Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A week of terror before Christmas

It's supposed to be the season of goodwill to all mankind. But instead of love and understanding the week prior to Christmas 2014 was marred with terror attacks and threats.

Terror at the coffee shop

The week of terror began in Sydney, Australia when a lone gunman, Man Haron Monis, took nine customers and eight employees hostage at the Lindt chocolate café in the heart of the central business district.

Early on, hostages were seen holding a jihadist black flag up against the window of the café, with the Islamic shahādah creed written on it in Arabic. Initially some media mistook it for the flag used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] which the gunman later demanded be brought to him during the siege. He had also demanded to talk to the Australian prime minister but he was conceded no demands and the siege came to a violent end after nearly 18 hours leaving the hostage taker and two others dead.

The crisis began at 09:44 local time on Monday 15th December [22:44 UTC, 14th December] but at around 02:00 on the 16th December, a "very loud bang" was heard and between five and seven additional hostages fled from the building prompting police and SWAT to storm the shop. Monis was declared killed in the ensuing gunfight and two of the hostages, Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old barrister, and 34-year-old Tori Johnson, the manager of the café, were also killed. Both were declared as heroes by the Australian media for their selfless actions which helped bring the siege to an end [Independent]. Tori Johnson was reportedly shot when trying to wrestle a gun from Sydney hostage-taker Monis as he appeared to fall asleep. Meanwhile Katrina Dawson was killed after trying to defend her pregnant colleague, Julie Taylor, according to reports.

The attack left Australia in shock. It had come only weeks after Australia had raised its alert level to "High" following a number of arrests related to a possible terror plot in September.

Authorities said that the suspects were planning random executions. Police said at the time that they had uncovered information that suggested Islamic extremists were plotting to capture members of the public, drape them in the Islamic State flag and behead them.

The "demonstration killings" would have been filmed and then posted on the Internet, according to Australian media reports. The raids, involving at least 800 heavily-armed officers, led to 15 arrests. [See also: tvnewswatch: ISIL censored videos still invoke fear / BBC / Sky News / CNN / ABC / Mashable ]

Monis did not get as far as executing his hostages, though he had earlier forced several of them to read statements which he then posted on the Internet. Despite only two deaths and a few slight injuries the attack left Australia in shock, compounded further by the fact it was the country's first major terror attack [Wikipedia].

School massacre

Barely had the dust settled in Sydney than terrorists launched a horrific attack on a school in Pakistan. Seven members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] entered the school and opened fire on school staff and children. Of the 145 people killed, 132 were schoolchildren, ranging between eight and eighteen years of age.

The attack was widely condemned around the world by religious leaders and politicians alike. The attack also galvanised many people in Pakistan who called on their government to prevent further atrocities [Wikipedia].

Cyber attacks

At the end of the week came further cyber attacks on Sony Pictures along with threats of 9/11 style attacks on cinemas should they go ahead with the release of the satirical film lambasting the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

The Interview was pulled from cinemas prompting much criticism of Sony for giving into terrorism. However within days Sony declared they would not abandon the release and would look at different ways of distribution [BBC / Wikipedia].

Meanwhile President Barack Obama hinted at placing North Korea on the state terror list in response to the hacking attacks on Sony which have widely been blamed on the rogue state.

The war of words continued over the weekend with North Korea denying it was involved and calling for the US to take part in what it called a joint investigation into the cyberattacks.

Threats & responses

Following harsh criticism from the US president, North Korea upped its rhetoric warning of serious consequences should the US continue with its threats.

By late Sunday North Korea issued a new threat against the United States and accused President Barack Obama of "recklessly" spreading rumours that Pyongyang was behind last month's devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures.

The long statement from the powerful National Defense Commission warned of strikes against the White House, Pentagon and "the whole US mainland, that cesspool of terrorism." [BBC / Guardian / Fox / Wikipedia]

Such rhetoric is nothing new from the small dictatorship. And its threats were largely ignored given the country's relatively small militaristic capability. While North Korea does possess nuclear weapons and a large standing army, it is mostly a threat to the local area rather than the US as a whole.

Meanwhile the US has few options itself. Obama's declaration that North Korea might be added to the list of states that support terrorism might prove difficult. Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba are currently  on the list. However a main criteria is that the State Department must determine that a country has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, a definition that traditionally has referred to violent, physical attacks rather than hacking.

Other options, which include sanctions targeting high-level North Korean officials and retaliatory cyberattacks, are limited. The US already has trade penalties in place and there is no appetite for military action especially in a region which is already very tense with ongoing disputes between China and its neighbours as well as continuing tensions between North and South Korea.

China for its part condemned the cyberattacks but sided with its North Korean ally saying there was no proof its neighbour was to blame [Reuters].

French lone wolf attacks

The attacks continued until only days before Christmas. In France President urged the public to keep calm after an apparent terror attack in which a man yelling "God is great" in Arabic drove into a crowd of shoppers in Dijon injuring 11, two seriously [BBC]. 

It followed another attack in which a man attacked police officers with a large knife. Police in central France shot dead the man who wielded the knife while shouting "God is great!" [BBC]

On Monday police were investigating yet another incident in which a van was driven into pedestrians at a Christmas market in Nantes. Ten people were reported to have been injured, five seriously [BBC / Daily Mail].

The same day a garbage truck "drove at speed" through shoppers in central Glasgow in Scotland, killing 6 and injuring several others. The police said the cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but said it was not a terrorism-related incident, and "nothing more sinister" than a fatal traffic accident. However, given the fact that it bore a striking similarity to the incidents in France there was some initial speculation the crash might have been a deliberate attack [Daily Mail].

North Korea hit by retaliatory outages

Meanwhile, North Korea found itself under cyberattack with its Internet services brought down for several hours on Monday. Officials in Washington would not comment on any US involvement in the outages, however the White House had earlier said it would launch a proportional response to a cyberattack on Sony Pictures [BBC].

The outage came within hours of another cyberattack which was also blamed on North Korea. In the latest breach, designs and manuals of a South Korean nuclear plant were leaked, although the reactors' innermost networks were not compromised.

Calls for calm

After the spate of recent attacks politicians have called on the general public to remain calm. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Tuesday that security would be stepped up and asked that people not "give into fear" [SMH].

However, it will be difficult to take such advice especially given the the seriousness of the recent attacks. The ongoing threat seemed clear as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said there had been a "heightened level of terror chatter" since the siege at a Sydney cafe last week, hardly the pre-message one wants to hear [BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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