Sydney hostage crisis shows government right to be concerned

Location of attack appears to have been chosen to generate maximum publicity

The ongoing hostage crisis in Sydney shows the Australian government was not overreaching when in September it raised its terror threat level from ‘medium’ to ‘high’.

The target of a café in the heart of the city was strategically chosen to get maximum publicity.

If you were going to pick a target for attack in Sydney, the iconic Opera House or Harbour Bridge would get most worldwide attention. But since 9/11, and particularly since the Bali bombings in October 2002, security at the bridge and Opera House has been massively increased.

The next best target for anyone looking to make a political statement is undoubtedly Martin Place, which is the heart of power for Sydney's financial, legal, political, medical, media and religious fraternities.

Martin Place is a mall, stretching from George St on its western side to Macquarie St at its eastern edge, which was pedestrianised in 1979. Along the way, it passes Pitt, Castlereagh, Elizabeth and Phillip streets. It is called after Sir James Martin, a former premier and chief justice of New South Wales, who was born in Midleton, Co Cork in 1820.

The Reserve Bank (Australia's equivalent of the Central Bank) is on Martin Place, as is the headquarters of the Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie investment bank. Australia's other major banks are also in the vicinity.

Phillip St, which passes by the café where the hostages are being held, is home to the upper echelons of Sydney's legal profession, the Supreme Court and Sydney Law School.

Channel 7 television has its headquarters directly across from the café, and every other Sydney TV station, radio station and newspaper has reporters based around the corner at the State Parliament in Macquarie St.

There are also two hospitals on Macquarie St, and St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral is a few hundred metres away. There is a World War I cenotaph on Martin Place and the street also hosts a gathering of the city’s Jewish community for Hanukah at around this time every year.

Ground and air transport has been diverted, the Martin Place underground train station is closed, buildings containing tens of thousands of workers have been evacuated, performances at the Opera House have been cancelled and the eyes of the world are now on Sydney.

There is no doubt the hostage taker knew the tactical value of Martin Place as a target. What he actually wants to achieve is another matter. The siege began at 9.44am local time (10.44pm last night Irish time), and is still continuing.

It was initially thought the hostage taker was connected with ISIS because of the use of a black flag with Arabic writing on it. Though it resembles the ISIS flag, what it actually translates as is “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his messenger” – the core belief of Islam.

In normal circumstances this no more radical a statement that a Catholic saying the rosary, but in recent years the phrase has been adopted by various radical Islamist groups, in particular by Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria.

The siege has been covered all day across all media in Sydney, with university and think tank terrorism experts giving running commentary. The tone has, mostly, been restrained. Both the prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the police have been careful not to refer to this incident as being a terrorist attack.

“It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation,” said Mr Abbott.

The Sydney Muslim community is as shocked at anyone else about what is happening. Prominent community leader Dr Jamal Rifi said "It is terrifying, and shocking that an Islamic symbol has been used".

“We have always worked on the assumption that we have to be united in preventing any terror attacks taking place on Australian soil.

“Unfortunately our greatest fear has been realised with what we have seen today … and if, and it is a big if, these people comes to be from our ranks … we will disown them the same way we disown such actions wherever they take place,” said Dr Rifi.

Earlier today, a 25-year-old man was arrested in Sydney’s northwest in relation to terrorism offences, but the police say it is likely not connected to the siege in Martin Place.

Mr Abbott said the day “has tested us, but so far like Australians in all sorts of situations, we have risen to the challenge”.

As darkness falls in Sydney, that challenge continues.