Sometimes, Malik Faisal Akram stood out, in unsettling ways. Back home in Blackburn, in England’s industrial north, he was the guy who was banned from the local courthouse after he threatened officials there. In his short stay in Texas, Akram stuck in the minds of people — at a mosque where he became aggressive when he was told he couldn’t stay overnight and at a Starbucks when workers noticed him as the disheveled customer who sat for half an hour, constantly looking around as he nursed his cappuccinos.
But along his 4,600-mile journey from Britain to the Colleyville, Texas, synagogue where Akram would hold four hostages for 11 hours before being killed by law enforcement officers last Sunday, the 44-year-old terrorist also managed impressive stealth, entering the United States without a hitch, eluding notice in New York for several days, and wandering around Dallas and its suburbs for two weeks without attracting much attention.
Nearly a week after Akram terrorized the rabbi and three members of Congregation Beth Israel, investigators are still examining where he slept, how he moved around and with whom he associated during his 18 days in the United States.
He evidently knew some people: After he arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 29, Akram bought a cellphone and made calls to someone at a New York number, according to investigators. After Akram landed in Dallas around New Year’s Day, he met up with a man who took him to a center for homeless people, walked him inside and embraced him before saying farewell.
The FBI said Friday that it has learned many details about Akram’s movements and contacts, although key questions remain outstanding, such as how he obtained the gun he brandished at Beth Israel. As recently as late this week, FBI agents were still knocking on doors at motels and checking footage from surveillance cameras in an effort to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
“This was both a hate crime and an act of terrorism … rooted in antisemitism,” the FBI’s special agent in charge of its Dallas office, Matthew DeSarno, said Friday, adding that the investigation will continue.
What is known is that Akram began the trip he knew would end in his death at home in Blackburn, a heavily Muslim town filled with Pakistani and Indian immigrants — including Akram’s parents.
Akram grew up in a religiously conservative neighborhood. His father, Malik, founded a small mosque, one of more than 40 Muslim houses of worship in the town of 120,000 people.
Akram had struggled with mental illness, according to his younger brother, Gulbar, who declined to elaborate.
In 2001, days after the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 Americans, took down the World Trade Center and opened a flaming gash in the Pentagon, Akram was banned from court buildings in Blackburn after he told a court usher that he wished he had been on one of the planes used as weapons of war on Sept. 11. The ban was the first issued by the Blackburn court in 25 years.
It wasn’t Akram’s first brush with the law. He had been sent a warning letter several months earlier after he was accused of abusing and threatening staffers at the Northgate courthouse, according to local news reports.
A letter from Deputy Justice Clerk Peter Wells informed Akram of the ban, saying that “Once again you were threatening and abusive towards court staff … This caused a great deal of distress to an individual who was simply doing his job and should not be subjected to your foul abuse.”
“I’m innocent,” Akram told the Lancashire Telegraph at the time. “People at the court have just got it in for me because they don’t like me.”
Akram was convicted of theft and harassment in 2012, according to a letter from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., to FBI and Homeland Security officials seeking details on the investigation.
MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence and security agency, investigated Akram and put him on a watch list in 2020 as a “subject of interest.” But the authorities concluded that he did not pose any imminent threat of terrorism.
Akram’s family had no idea that Faisal, as he was known, planned to leave the country, Gulbar said, leaving him to wonder: “He’s known to police. Got a criminal record. How was he allowed to get a visa and acquire a gun?”
Akram arrived at JFK Airport in New York on Dec. 29, drawing no special attention as he cleared the immigration and customs area. He wasn’t known to U.S. intelligence or law enforcement, DeSarno said Friday, and a federal government official confirmed that Akram had not previously visited the United States.
As a British citizen, Akram entered the country under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows people from 40 countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, according to Homeland Security officials.
A Homeland Security official who spoke Friday on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation said Akram was vetted as any other traveler would be under that program, with his name run “through several federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ databases … No derogatory information associated with this individual was found prior to his travel to the United States or upon his arrival.”
If U.S. authorities knew of Akram’s arrest record, his case would have been evaluated to determine “whether an individual should be permitted to enter the United States based on the nature of the arrest,” the official said.
The New York address Akram gave immigration authorities was that of the Queens Hotel, a tidy little place on Queens Boulevard about 10 miles from the airport. The hotel is often the first property to pop up on a Google search for “Hotel in Queens,” or “Queens Hotel.” A room goes for about $80, though it would have been more during Christmas week.
But the hotel has no record of a guest with Akram’s name staying there on Dec. 29 or 30, said Ann Lin, who works at the hotel’s front desk. Lin didn’t recognize Akram’s photograph beyond a vague sense that he looked like “many guests with a beard like that who stay here,” she said.
Staffers at two nearby mosques and another hotel said they did not recognize a photo of Akram.
Soon after he got to New York, Akram bought a cellphone with a New York area code and made several calls to another local number, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. The authorities have identified that person, who does not appear to have participated in Akram’s plan, the official said.
