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Sydney Siege: The Last Hours of an 'Incredibly Damaged Individual'

The Sydney hostage siege was ended in just three minutes in the middle of the night Tuesday, but it was years in the making.

The Sydney hostage siege was ended in just three minutes in the middle of the night Tuesday, but it took 16½ hours to get there — and it might have started more than a year before that.

Police stormed the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney's central business district at 2:19 a.m. (10:19 a.m. ET Monday) when they heard gunshots from inside, where a man was still holding a dozen of the 17 hostages he'd taken the previous morning.

By 2:22, people were being carried and wheeled out on stretchers, and the gunman — a self-styled sheikh identified as Man Haron Monis, 50, an Iranian with "a serious history of criminal offenses and a history of violence," police said — was fatally wounded, along with two of his hostages, Tori Johnson, 34, the cafe's manager, and Katrina Dawson, 38, a respected New South Wales barrister.

Five hostages were injured, police later said — three women were reported in stable condition with gunshot wounds and two other women who were checked for "health conditions." So was a police officer, who suffered minor injuries from apparent gunshot pellets to his face and was expected to be back at work Wednesday, police said.

For more than 16 hours before then, however, Monis held police at bay in a nerve-shattering standoff that the nation and much of the world watched on live television.

Wearing a headband and a black T-shirt — and carrying a blue bag, believed to be how he concealed his shotgun — Monis walked into the cafe about 9:45 a.m. local time Monday and seized 17 hostages, five of whom managed to escape during the siege.

Some of the hostages were forced up against the cafe's windows, their faces mashed against the glass. At least twice, hostages were forced to hold up a black flag with white Arabic script used by some Islamist groups in the Middle East.

By 10:30 a.m., armed police had flooded the area and nearby buildings were being evacuated.

Within a couple of hours, nearby schools were locked down and the U.S. consulate in Sydney sent an emergency message to Americans: Stay away. And by 1 p.m. (9 p.m. ET Sunday), President Barack Obama had been briefed. The Sydney Opera House cancelled its Monday and Tuesday performances.

At 1:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. ET Sunday), Andrew Scipione, police commissioner in New South Wales state, said that while he wasn't prepared to call the takeover a terrorist attack, police had "moved to a footing of a terrorism event."

Then everybody waits — 2 o'clock came and went, and 3 o'clock came and went. Suddenly, at 3:37 p.m. local, three men — the first hostages to escape — were spotted running from a side exit toward police.

Twenty minutes later, a breakthrough was reported: deputy police commissioner Catherine Burn said police had made contact with the gunman and didn't believe anyone had been hurt.

Within another hour, two more women ran from the fire exit into police officers' arms.

And then the scene went quiet.

Throughout the ordeal — in briefings and statements by police, New South Wales state officials and prime minister Tony Abbott — authorities refused to talk about who the gunman was or why he had chosen his course. As speculation ran around the world that Australia was under an Islamist terrorist attack, the authorities in charge won't address it.

The siege passed its 12-hour mark at 9:45 p.m. (5:45 a.m. ET Monday) — still with no clear word on what might be happening in the Lindt Chocolate Cafe. Police advised Australians to "go about their business as usual tomorrow."

Midnight: nothing.

Then, shortly after 1 a.m., there was something concrete: Police said the hostage-taker is known to them, and they gave him a name: Man Haron Monis, whom they describe as a "self-styled sheikh." The siege was now in its final stages.

At 2:14 a.m. — 16½ hours after the siege began — gunshots were heard from the cafe, followed by alarms. A minute later, a female hostage was rushed away by two police officers. At 2:18 a.m., another female hostage left with two police officers. At 2:19 a.m., under cover of stun grenades, officers stormed the cafe. Scipione, the police commissioner, later said his officers "believed that if at that time they didn't move then, there would be many more lives lost."

Three minutes later, at 2:22 a.m. (10:22 a.m. ET Monday), medical personnel began removing people on stretchers.

It took 20 more minutes for the official word to arrive:

The siege itself may have lasted less than a day, but according to Monis' lawyer, the timeline actually began long beforehand, perhaps as early as 2001.

That's when Monis was granted political asylum in Australia after having fled his homeland, Iran, according to the lawyer, Manny Conditsis, who represented Monis in a long list of criminal cases.

Two of those cases made Monis notorious in Australia. Last year, he was sentenced to community service for having sent offensive letters about six years ago to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and to the mother of an Australian killed in Indonesia.

Then, late last year, Monis' girlfriend was charged with murder in the gruesome April 2013 burning death of his ex-wife, with whom he's believed to have had two sons. Monis was charged as an accessory, and when the hostage incident began Monday, he was still free on bail in that case.

In an interview with Australia's ABC radio, Conditsis — like police during the siege — stayed away from speculation that Monis had ties to ISIS or any other terrorist organization.

Monis really was a cleric in Iran, Conditsis said, adding, "I've seen documentation that supports that view." And while he was a man of "extreme" ideological views, Monis "generally loved Australians," Conditsis said. "But he had particular issues with governments, including the Australian government in sending Australian soldiers to fight on foreign land when the country wasn't under attack."

Still, Monis probably wasn't fighting for extreme Islamist principles, his lawyer said. Instead, he was under enormous pressure from his court cases, which also included numerous sexual assault allegations, Conditsis said. Monis was reported to have lost an appeal in the case over his offensive letters just three days earlier, on Friday.

"If you add all of that together, then it's quite conceivable that, in combination, all of these matters ended up in his perception of not having anything to lose, resulting in these desperate acts," Conditsis said.

U.S. defense officials also told NBC News that there is no evidence that Monis had any connection to ISIS. No threat warnings or alerts have been issued for the American public or the military, they said.

Monis, according to Conditsis, was just "a lone, incredibly damaged individual that has acted in an outrageous manner out of desperation."

On Tuesday afternoon, prime minister Tony Abbott acknowledged that Monis was not on a terror watch list. "How can someone who has had such a long and jagged history not be on the appropriate watch list?" Abbott said.

However, Abbott argued, that even if he had been monitored 24 hours a day, "it's quite likely, certainly possible, that this incident could have taken place because the level of control that would be necessary to prevent people from going about their daily life would be very, very high indeed."

Abbott framed Monis' attack as Sydney's first brush with terrorism in more than 35 years, calling the entire incident a "testing, taxing and troubling" 36 hours for the people of Australia.

Sara James, Alastair Jamieson, Miranda Leitsinger, Jim Miklaszewski and Pete Williams of NBC News contributed to this report.