Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas: FBI investigating hostage-taking as ‘terrorism-related’ incident, agency says

Recounting Saturday’s “terrifying” encounter to CBS, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said his experience of a “calm presence” in hospital rooms and other difficult times helped him stay calm while taking hostages.

The deceased hostage taker – who authorities identified as 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram – first knocked on a glass door and Cytron-Walker thought he needed shelter, a- he declared. He let him in, made him some tea and found nothing suspicious, the rabbi told CBS.

It was during the Sabbath prayer, when the rabbi had his back turned as he and other worshipers faced Jerusalem, that he heard a click, he said.

“It turned out to be his gun,” Cytron-Walker told the network.

He took safety courses focused on this type of situation, which taught him that he had to get himself and his herd to safety. There was a moment during the hostage negotiations when Akram wasn’t getting what he wanted, and “it didn’t look good. It didn’t sound good. We were terrified,” the official said. rabbi. It was then that he decided to try his luck by escaping.

“When I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position, I made sure the two gentlemen who were still with me were ready to go. The exit wasn’t too far away,” he said. he told CBS. “I told them to leave. I threw a chair at the shooter and headed for the door, and the three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”

An FBI team killed Akram after the hostages were released around 9 p.m. (10 p.m. ET).

Attacks on Jewish people are on the rise, warns the Anti-Defamation League. While the majority of anti-Semitic incidents involve harassment and vandalism, there have also been assaults, and on at least six occasions since 2016 the attacks have turned deadly.

“This is a terrorism-related case”

Expressing relief that the hostages were not physically harmed and bragging about their focus on extremist threats against the Jewish community, the FBI noted that Akram “repeatedly spoke about a convicted terrorist who is serving a sentence 86 years in prison in the United States,” its statement read. .

“This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community has been targeted, and which is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” the statement said, declining to provide information. more details due to further investigation.

FBI Director Chris Wray holds a call with the Jewish community Monday afternoon. Later Monday, Cytron-Walker will lead a healing service at a Methodist church in nearby Southlake.

The convicted terrorist mentioned by the FBI is believed to be Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving a lengthy federal prison sentence in Fort Worth after being convicted of attempted murder and other charges in an assault on US officers in Afghanistan. She was not involved in the Colleyville attack, her attorney said Saturday.

Akram, a British national, was armed when he entered Congregation Beth Israel on Saturday morning as the place of worship livestreamed its Sabbath service on Facebook and Zoom, Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller said. . The livestream captured part of the 11-hour standoff before it ended.

Akram took four people, including Cytron-Walker, hostage. A man was released unharmed around 5 p.m., Colleyville police said.

Two teenagers have been arrested in South Manchester, England, in connection with the Texas incident and are awaiting questioning, British Counter Terrorism Police Greater Manchester said on Sunday. Akram is from Blackburn, an industrial town of 121,000 just northwest of Manchester, according to British authorities.

A hostage taker arrived in the United States a few weeks ago

Akram arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York about five weeks ago, a US law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation told CNN. Authorities are investigating how he traveled from New York to Texas.

Akram arrived legally, a separate federal law enforcement source said, and was vetted before he arrived, meaning his information would have been cross-checked with classified and unclassified information available at the time. He was not on any US government watch list, the source said.

British intelligence has told their American counterparts that a preliminary review of their databases revealed no disturbing information about Akram, the source said, but British authorities are continuing to investigate.

Between Jan. 6 and Jan. 13, Akram spent three nights at Union Gospel Mission Dallas, a homeless shelter, according to the shelter’s CEO, Bruce Butler. “We were a stage for him,” he said. “He had a plan. He was very quiet. He was going back and forth.”

How Aafia Siddiqui became an icon for terrorists

Akram last left the mission on Thursday, according to their records. Butler “doesn’t remember seeing him, but he didn’t stay there long enough to form a relationship. We had a lot of new faces because of the cold weather,” he said.