By tracing data from Akram’s phone and computer, American and British investigators have cobbled together an outline of his movements and online searches as he searched for a target, officials said.
Akram believed that Jews hold enormous political power and could achieve the release of Aafia Siddiqui, an American-educated Pakistani who is a convicted terrorist in a federal facility in Fort Worth. She is serving an 86-year sentence for shooting at U.S. soldiers and FBI agents. With that apparently in mind, Akram used his new phone to search for names of U.S. rabbis, officials said.
He focused on Angela Buchdahl, the senior rabbi at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, one of the country’s largest Reform Jewish congregations. Investigators believe Akram saw Buchdahl mentioned on online lists of influential rabbis and decided she had the political prowess to get Siddiqui released.
During the hostage standoff in Texas, Akram would demand that Beth Israel’s rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, get Buchdahl on the phone.
“He mentioned her by name, because he knew that she played guitar … He thought that she was the most influential rabbi,” Cytron-Walker said Thursday in an online forum hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.
It’s not clear where Akram stayed in New York or what else he did there, but during the hostage situation, he claimed he had planted explosives in Manhattan and Brooklyn “potentially in and around synagogues, and that he had associates in New York,” according to Mitch Silber, director of a community security initiative at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Investigators have concluded that those claims were baseless, officials said.
By New Year’s Day, Akram had flown to Dallas. He showed up that evening at the Islamic Center of Irving, just south of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and 13 miles from Congregation Beth Israel.
During evening prayer, sometime between 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Akram arrived at the mosque and soon became aggressive, said Khalid Hamideh, a lawyer and spokesman for the Islamic Center.
After joining in the final prayer, Akram asked a security guard whether he could stay overnight in the mosque. The guard summoned a staff member, who told Akram that no one could sleep there because of city and mosque regulations, Hamideh said.
Akram shattered the solemn quiet of the room, angrily addressing the staffer, Hamideh said.
“You will be judged by God for not helping a fellow Muslim,” Akram said loudly. “I’m from a good family.”
The lawyer said Akram accused the staff member of “not helping out a fellow brother in the faith.”
Hamideh said Akram was carrying a backpack large enough to hold a weapon.
“God knows if he already had acquired the gun,” Hamideh said.
Akram was not searched, Hamideh said: “We don’t search anybody. Maybe we’ll start.”
Video from the mosque’s surveillance cameras revealed that Akram left that evening but returned the next morning, Jan. 2, at about 6 a.m. for morning prayers.
“His whole attitude changed,” Hamideh said. “He was humble. You can see him praying. He’s low-keyed, peaceful. When he was praying, he was praying alone,” to the side of the small prayer group.
After sunrise, sometime between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., the mosque’s 80 surveillance cameras followed Akram as he walked out of the prayer room and into a hallway, where he put on his shoes and left, walking alone toward a busy four-lane road.
Over the next few days, Akram returned to the mosque at least once, possibly twice, wearing the same clothes he had on during his first visit, Hamideh said.
Akram — now “calm, cool, collected,” according to the lawyer — sought out the staff member he had confronted earlier and “apologized for his behavior on the previous night,” Hamideh said, “and asked for permission just to use the sanctuary to conduct his prayer.”
Akram sat in on a halaqa, a session devoted to study of Koranic texts.
“His visits after the first visit were all very nice, formal, professional, low key,” Hamideh said.
By the evening of Jan. 2, Akram had made his way 17 miles to the east, to a homeless shelter in a scruffy industrial zone just across Interstate 30 from downtown Dallas.
At 10:01 p.m., Akram was escorted into the intake unit of the OurCalling shelter by an unidentified man who had driven him there, according to Wayne Walker, the facility’s chief executive.
The man — heavyset, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and a black beanie — embraced Akram, patting him on the back several times before walking away, according to surveillance video shown to The Washington Post. The video has been turned over to the FBI.
“We have no idea who that person is,” said Patrick Palmer, chief advancement officer at the shelter, part of a Christian ministry for the homeless.
Akram and the man who accompanied him appeared to be familiar with each other, talking in the parking lot on their way in, Walker said.
Other than that, though, among the 191 people who went into the shelter on a frigid night when the Dallas temperature fell to 18 degrees, “there was nothing that stood out about” Akram, said Ed Johnson, the shelter’s programs director, who checked Akram in.
Inside, Akram took a rapid test for the coronavirus and answered routine intake questions: Was he a veteran? Did he have insurance? Any income?
Akram allowed staff to take his photo and provided his real name, Walker said.
Akram did not answer a question about where he had come from, Walker said. People who stay at the shelter are not searched.
Akram “identified himself as living on the streets,” Palmer said, and was given a spot on the floor where he could sleep.
