SYDNEY -- The man who took 18 people hostage at a Sydney cafe last year was educated and erratic, secretive about his own life and public about his many grievances, and a self-obsessed fabulist whose life was spiraling downward in the lead-up to his deadly attack, lawyers told an inquest Monday.
The details of Man Monis' life and death are being examined at a coroner's inquest into December's siege at the Lindt Cafe, in which a shotgun-wielding Monis took customers and workers captive and made a series of demands, including that he be delivered a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The standoff ended when police stormed the cafe. Monis was killed, along with two hostages.
"This is not a normal investigation - it is grappling with questions of national significance," New South Wales state Coroner Michael Barnes told the court. "Was Monis a so-called lone wolf prosecuting an ISIS-inspired terrorist act, or was he a deranged individual pursuing some personal, private grievance in a public manner? They are real questions we must try and answer if an explanation for the siege is to be forthcoming and strategies to avoid a repeat are to be developed."
In their opening address, lawyers assisting the coroner painted the 50-year-old Iranian-born Monis as a man who was both compliant and contrarian when it came to authority. He dutifully registered his many name changes, filed his taxes and applied for police approval ahead of his frequent protests. But those protests were often dramatic, with Monis chaining himself to buildings and staging a hunger strike. He obsessively pursued perceived injustices against various authorities, in one instance flying to New Zealand and returning immediately for the sole purpose of proving he was being treated unreasonably by customs officials.
"He could be plausible, courteous and controlled," lawyer Sophie Callan said. "But he was also almost entirely consumed in his own self-importance and when challenged, his self-control would occasionally slip and his reaction was disproportionate."
The lawyers also described Monis as a defiant narcissist with a flair for the grandiose, his lies, half-truths and impossible-to-verify tales ranging from bragging about being an Iranian spy to shaving 12 years off his age upon meeting his future wife. But the lawyers dismissed any suggestions that Monis was severely mentally ill.
"Mr. Monis, as we shall see, unquestionably had at stages in his life some mental health issues, but I say at the outset that any such issues appear to be modest," lawyer Jeremy Gormly told the court. "Mental illness may not provide a full answer to the questions about his motivations for the siege."
The inquest - a court-like proceeding convened after unusual deaths in Australia - is aimed at determining how the hostages and Monis died, how authorities responded and whether the siege could have been prevented. It is being conducted in segments throughout the year.
In January, a lawyer told the inquest that hostage Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old lawyer, was killed after being struck by fragments of a bullet fired from a police officer's gun as authorities stormed in to end the 16-hour standoff. Monis shot and killed cafe manager Tori Johnson, and police shot Monis.
Monis was born in Iran in 1964. He spoke multiple languages and held a master's degree in Islamic culture and political science. He spent the early 1990s studying Islam, eventually becoming a mid-ranking cleric, and registered several import and export businesses in Iran.
He arrived in Australia in 1996 and applied for protection visa, arguing persecution in Iran. As one basis for his claim, he said he had converted to the minority Ahmadi branch of Islam - something Gormly dubbed "almost certainly a fiction he told to obtain refugee status."
In Australia, he worked as a security officer and underwent firearms training, but never held a gun license - raising questions about how he got the shotgun he used at the cafe.
Investigators have found no record of Monis' gun, a Manufrance La Salle 12-gauge shotgun made in France between 1959 and 1969, said New South Wales Police Detective Inspector Angelo Memmolo, who is leading the investigation of the siege. Only three such guns were legally imported into Australia, Memmolo testified.
In 2001, Monis started a spiritual healing business, and it was there that he was accused of sexually assaulting his clients. In 2014, he was charged with 43 counts of aggravated indecent and sexual assault, allegedly committed between 2002 and 2010. He was out on bail on those charges and on a charge of accessory to murder in the slaying of his ex-wife when he launched the cafe attack.
In the lead-up to the siege, his life was spiraling downward, Gormly said. By 2014, Monis was in debt, had failed to establish a religious following, had lost a custody battle for his children and was facing potential jail time for the sex assault charges. He had also been rejected by Australia's Islamic community, and by a biker gang that considered him too weird to join their club.
"His grandiose self-assessments of the past were seemingly not coming to fruition," Gormly said.