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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Texas synagogue attack: FBI storms building to release hostages, gunman dead

🔴 The hostages were able to escape and the hostage taker was killed. FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno said a team would investigate "the shooting incident."

By: Reuters | Texas |
Updated: January 17, 2022 1:02:20 am
An aerial view of police standing in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. A man held hostages for more than 10 hours Saturday inside the temple. (AP)

Authorities on Sunday identified a 44-year-old British national as the man who took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue for 10 hours before an FBI SWAT team stormed the building, ending a tense standoff that President Joe Biden called “an act of terror.”

Malik Faisal Akram was shot and killed after the last of the hostages got out at around 9 p.m. Saturday at Congregation Beth Israel near Fort Worth. In a statement, the FBI said there was no indication that anyone else was involved, but it didn’t provide a possible motive.

Akram could be heard ranting on a Facebook livestream of the services and demanding the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan. The FBI and police spokeswomen declined to answer questions Saturday night about who shot Akram when the standoff ended.

Video from Dallas TV station WFAA showed people running out a door of the synagogue, and then a man holding a gun opening the same door just seconds later before he turned around and closed it. Moments later, several rounds of gunfire could be heard, followed by the sound of an explosion.

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“Rest assured, we are focused,” Biden said during a visit to a food pantry in Philadelphia on Sunday morning. “The attorney general is focused and making sure that we deal with these kinds of acts.”

Shortly after 5 pm, local time, authorities escort a hostage out of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. (AP/PTI)

Biden said the suspect was able to purchase weapons on the street and may have only been in the country a few weeks. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to questions Sunday about Akram’s immigration status and history.

London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement that its counter-terrorism police were liaising with U.S. authorities about the incident.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno said the hostage-taker was specifically focused on an issue not directly connected to the Jewish community, and there was no immediate indication that the man was part of any broader plan. But DeSarno said the agency’s investigation “will have global reach.”

It wasn’t clear why Akram chose the synagogue.

Law enforcement officials who were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation and who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity earlier said the hostage-taker demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having ties to al-Qaida who is in a federal prison in Texas. He also said he wanted to be able to speak with her, according to the officials, one of whom confirmed that the hostage-taker was a British national.

A rabbi in New York City received a call from the rabbi believed to be held hostage in the synagogue to demand Siddiqui’s release, a law enforcement official said. The New York rabbi then called 911.

Police were first called to the synagogue around 11 a.m. and people were evacuated from the surrounding neighborhood soon after that, FBI Dallas spokeswoman Katie Chaumont said.

Saturday’s services were being livestreamed on the synagogue’s Facebook page for a time. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that an angry man could be heard ranting and talking about religion at times during the livestream, which didn’t show what was happening inside the synagogue.

Shortly before 2 p.m., the man said, “You got to do something. I don’t want to see this guy dead.” Moments later, the feed cut out. A spokesperson for Meta Platforms Inc., the corporate successor to Facebook Inc., later confirmed that Facebook had removed the video.

Multiple people heard the hostage-taker refer to Siddiqui as his “sister” on the livestream. But John Floyd, board chair for the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, — the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group — said Siddiqui’s brother, Mohammad Siddiqui, was not involved.

“This assailant has nothing to do with Dr. Aafia, her family, or the global campaign to get justice for Dr. Aafia. We want the assailant to know that his actions are wicked and directly undermine those of us who are seeking justice for Dr. Aafia,” said Floyd, who also is legal counsel for Mohammad Siddiqui. “We have confirmed that the family member being wrongly accused of this heinous act is not near the DFW Metro area.”

Shortly after 5 pm, local time, authorities escort a hostage out of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. (AP/PTI)

Texas resident Victoria Francis told the AP that she watched about an hour of the livestream before it cut out. She said she heard the man rant against America and claim he had a bomb.

“He was just all over the map. He was pretty irritated and the more irritated he got, he’d make more threats, like ‘I’m the guy with the bomb. If you make a mistake, this is all on you.’ And he’d laugh at that,” she said. “He was clearly in extreme distress.”

Francis, who grew up near Colleyville, tuned in after she read about the hostage situation. She said it sounded like the man was talking to the police department on the phone, with the rabbi and another person trying to help with the negotiations.

Colleyville, a community of about 26,000 people, is about 15 miles (23 kilometers) northeast of Fort Worth. The synagogue is nestled among large houses in a leafy residential neighborhood that includes several churches, a middle and elementary school and a horse farm.

By Sunday morning, the police perimeter around the synagogue had shrunk to half a block in either direction and FBI agents could be seen going in and out of the building. A sign saying “Love” — with the “o” replaced with a Star of David — was planted in a neighbor’s lawn.