He left OurCalling at about 8 a.m., after getting a to-go breakfast. Akram did not return for lunch, Palmer said, and executives at OurCalling didn’t see Akram again until his name emerged in media reports about the Beth Israel incident.
It’s not clear where Akram spent his days or nights through most of the first week of the new year. At a Super 8 motel half a mile from the Irving mosque, FBI agents paid a visit Thursday, asking whether Akram had stayed there, according to a desk clerk. The clerk told The Post that Akram’s name does not appear in the $57-a-night motel’s computer system.
Between Jan. 6 and Jan. 13, Akram turned up on three nights at Union Gospel Mission Dallas, a homeless shelter, according to its chief executive, Bruce Butler.
“We were a way station for him,” he said. “He was very quiet. He was in and out.”
Akram left the mission for the last time on the morning of Jan. 13, two days before he showed up at Beth Israel, according to Gospel Mission records.
During his time in and around Dallas, Akram searched on his phone for gun shops and pawnshops in the area, law enforcement officials said.
But authorities traced the handgun he brandished at Beth Israel, concluding that he bought it on the street, not at a business. The gun’s last legal sale was recorded in early 2020. Later that year, it was reported stolen from a hotel room, officials said.
While Akram was in Texas, his web searches fixated on Siddiqui, who is imprisoned at a medical unit of a federal prison in Fort Worth following a July incident in which another inmate attacked her, burning her face with “scalding hot liquid,” according to a lawsuit filed on Siddiqui’s behalf.
Akram also searched for the names of rabbis he believed to be politically influential — and for a synagogue close to where Siddiqui is being held, leading him to focus on Beth Israel, DeSarno said.
On Friday, Jan. 14, Akram wandered around Colleyville, a suburb of 26,000 people just west of DFW airport. He spent 16 hours somewhere in the synagogue’s area, “walking around with what I have in my bag, and with my ammo,” he told police negotiators during the early hours of the standoff, according to a live stream of the Sabbath service that aired on Facebook Live.
On Saturday morning, before going to Beth Israel, Akram visited a Starbucks less than a mile away. Two baristas noticed the tall, disheveled man wearing a puffy black jacket and carrying a blue backpack.
After ordering, Akram asked a barista for the time. It was 8:43 a.m., she recalled.
Akram stood out in part because of his strong accent, which one barista said she had trouble understanding as he ordered a tall cappuccino, and because he proceeded to sit at a corner table for somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, staring at his phone and frequently looking around him.
He ordered a second cappuccino; when he finished it, he hurried out.
He arrived by bicycle at Congregation Beth Israel, a sand-colored building set well back from the road, officials said Friday. It’s a four-minute ride from the Starbucks to the temple, which sits on a street of large houses, near the local middle school and Baptist and Catholic churches.
The 10 a.m. Sabbath service was about to begin, with only four congregants attending in person; most worshippers would watch online as a precaution against the coronavirus. That evening, Beth Israel members were scheduled to gather for Trivia Night.
Akram knocked on the synagogue’s locked glass door.
“He was looking for a place to warm up,” Jeffrey Cohen, the congregation’s vice president and one of the hostages, told MSNBC. “And we invited him in, the rabbi gave him a cup of tea, he let him sit in the back.”
Cohen greeted the man.
“He was quite jovial, he was friendly,” he said. “He was on the phone, so I let him go onto the phone.”
The service began. More than half an hour in, the rabbi began the Amidah, the core of the prayer service, recited while facing Jerusalem.
“And then we heard — or I heard, excuse me — that unmistakable click of a semiautomatic being loaded,” Cohen said.
Akram started yelling.
Eleven terrifying hours would follow.
Along the way, Akram spoke on the phone to his brother Gulbar, who urged him to release the hostages, serve time in prison and return to his family. Akram shouted that he intended to die.
“I’m going to go toe-to-toe with [police], and they can shoot me dead,” he said. “I’m coming home in a body bag.”
Down the block, a Colleyville police officer banged on the door of a neighbor’s house.
“You guys got a car?” the officer asked. “OK, go ahead and get in it and head out of here. We got a situation next door.”
Through long hours of negotiation, Akram was at times calm and conversational, at times angry and erratic, according to two hostages. Finally, the FBI’s DeSarno said Friday, “the situation had gone from bad to significantly worse” as Akram realized that his demand for Siddiqui’s release would not be met. When Akram had a glass of juice in his hand, the rabbi saw his moment, threw a chair at his captor and urged the other hostages out the door.
Seconds after the hostages ran to safety, police moved in. After a big bang and two spurts of gunfire, Akram was dead.
An autopsy report released Friday said he died at 9:22 p.m. of “multiple gunshot wounds.”
Douglas reported from Colleyville; Zapotosky and Fisher from Washington. The Washington Post’s William Booth in Blackburn, England; Jack Wright in New York and Devlin Barrett, Mark Berman, Souad Mekhennet, Nick Miroff, Maria Sacchetti and Paulina Villegas in Washington contributed to this report.