to continue to fight for the oppressed minorities they must first stay alive. This key incident was a turning point a remarkable change in conventional strategy and tactics to a hostage incident.

In the same year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation developed and launched their Hostage Negotiation training programme at the FBI Academy in Quantico thus making negotiation it a legitimate law enforcement strategy for critical hostage incidents and went onto form the framework and foundation for hostage negotiator training worldwide.

Lindt Café Siege

Monday, December 15th 2014 at 9.41 a.m. within the Lindt Café, Martin Place, Sydney, MAN HARON MONIS, a self declared Islamic Scholar and manipulative narcissistic criminal, instructed the manager, Tori Johnson to call 000 and say that all 18 people within the café had been taken hostage by an Islamic State operative armed with a gun and explosives. MONIS also indicated that he had positioned his collaborators with bombs throughout the city.

Police swiftly cleared and contained the area surrounding the café, situated in the heart of the city and located opposite the headquarters of a commercial television station. This, along with other factors, resulted in the uninterrupted live coverage of the unfolding incident.

Over the following 16.5 hours, the police attempted to negotiate with MONIS to resolve the incident peacefully, but he did not talk to negotiators and only passed messages and demands via the hostages. Twelve of the 18 hostages managed to escape during four separate points in the incident, which fuelled tension within the café until MONIS in a highly agitated state after the last escape of hostages, discharged his gun at the fleeing hostages then calmly executed a kneeling Tori Johnson. Police immediately stormed the café in the belief that MONIS was armed with a gun and bomb. In the ensuing firefight MONIS was killed and fragments from a deflected police bullet(s) fatally struck hostage Katrina Dawson.

The Inquest

An inquest is a court hearing into a single death, multiple deaths and/or a fire. It is heard by a coroner and is generally open to the public. It is unlike other court cases and is an inquisitorial process rather than adversarial and is to determine lessons learned.

The coronial inquest commenced almost immediately with its focus on two principal tasks:

  • To investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Tori Johnson, Katrina Dawson and MAN HARON MONIS, and
  • To examine the actions of police and authorities before and during the siege in order to assess whether they could be improved.

The expert witness’s role is to provide an expert’s report for use as evidence in proceedings and to give evidence of opinion in proceedings. They are not an advocate for a party and have a paramount duty, overriding any duty to the proceedings or other person retaining the expert witness, to assist the court impartially on matters relevant to the area of expertise of the witness.

I will focus on the challenges that faced by police negotiators in dealing what was a complex, dynamic and highly emotional hostage siege.

The Findings

The primary strategy of the police for responding to sieges is one of containment and negotiation. It involves containing and securing the locus, then establishing dialogue with the hostage taker and hostages with an overall purpose of the negotiated safe release of hostages and ultimately changing the hostage taker’s behavior to affect his/her safe surrender and a peaceful resolution. That approach was adopted during the Lindt Café siege and unfortunately it failed.

The use of containment and negotiation

“Contain and negotiate” was the appropriate initial response to the siege, but it is a strategy that must be continually evaluated to measure its effectiveness. Not every hostage siege is the same, they are all unique because we are dealing with human beings and there are no precise rules. Negotiation in the context of hostage situations is to use an array of proven techniques, sometimes thinking outside the box, to engage the hostage taker in direct dialogue, so that you may influence and ultimately change his/her behavior towards a peaceful resolution.

This strategy continued even after the siege was assessed to be a terrorist and politically motivated event. Continual rigorous assessment of the strategy might not have necessarily have led to negotiations ceasing, but would have opened other opportunities for differing negotiation approaches and for other tactical options to be considered by command.

The impact of the National Counter-Terrorism Plan

The assessment of a terrorist/politically motivated siege brought into effect the restrictions contained in Australia’s National Counter-Terrorism Plan 2012 on the making of concessions to terrorists’ demands. Whilst this had the potential to complicate the negotiations, it is the interpretation and understanding of the restrictions that then influence how negotiators carefully articulate and tactically deal with hostage taker demands in such situations. Lack of understanding sometimes leads to demands from the hostage taker being dismissed, without the necessary explanation to manage their expectations.

The attempts to engage in dialogue with MONIS

Negotiators were continually faced with the fact that MONIS refused to engage in direct dialogue with them; using numerous hostages to convey his messages and demands to the police. Whilst you can listen, talk and reassure hostages, it is challenging to try to negotiate indirectly with the hostage taker, especially when you do not know the exact circumstances in which the hostage finds themselves, combined with the real fear that this was portrayed as the first attack on Australian soil by Islamic State and the terror that they are reputed for beheading their hostages.

Using intelligence from MONIS’s background could have opened up avenues of negotiator dialogue that may spark that response and engagement in dialogue:

  • He had been deprived access to his children and had fought through the courts to do so. This indicated the importance of his children to him and a potential emotional hook in dialogue.
  • His religion and cultural beliefs. As a self proclaimed Islamic scholar he had recently made the conversion Shia Islam to Sunni Islam, and attended Islamist rallies promoting conspiracy theories about Australian security agencies.Also, while on bail, and facing a likely lengthy imprisonment, he declared allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant prior to the siege. These were all indicators of his beliefs and allegiance, thus giving negotiators to seek both cultural and religious guidance that might inform their negotiation strategy. No doubt, this is a challenging subject matter to enter into in dialogue, but again, it may have been one that provoked direct dialogue.
  • Consideration of using Third Party Intermediaries (TPIs). Again this is a challenging and complex area, but one which should not be dismissed. Using someone that already has a relationship with the hostage taker has the potential to create direct dialogue. However, it must be carefully considered, the person briefed and coached through the negotiations. Controlling what another person says is the challenge.
  • Using other communication methods to encourage direct dialogue.
  • Carefully crafting media broadcasts by notable officials can help send a message to the hostage taker and also play to his heightened sense of importance, especially given his history and narcissistic tendencies.