Based on discussions with Akram as well as audio from the livestream, officials believe Akram was motivated by a desire to see the release of Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence at Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Carswell. after being found guilty of seven charges, including attempted murder and assault with a weapon, in a 2008 attack on US officers in Afghanistan.

Siddiqui “has absolutely no involvement in” the Texas hostage situation, his lawyer said.

Akram’s brother says the family is “absolutely devastated” by his actions and that they “wholeheartedly apologize to all of the victims,” ​​he wrote in a statement on Facebook, adding that the family was in contact with the police during the incident. Akram suffered from mental health issues, the statement said without giving further details.

Rabbi training course credits

Cytron-Walker credited “multiple safety courses” with providing worshipers with the proper training to survive.

“During the last hour of our hostage situation, the shooter grew increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said. “Without the instructions we received, we would not have been ready to act and flee when the situation arose.”

Speaking to CBS on Monday, he explained that courses providing information from the FBI, local police, the Anti-Defamation League and the Safe Community Network had taught him “that when your life is threatened, you must do everything what you can to get to safety; you have to do everything you can to get out of it.”

Founded in 2004, the nonprofit network says it is “the official homeland security and safety initiative of organized Jewry in North America.” It works to develop “strategic frameworks that enhance the safety and security of the Jewish people” and has an online training portal and an “e-toolkit” with safety checklists and tools. other resources to supplement its training courses, which include information from the US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.

A member of the congregation watched the live broadcast for more than an hour, listening to Akram shout in different languages, she said. The suspect wavered between apologizing and “screaming hysterically,” repeatedly speaking about his hatred of Jews, she said.

“At any moment I thought there was going to be a gunshot,” the member said, adding that Akram claimed to have a bomb.

As the clash drew to a close, a nearby CNN crew heard a bang followed by a short burst of rapid gunfire from the direction of the synagogue.

Investigators recovered a firearm they believe belonged to Akram, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said.

A community comes together

During and after the ordeal, the local Jewish community and those of other faiths expressed their support for the synagogue. Congregation Anna Salton Eisen was moved by the way neighbors — and state and national leaders, including Governor Greg Abbott and President Joe Biden — conveyed their sympathies, she said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also denounced the attack, saying he stood with Jewish communities around the world “against those who seek to spread hatred and fear,” a spokesperson said.

“The response from our neighbours, communities, law enforcement, churches, mosques, has been so overwhelming, intense and immediate that I truly feel that if we are faced with a crisis, the people will support us,” Eisen said.

When asked how the congregation would react, she replied, “For all of us, the first thing is to regain some sense of security.” She already felt more secure, she said, thanks to the determination shown by those around them.

“We are welcome and part of this community,” she said. “Even though anti-Semitism may be on the increase and present, so is the remedy, so is the unity, strength and determination to overcome these problems.”

Cytron-Walker is working to bring together members of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths in the metropolitan area, leaders of the Islamic Center of Southlake said.

The rabbi brought sweets to their Eid holiday and is attending the festivities during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, former center president Shahzad Mahmud said. Cytron-Walker and his wife have been friends with the Islamic Center since “day one”, Mahmud said.

“We want to make sure that the Jewish community knows that we are on their side, as they are always on our side when we feel like we are in trouble with criminals,” Mahmud said.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Cytron-Walker said, “I am grateful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils and prayers and the love and support, all law enforcement and first responders who cared from us, all the safety training that helped save us.

“I’m grateful to my family. I’m grateful to the CBI community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we got through this. I’m grateful to be alive,” he wrote. .

CNN’s Kacey Cherry, Ed Lavandera, Ashley Killough and Josh Campbell reported from Colleyville, Texas; Eliott C. McLaughlin and Travis Caldwell wrote in Atlanta. Carma Hassan, Laura Jarrett, Alaa Elassar, Alanne Orjoux, Michelle Watson, Nick Paton Walsh, Tina Burnside, Raja Razek, Shimon Prokupecz, Evan Perez, Keith Allen, Paul P. Murphy, Riuki Gakio and Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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