DALLAS — President Joe Biden said Sunday the British national who held four people hostage inside a Colleyville synagogue was armed with a gun apparently “purchased on the street.” The president said the hostage-taker spent his first night in Texas at a homeless shelter, and speculated that he might have gotten a gun there.
Also on Sunday, Greater Manchester police in England said they detained two teenagers in connection with the gunman who took four people hostage for more than 11 hours over the weekend in Colleyville.
Greater Manchester police tweeted about the arrests but released few details about why counterterrorism officers detained the teens. It was unclear what connection, if any, the teens had to 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram, who died after Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the three other hostages escaped unharmed and authorities swarmed the building. Authorities have not said how Akram died.
The FBI said early Sunday that Akram appeared to be the sole suspect. A spokeswoman for the Dallas office referred questions to British authorities and said the FBI hadn’t changed its statement. British law gives police wide latitude to make arrests during a terrorism investigation, and diplomats counseled against drawing any conclusions.
Biden, speaking from Philadelphia, said Akram might have been in the U.S. for only a few weeks. Citing a senior law enforcement official, NBC Nightly News reported that Akram arrived in the U.S. at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 29.
“This was an act of terror,” Biden said, adding that he doesn’t know why Congregation Beth Israel was targeted, or “why he insisted on the release of someone who’s been a prisoner for over 10 years” and used “antisemitic and anti-Israeli” language.
He said there were no bombs that authorities know of, despite the attacker’s claims that he planted some.
Biden said that he had spoken with Attorney General Merrick Garland and that they were working to “address these types of acts.” The president said he’d “put a call in to the rabbi” but indicated they hadn’t connected yet.
Biden also praised law enforcement. “They did one hell of a job,” he said. “Thank God. Thank God.”
An 11-hour standoff
Colleyville police were called to the synagogue in the 6100 block of Pleasant Run Road about 10:40 a.m. Saturday.
The synagogue was holding its Shabbat service, which began at 10 a.m. The service was streamed live on Facebook, and a man could be heard speaking. At times the man sounded angry and said he was going to die. The livestream was removed just before 2 p.m.
FBI negotiators were in constant contact with the hostage-taker throughout the day, officials said. Shortly after 5 p.m., authorities were seen bringing a hostage, a man in black yarmulke, out of the building.
A loud bang was heard at the synagogue just after 9 p.m. Authorities said that was around the time that the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team breached the building.
Video from WFAA-TV 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.
Cytron-Walker said Sunday that the experience was traumatizing. He said in a statement that the hostage-taker grew “increasingly belligerent and threatening” toward the end of the standoff, adding that he feels grateful to be alive and “we are resilient and we will recover.”
He credited security training that his congregation has received over the years for helping him and the other hostages to get through the situation.
“Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself,” Cytron-Walker said.
During the standoff, Akram demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence for shooting at two U.S. military officers during an interrogation. Her lawyer, Marwa Elbially, said Sunday that his client condemns Akram’s actions, and “unequivocally condemns all forms of violence.”
“We are all thankful that the hostages were safely released and that no one was harmed,” Elbially said during a virtual news conference.
Siddiqui is being held at a federal prison in Fort Worth, about 20 miles southwest of the synagogue.
Faizan Syed, director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that Siddiqui’s family and those campaigning for her release from prison did not know the hostage-taker.
“We want to make it very clear that the actions of this individual do not represent Dr. Siddiqui, her family or her campaign, and we want to deter anybody who might have sympathies for her campaign to not take these types of actions in the future,” Syed told reporters during the news conference with Siddiqui’s lawyer. “This is something that is appalling, heinous and against the wishes of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.”
Saleema Gul, a representative of The Aafia Foundation, added the Houston-based group’s sympathy for the hostages and their families.
“We do not condone the incident that took place yesterday, or any other means to secure Dr. Aafia’s freedom other than through advocacy and legal means,” Gul said.
In September, pro-ISIS British preacher Anjem Choudary launched a campaign calling for Siddiqui’s release. “The obligation upon us is to either free her physically or to ransom her or to exchange her,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
The post asserted that Siddiqui was the victim of “huge injustice” and that he aimed “to call on those who have the ability to free her from captivity.”
The architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, described her to interrogators as a top al-Qaida courier and financier, though her supporters discount that and say his statement was the result of torture. U.S. officials came to describe her as “Lady al-Qaida,” and the FBI placed her on its list of seven-most-wanted terrorists in 2004. She was caught four years later and convicted in 2010 of trying to shoot two interrogators.
Militants have tried to use hostages as leverage to secure her release for over a decade.
An outpouring of support
Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley of Temple Shalom, a Reform congregation in Dallas, said in an email to his congregation that authorities asked him to help care for the hostages after they escaped.
Paley said the first hostage released was an elderly man who was reunited with his daughter.
“I was able to speak to both of them and both were obviously relieved and in general good spirits,” the rabbi wrote.
Paley said he then met with the rabbi’s wife, Adena Cytron-Walker, and one of their daughters, as well as relatives of the other hostages.
After the rescue, he hugged Cytron-Walker, saying later he was “a little dazed and surprised” but smiling.
Concerns about rising antisemitism
The U.S. Department of Justice released data in the fall showing a 42% increase in hate crimes nationally since 2014. The data identified Jews as the most targeted religious group in America.
In 2018, a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Tree of Life, while yelling antisemitic slurs. Paley said the Colleyville attack brought to the surface feelings of anger and sadness that “this terrible event is sadly not new to the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers of Tree of Life said in a statement his heart was heavy seeing the Colleyville attack.
“While everyone is physically safe, they are also forever changed,” Meyers said. “My own community knows too well the pain, trauma and lost sense of security that comes when violence forces its way in, especially into our sacred spaces.”
Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas wrote in a tweet that while the immediate crisis is over for Congregation Beth Israel and the Jewish community, “the fear of rising antisemitism remains.”
Rabbi Gary Zola, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, said he hopes there comes a point where people aren’t afraid to go into synagogues, mosques or churches because of incidents like the Colleyville standoff. He urged people to speak up and work together.
“It’s very fair to say that there’s heightened distress in American Jewish life,” said Zola, who taught Cytron-Walker while he was a student at the Ohio school. “There’s really heightened concern about issues of security. There’s a great sadness that we have to close the doors to our synagogues to the world outside.”
Organizations, politicians and community leaders across the world have released statements condemning the standoff and urging solidarity. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a tweet that Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called him to thank law enforcement for saving the hostages.
Paley, the Dallas rabbi, said he felt moved by the outpouring of love and support by many faith communities. He wrote that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and “so many others” prayed together for justice, and some came onsite to help.
“We will always remain vigilant and careful to make sure we are safe and secure,” Paley wrote. “But we will also not give up the fight to put an end to the violence and evil that persist in our midst; to the antisemitism that continues to rear its ugly head, to the xenophobia that has no place in our homes or in our hearts.”
The US Council of Muslim Organizations said in a written statement Sunday that there was no excuse for the “evil, unjust, and unjustifiable hostage-taking,” adding that Muslims across the country stand with the broader American Jewish community.
(Dallas Morning News staff writers Maggie Prosser and Hojun Choi contributed to this report.)