Unfortunately negotiators continued to speak to hostages and did not gain direct dialogue with MONIS.

Faced with such an incident negotiators need to think outside the box to consider alternative strategies to engage the hostage taker in direct dialogue.

The responses to Monis’ demands

From the early stages MONIS had a list of demands. His demand to speak to the Prime Minister was rightly declined, albeit in a dismissive manner. Clear explanation of why not, allows negotiators to align the hostage taker’s expectations.

His demand seeking an on air debate could have been explored through the use of taking a statement from MONIS as to his purpose and motivation behind the incident. This would have allowed MONIS to express himself, whilst at the same time allowing negotiators to understand why he is doing what he is doing. Once you understand that, you are better placed to enter productive dialogue. Refusal only increased the hostages’ frustration and sense of abandonment.

MONIS’ demand for an IS flag was met rightly with refusal but negotiators did not explore why he wanted the flag and explain why it would not be provided was counterproductive and again increased the anguish in the hostages.

Moving of police and parked vehicles out of Phillip Street in response to demands by MONIS was reasonable and appropriate, although it should have been used as a positive police action to pursue some reciprocation.

His demand for the lights in Martin Place to be extinguished appeared to have been mismanaged by both the negotiators and command. It could have been granted and might have provided yet another opportunity of direct dialogue with MONIS. Instead the prolonged failure not only agitated MONIS’ anger but also exacerbated the sense of frustration towards the police by the hostages.

The assessment of progress in negotiations

To measure the effectiveness of any strategy you must be able to measure your progress towards your ultimate goal. Unfortunately, no progress towards a negotiated settlement of the siege was made at any stage.

Negotiators failed to undertake robust evaluation and assessment of where they were in negotiations and what they had not achieved in line with their strategy, nor was there a system or process in place that allowed them to do so. This impacted on tactical negotiator advice to the various levels of command, which saw no change to the ‘contain and negotiate’ strategy.

Progress in negotiations can be measured through:

  • Emotional outbursts are declining and conversations are getting longer
  • Hostages are released
  • Weapons are surrendered
  • Absence of physical injury to hostages
  • The incident is static
  • A routine has been established

The role of psychological advisers in siege responses

The role of a consultant psychiatrist or psychologist in the response to a hostage siege is a vital, but one that needs to be carefully considered. Such advice can give an excellent insight for negotiators dealing with a hostage taker that is suffering from a personality disorder as it gives negotiators ideas on how to effectively communicate. Such advisors can also assess the behavior of hostages, which helps advise how best to reassure them during their captivity.

The Advisor can also be used to monitor the negotiation team to see how they are managing under the high pressure of such an incident and also be used in any debriefings to offer psychological support where required.

Their advice is invaluable, but must be taken in the context of the cultural, religious and situational factors that give influence to a hostage taker’s behaviour and actions. It is from this, based on training and experience that negotiators make informed judgments about the negotiating strategy, its effectiveness and to identify ways forward in dialogue, especially if a stalemate has been reached.

Unfortunately, in this case the consultant psychiatrist was permitted to give advice about negotiation strategy and tactics; made erroneous and unrealistic assessments about what was occurring in the stronghold; gave ambiguous advice about the nature of MONIS’ behaviour, and was permitted to go beyond his area of expertise to give advice about Islamic terrorism. This, combined with other factors, led to an underestimation of MONIS’ capability and the danger he posed to the hostages.

The missed calls

A total of eight calls by hostages to a number they had been told would connect them with a negotiator were
not answered—four around 8.00 p.m. and another four between 12.30 a.m. and 1.00 a.m. An unknown number of calls were also diverted to other telephones within the Police Forward Command Post.

The fact that these calls were missed represents a significant failure in a basic component of siege management. It was highly likely that the calls between 12.30 and 1.00 a.m. were not answered because all the negotiators were involved in a handover briefing in a separate room.

Handovers between teams on long running sieges are commonplace and must be handed with care and diligence to continue to provide that open communication and ensure a smooth transition to a fresh team.

The Negotiation Unit staffing

The Negotiation Commander was burdened with having to oversee three other negotiation incidents under his command and could not be relieved. This unnecessarily impacted on the performance of the negotiation advice given to command. Having a system in place, that develops both capacity and capability for such eventualities spreads the pressure and allows this vital component of negotiation tactical advice to be assessed, evaluated and considered by command as a viable tactic within the overall strategy. 

The Negotiator training

Negotiators do not receive adequate training in dealing with terrorists. The training of negotiators, which focuses on dealing with domestic high-risk situations, does not adequately equip them to engage effectively with terrorist/s in a siege. There are cadres of Police Forward Commanders and Police Commanders specially trained to deal with terrorist incidents; the same should be true of negotiators.

The Record keeping

There was no policy requiring commanders or negotiators to record negotiation positions and tactics, the demands made by a hostage taker, or any progress or lack of it in moving a high-risk situation towards resolution.

The lack of provision for recording negotiator assessments and tactics no doubt impacted on command decisions as whether “contain and negotiate” should be continued or whether a Deliberate Action should be initiated.


Thankfully incidents of this nature are a rare occasion, but when they do occur they present a significant danger to those innocently caught up as hostages and present complex challenges to the agencies that must be prepared to respond to such events.

Due to the very nature of human beings and the ever-changing dynamic of a highly emotional incident, no two incidents are going to be the same. Research has highlighted the greater danger to hostages in ‘expressive’ incidents where the hostage taker(s) are politically motivated or through their commitment to an ideology.

History has also taught us that successful resolution by force from law enforcement agencies or military requires exceptional training, planning and execution.

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