Inside the Texas synagogue hostage standoff

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It started like most any Saturday for members of Congregation Beth Israel.

Inside the Texas synagogue hostage standoff
© Brandon Bell/Getty Images COLLEYVILLE, TEXAS – JANUARY 16: A law enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 16, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. All four people who were held hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue have been safely released after more than 10 hours of being held captive by a gunman. Yesterday, police responded to a hostage situation after reports of a man with a gun was holding people captive. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

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Families of the Reform Jewish synagogue just outside Dallas-Fort Worth had gathered — in person and online — to participate in the Sabbath service, even amid the twin perils of a fresh pandemic wave and a swelling tide of attacks on Jewish people in the United States.

By day’s end, the community of faith in Colleyville, Texas, would be at the center of a global drama involving a livestreamed hostage-taking, an imprisoned terrorist icon, an elite FBI rescue team and a final, frantic sprint to freedom.

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More details may yet offer a deeper understanding of why it happened. But already, the tale is one of searing trauma, with the broader American Jewish community now again forced to be resilient as it’s reminded of the ever-present potential for disaster.

A rabbi welcomes a stranger

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A stranger arrived that morning at the synagogue.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker welcomed in the man and made him a cup of tea, the rabbi told CBS on Monday.

Cytron-Walker may not have known immediately that Malik Faisal Akram, 44, was a British national. Akram had arrived in the United States via New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport about five weeks earlier, a US law enforcement source familiar with the investigation told CNN.

In the two weeks before he met Cytron-Walker, Akram had spent three nights — January 6, 11 and 13 — at a Dallas homeless shelter, according to Union Gospel Mission Dallas CEO Bruce Butler. He was very quiet and wasn’t there long enough to build any relationships, Butler said.

Over their shared tea, Cytron-Walker and Akram talked, the rabbi said.

“Some of his story didn’t quite add up, so I was a little bit curious, but that’s not necessarily an uncommon thing,” said the rabbi, who soon that day would lead a religious service for the 157 membership families of his congregation, established in 1999.

Because of the recent coronavirus surge, many of Congregation Beth Israel’s members had stayed home on Saturday to watch the weekly prayers via Facebook or Zoom.

Services began at 10 a.m.

As the rabbi led the prayers — his back turned as he faced toward Jerusalem — he heard a click. It came from the stranger.

“And it turned out, that it was his gun,” Cytron-Walker said.

Akram took four people hostage, including the rabbi, authorities said.

‘I’m going to die at the end of this’

Police got an emergency call at 10:41 a.m.

They rushed to the synagogue and set up a perimeter, evacuating residents nearby, police said. Soon, nearly 200 local, state and federal law enforcement, including the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were on hand, FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno said.

Meantime, the livestream — intended for the faithful who’d stayed home to be safe from Covid-19 — appeared to capture some of what Akram was saying.

“I’m gunned up. I’m ammo-ed up,” he told someone he called nephew. “Guess what, I will die,”

The audio can be difficult to understand, and it’s not clear whom Akram is talking to. But it’s clear he planned to die during the standoff, he repeatedly told people.

“OK, are you listening? I don’t want you to cry. Listen! I’m going to release these four guys … But then I’m going to go in the yard, yeah? … And they’re going to take me, alright? I’m going to die at the end of this, alright? Are you listening? I am going to die! OK? So, don’t cry over me,” the man said to someone else.

Congregation member Stacey Silverman watched the livestream for more than an hour. She heard the suspect ranting, sometimes switching between saying, “I’m not a criminal,” to apologies, she said.

The man vacillated among languages and was “screaming hysterically,” she said. He claimed to have a bomb.

Akram also “spoke repeatedly about a convicted terrorist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States,” the FBI said in a statement. The convict is believed to be Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani with a PhD in neuroscience who is serving a federal prison sentence in Fort Worth after being found guilty 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.

At one point in the synagogue — at the suspect’s request — the rabbi being held hostage called a well-known rabbi in New York City so the suspect could say Siddiqi was framed and he wanted her released, two officials briefed on investigation said.

As hours ticked on, law enforcement negotiators had a “high frequency and duration of contact” with the suspect, DeSarno said. The FBI called out its Hostage Rescue Team from Quantico, Virginia, and some 60 to 70 people came to the site, Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller said.

One hostage — a man — was released unharmed around 5 p.m., Colleyville Police Sgt. Dara Nelson said. The hostage-taker did not harm the hostages, the rabbi told CBS.

But, he added, they were threatened the entire time.

A thrown chair activates a bold escape

With threats and attacks targeting Jewish people growing more common in recent years, Cytron-Walker and his congregation had participated in security courses with law enforcement agencies, he said.

As Saturday afternoon rolled to the night — and the hostage-taker’s demeanor began to change — that training helped the rabbi and the two others still held against their will.

“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said Sunday in a statement. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”

As Akram’s demeanor deteriorated, the rabbi crafted a plan with the remaining hostages.

“We were terrified,” Cytron-Walker told CBS. “And when I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position, I made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were ready to go.

“The exit wasn’t too far away. I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door,” he said. “And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”

At about 9:12 p.m., a CNN team near the synagogue heard a loud boom, the result of entry tools used by the Hostage Rescue Team, an ATF spokesperson told CNN.

Then came a short blast of rapid gunfire.

The rescue team breached the synagogue, Miller said. The suspect was killed.

None of the four hostages was harmed, DeSarno said.

More booms echoed as the tactical team disposed of leftover entry explosives brought by the rescue team. Crime scene investigators recovered one firearm they believe belonged to the suspect, the ATF spokesperson said. An ATF dog found no more explosives, the spokesperson said.

‘The time to heal our community has begun’

On Sunday morning, Cytron-Walker took to Facebook, this time to express his gratitude to those who supported him throughout Saturday’s ordeal.

“I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support, all of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all of the security training that helped save us,” he wrote in the Facebook post.

“I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the CBI Community, the Jewish Community, the Human Community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive,” Cytron-Walker said in the post.

Nothing suggests the threat posed by Akram is continuing, officials said. The investigation into the case and its motive is likely to be global, DeSarno added, including contacts with Tel Aviv and London.

Initially, the FBI, based on its exchanges, found the suspect to be “singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community, but we’ll continue to work to find motive,” DeSarno said.

On Monday, the agency called Saturday’s attack “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted,” according to a statement. The case “is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

Congregation Beth Israel will hold a special service at Monday night to help the community put the “terrible event behind” them “and be thankful for a good result,” according to a post on its Facebook page.

“We are strong. We are resilient,” it said. “The time to heal our community has begun.”

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