Officials on either side of the Atlantic were investigating on Sunday the movements and motives of a 44-year-old British citizen who flew to Texas and held four people hostage for hours at a Dallas-area synagogue in an incident that traumatized a community and stoked fears of antisemitic violence.
The standoff – which ended with Malik Faisal Akram dead and his hostages escaping – sent shock waves through the local Jewish community, produced widespread denunciations of antisemitism and sparked calls for authorities to do more to ensure safety at synagogues.
During the standoff, Akram brandished a gun and what he said were explosives, according to law enforcement officials. On a live stream that carried part of the ordeal, the gunman could be heard saying he had targeted a synagogue because the United States “only cares about Jewish lives.”
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker – who leads Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, and was among those who survived – credited security training as the reason “we are alive today.”
“I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools, and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses,” he said in a statement issued Sunday.
President Joe Biden said Sunday that he had spoken with Attorney General Merrick Garland about the standoff and that they were working to “address these types of acts.”
“This was an act of terror,” Biden told reporters during a visit to a Philadelphia food bank.
Across the Atlantic, Metropolitan Police and other U.K. authorities said they were working closely with their American counterparts on the U.S.-led investigation. Greater Manchester Police said that Akram had been from Blackburn, in northwest England, and that its counterterrorism investigators were assisting with the inquiry. The department announced late Sunday night that it had taken two teenagers into custody for questioning.
Akram arrived at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 29, according to law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is an ongoing investigation. As the crisis unfolded, he spoke to his family in England, as part of the FBI negotiators’ attempts to defuse the situation, the officials said.
Matthew DeSarno, the FBI special agent in charge of the Dallas field office, confirmed the identity of the Colleyville hostage-taker in a statement Sunday, adding that there was no indication that others were involved.
A law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation said the man’s motive for taking hostages appeared to be his anger over the U.S. imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman being held in federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill U.S. soldiers. Siddiqui was convicted on terrorism charges in 2010 and sentenced to 86 years in prison after opening fire on Americans.
Akram’s brother Gulbar Akram said Sunday that their family was “devastated.”
“We as a family do not condone any of his actions and would like to sincerely apologize wholeheartedly to all the victims involved in the unfortunate incident,” he posted in a WhatsApp chat that a Blackburn Muslim group later posted to Facebook.
He said he was in a room with U.S. law enforcement officers for hours, “liaising with Faisal, the negotiators, FBI.”
“My brother was suffering from mental health issues,” the post said.
Gulbar Akram declined to elaborate on his brother’s mental health.
“There was nothing we could have said to him or done that would have convinced him to surrender,” Gulbar Akram said in the post, which has since been removed from the Blackburn Muslim Community page.
Shiraz Maher, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, said Akram had not been known to Maher’s researchers before he was named by the FBI. Maher said Siddiqui “has been a cause celebre for the jihadist world pretty much since the moment of her arrest.”
It was not clear what might have prompted Akram to act when he did.
“That’s the main thing we’re looking at,” he said. “So far we don’t have much. It does seem very random. Why now?”
Anjem Choudary, a U.K.-based extremist cleric, said that he did not know Akram, but that he would use publicity from the incident to try to raise Siddiqui’s profile.
“I think that this is the time to talk about her again; I’m sure other people will feel the same,” he said. “I’m not surprised that people are doing whatever they can to seek her release.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, in which he confirmed writing the WhatsApp message, Gulbar Akram said the hostages had not been in danger of losing their lives.
“I was there in the incident room,” he told The Post. “I know my brother wouldn’t hurt the hostages. He didn’t have it in him. I’m not excusing what he did.”
But Cytron-Walker, the rabbi, suggested the situation had been far more precarious.
“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” he said. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been able to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”
The ordeal – part of which was caught on a live stream – shook many in Colleyville, a suburb between Fort Worth and Dallas, where Cytron-Walker is known for his humanitarian and interfaith work. Several people who know the rabbi said they believed his calm demeanor was vital during the tense moments of the standoff.
“The way he was able to comport himself with clarity and strength and gentleness was quite remarkable,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the country’s biggest Jewish denomination.
After getting word of the crisis, Jacobs logged on to the synagogue’s live stream and caught part of Cytron-Walker’s exchange with the suspect. Jacobs described the congregation as “very serious about security,” declining to provide details and noting that it was a delicate matter.
“This is a congregation that was well aware of the things that must be done to keep congregations secure,” he said.
The Jewish Federations of North America announced Sunday that they are accelerating the launch of a new security program, setting a new rollout date for early February.
“We have no time to spare when it comes to securing the Jewish community,” said Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Eric Fingerhut. “This is just the latest, stark example of why Federations are working to expand communal security services to every Jewish community across the nation.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Sunday that the Colleyville synagogue targeted in the hostage-taking previously had received a DHS grant that’s typically used by houses of worship to improve security measures and launch anti-extremism programs.
Mayorkas said funding must be increased to help houses of worship confront growing threats from violent extremists. In the last fiscal year, Mayorkas said, the DHS gave out $180 million in grants to help nonprofits and houses of worship with security enhancements such as installing cameras or hiring a guard.
“The harsh reality is that we are seeing a continuing rise in the language of hate and its connectivity to violence,” Mayorkas said. “We need to ensure that we not only protect our houses of worship, and all places of assembly, but that we become aware of the signs that someone is going down a path toward violence.”
Security training for Beth Israel representatives was conducted by the Secure Community Network (SCN), a group dedicated to protecting the North American Jewish community, according to CEO Michael Masters.
The training was not prompted by any specific security threat, Masters and other SCN leaders said in a call with reporters Sunday. They said the session covered basic safety practices and how to respond to violent intruders but declined to “speculate” on what security measures were used Saturday, including whether those entering the synagogue were checked for weapons.
“The reality for us is that this can happen any day, anywhere,” Masters said. “Every time we have responded to an incident . . . we have heard someone utter the phrase, ‘I never thought it could happen here.’ We have to move beyond that mind-set.”
Cytron-Walker, originally from Lansing, Mich., has a long career of working for social and humanitarian causes. He previously worked at a civil rights and human rights organization in Detroit and later as an assistant director of a center in Amherst, Mass., that provides food and other services to those in need, according to a biography posted on the congregation’s website.
Andrea Portnoy-Curreri, a longtime member of the local Jewish community, called Cytron-Walker “a beautiful soul.” Watching the live stream as he and the other hostages endured the standoff, Portnoy-Curreri said, had been deeply upsetting.
“Being a Jew in America is very difficult. Being a Jew in Texas is very difficult,” she said. “Yesterday was a triggering of the collective trauma that Jews have experienced and are experiencing now more than we have in decades.”
In his statement Sunday, Cytron-Walker agreed that the day had been “traumatic,” but he expressed gratitude for an outpouring of support and optimism for his community.
“We appreciate all the love, prayers and support from our local community and throughout the world,” he said. “We are grateful for the outcome. We are resilient and we will recover.”
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The Washington Post’s Hannah Allam, Michelle Boorstein, William Booth, Drew Harwell, Hannah Knowles, Souad Mekhennet, Bryan Pietsch, and María Luisa Paúl, Annabelle Timsit and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.