Texas synagogue hostages released safely after 11-hour standoff; captor killed
An 11-hour standoff at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, ended late Saturday night with the rabbi and other hostages released safely and the suspect dead, police and political officials said. The suspect, a 44-year-old British national named Malik Faisal Akram, disrupted Shabbat-morning services as they were being livestreamed on Facebook and held its rabbi and several others until law-enforcement agents rescued them around 9:30 p.m. local time.
“It’s incredibly shocking and horrifying,” Ellen Smith, who has been a member of the congregation since she was a child and was watching the livestream, told CNN.
The hostages included Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb. More than 200 law enforcement officials were at the scene, and one hostage was released unharmed at about 5 p.m. local time.
The FBI reached out to colleagues in Tel Aviv and London and said it does not believe this incident is part of an ongoing global threat against Jewish communities. The British government confirmed Sunday that the hostage taker was British, according to Sky News.
“There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker,” President Biden said Saturday night. “But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate – we will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country. That is who we are, and tonight, the men and women of law enforcement made us all proud.”
According to ABC, the man said he was connected to Aafia Siddiqui, a relative by marriage of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the chief architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Aafia Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in the Fort Worth area for attempting to kill American military personnel after she was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 on suspicion of plotting attacks in New York.
“She has been open and explicit about her antisemitism,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “She insisted that there were no Jews in her jury pool.”
During the ordeal, the man asked Cytron-Walker to call a Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan, one of the best-known rabbis in the country, saying he thought she could help free Siddiqui because of her political connections. The man spoke with Buchdahl twice around midday.
The NYPD deployed a counter-terrorism team to Central out of an abundance of caution. Buchdahl, who is a member of the Forward Association, declined to discuss the situation for security reasons.
The police were called at 10:41 local time, and said they were conducting SWAT operations around the building within the hour. A man could be heard yelling on the livestream, talking about his children, his sister and Islam, and saying he believes he is going to die. At 2 p.m. local time, the live stream went down. None of the four hostages were physically harmed.
“The man claims he and his sister will be going to Jannah (Muslim belief of heaven) after he sees her,” the Colleyville police said said in a statement during the crisis Saturday. The man did not appear to be the biological brother of Siddiqui, and may have been using the term “sister” colloquially to refer to a fellow Muslim.
Jessika Harkay, a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, shared a number of quotes from the livestream in a series of tweets.
“Don’t cry on the f—king phone with me,” a man says at one point. “Don’t f—king cry on me. I have six beautiful kids … There are hostages in the synagogue who are going to die. … What are you crying for?”
“I’m going to die, are you listening?” the man says, repeatedly. “I’m going to die doing this alright? Are you listening? I’m going to die. Don’t cry about me.”
There are about 140 families who belong to the congregation. Because of precautions due to COVID-19, the vast majority of members were watching the services online today, a source said on CNN. One member told the network that they listened to the livestream for more than an hour as the hostage-taker was “ranting and raving.”
Jerry Moore, whose backyard is across from the synagogue, told The New York Times that they could hear the tumult from inside the sanctuary. He said that the suspect “was going on and on about wanting to get his sister out,” then asked each of the hostages how many children they had and said to the hostage negotiator, “Do you want to have seven children lose their parent?”
According to Beth Israel’s website, Cytron-Walker is the congregation’s first full-time rabbi and has been with the congregation since 2006. A native of Lansing, Michigan, Cytron-Walker and his wife have two daughters.
Cytron-Walker served as a past president of the South West Association of Reform Rabbis and received an award from QESHET: A Network of LGBT Reform Rabbis. Before becoming a rabbi, he worked for a human rights organization in Detroit as well as a soup kitchen in Amherst, Massachusetts.
“Even at a young age, Charlie was one of the most engaged members of our synagogue, playing an active role in the temple youth group and serving as song leader,” said Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who grew up with Cytron-Walker at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing, Michigan. Cytron-Walker’s mother is still a member there and the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Amy Bigman, was with her on Saturday night.
Solidarity in Colleyville, Texas
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, of which the synagogue is a member, said that Jewish institutions have taken security seriously for quite some time. “We live in a world that is certainly challenging to many and especially to our Jewish community,” Jacobs told the Forward Saturday evening. “But we also know that we have enormous support from our community, from our interfaith relationships. See how many have already raised their voices in solidarity with us.” He added: “We have to do our Jewish holy work – that is what gives our life meaning.”
Local imams were working with law enforcement to offer their help in talking with the hostage. And representatives of the Anti-Defamation League were on the ground working with the FBI. “Being vigilant is unfortunately part of the American Jewish experience,” the ADL’s Greenblatt said on MSNBC.
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This is the latest in a string of attacks on synagogues in recent years. In October 2018, a shooter killed 11 people in a mass shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, the deadliest antisemitic incident in American history. In April 2019, a gunman killed one woman and injured others during a shooting at the Chabad of Poway that took place on the final day of Passover.
“Collectively, we must spare no effort to ensure that American Jews are safe in their houses of worship and community centers,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations wrote in a statement. “Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and now Colleyville, must not become the ‘new normal’ for our community.”
Edward Ahmed Mitchell of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the attack “an unacceptable act of evil and said: “No cause can justify or excuse this crime.”
The mayor of Dallas, Eric Johnson, said that local police deployed additional patrols to other Dallas synagogues as a precaution.
“I think the shocking part is that it was in my community,” said Smith, the congregant. “It’s not shocking that it was a Jewish community.” She added: “Every single attack is painful, but it is almost inevitable that it will happen again.”
Anna Salton Eisen, who donated the land where the synagogue sits and served as its first president, told The Times that the event had shaken her not just as someone who cares about the congregation, but as the child of Holocaust survivors. “We want to feel safe, not just in the community, but in our world,” she said.
Lauren Markoe, Rob Eshman, Talya Zax, Louis Keene and Robin Washington contributed reporting. The JTA also contributed to this story.