Congregation Beth Israel is led by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who has been there since 2006 as the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi. He has worked to bring a sense of spirituality, compassion and learning to the community, according to his biography on the temple’s website, and he loves welcoming everyone, including LGBT people, into the congregation.

In a Sunday morning post on what appears to be Cytron-Walker’s Facebook page, the rabbi thanked law enforcement and first-responders. “I am grateful we made it out. I am grateful to be alive,” he wrote.

Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley of Dallas, who was called to the scene to help families and hostages upon their release, said Cytron-Walker acted as a calm and comforting presence who was responsive to the instructions given to him. The first hostage was released shortly after 5 p.m. That was around the time food was delivered to those inside the synagogue, but Paley said he did not know if the food delivery was part of the negotiations.

“He appeared a little unfazed, actually, but I don’t know if that was sort of shock or just the moment,” Paley said of the first hostage after his release. “He was calm and grateful to law enforcement and Rabbi Charlie.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter that he had been monitoring the situation closely. “This event is a stark reminder that antisemitism is still alive and we must continue to fight it worldwide,” he wrote. He said he was “relieved and thankful” that the hostages were rescued.

Law enforcement officials talk to each other after a news conference where they announced that all hostages were safe and the hostage taker was dead. (AP)

Law enforcement officials talk to each other after a news conference where they announced that all hostages at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue were safe and the hostage taker was dead on
The standoff prompted increased security in other places, including New York City, where police said that they increased their presence “at key Jewish institutions” out of an abundance of caution.

Aafia Siddiqui earned advanced degrees from Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before she was sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in prison on charges that she assaulted and shot at U.S. Army officers after being detained in Afghanistan two years earlier. The punishment sparked outrage in Pakistan among political leaders and her supporters, who viewed her as victimized by the American criminal justice system.

In the years since, Pakistani officials have expressed interest publicly in any sort of deal or swap that could result in her release from U.S. custody, and her case has continued to draw attention from supporters. In 2018, for instance, an Ohio man who prosecutors say planned to fly to Texas and attack the prison where Siddiqui is being held in an attempt to free her was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

An FBI Hostage Rescue Team stormed a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Saturday night to free three remaining hostages of a gunman who had disrupted a religious service and began a standoff with police more than 10 hours earlier.

All the hostages were safely released on Saturday night and the gunman was dead, Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller said at a news conference.

The gunman had initially taken four people hostage, including the rabbi, at the Congregation Beth Israel, officials said. One hostage was released unharmed six hours later. Local reporters said they heard the sound of explosions, possibly flashbangs, and the sound of gunfire shortly before Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced the crisis was over.

“Prayers answered. All hostages are out alive and safe,” Abbott said on Twitter.

The FBI said they have confirmed the identity of the gunman but said they would not yet disclose it. The FBI declined to confirm the cause of his death, saying it was still under investigation.

The Colleyville Police Department said it first responded to the synagogue with SWAT teams in response to emergency calls beginning at about 10.41 am during the Shabbat service, which was being broadcast online. FBI negotiators soon opened contact with the man, who said he wanted to speak to a woman held in a federal prison. No injuries were reported among the hostages.

In the first few hours, the man could be heard having a one-sided conversation in what appeared to be a phone call during a Facebook livestream of the service of the Reform Jewish synagogue in Colleyville, which is about 26 km northeast of Fort Worth. The livestream cut off around 3 pm EST (2000 GMT).

Before the livestream was ended, the man could be heard ranting and talking about religion and his sister, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. The man could be heard repeatedly saying he didn’t want to see anyone hurt and that he believed he was going to die, the newspaper said.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the crisis, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter he was praying for the safety of the hostages.

Barry Klompus, a member of the congregation since it opened in 1999, said he tuned into the livestream. “It was horrible listening and watching,” Klompus said in a telephone interview.

A US official briefed on the matter told ABC News the hostage-taker had claimed to be the brother of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year US prison sentence for her 2010 conviction for shooting at soldiers and FBI agents, and that he is demanding she be freed. Siddiqui is being held at a federal prison in the Fort Worth area.

A lawyer representing Siddiqui, Marwa Elbially, told CNN in a statement the man was not Siddiqui’s brother. He implored the man to release the hostages, saying Siddiqui’s family condemned his “heinous” actions.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a US Muslim advocacy group, condemned the man’s actions. “This latest antisemitic attack on Jewish Americans worshipping at a synagogue is an act of pure evil,” CAIR said in a statement.

Klompus said he did not know of any significant previous threats to the congregation.”We don’t have a security officer on staff but we have what I would say is a very good relationship with the local police,” he said.

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