Photo: Reuters

Hostages freed in US synagogue attack

Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, was killed after the safe release of his 4 Jewish hostages from the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas on Saturday night, said the FBI.

By Erin Viner

“This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” an FBI statement read.

SWAT teams from the Colleyville Police Department responded to the emergency calls about an armed gunman at the synagogue, about 16 miles (26 km) northeast of Fort Worth at about 10:41 AM. Akram burst into the house of worship during Sabbath service and took Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and 3 worshippers hostage.

FBI negotiators soon opened contact with the suspect. He demanded the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who he erroneously claimed was his sister. Siddiqui, suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda, is serving an 86-year sentence in US federal prison in the Fort Worth area after being convicted in 2010 conviction for shooting at soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan.

Akram was heard having a one-sided phone conversation during a Facebook livestream of the service, during which he was ranting about religion and “his sister.”

One hostage was released unharmed after six hours. The remaining three were later safely freed by an FBI Hostage Rescue Team that stormed the synagogue Saturday night, ending a 10-hour standoff. It is unclear whether the gunman took his own life or was slain by members of the FBI hostage rescue team.

US President Joe Biden said yesterday that the gunman had used weapons he got off the street to commit “an act of terror.” The President added, “He purchased them when he landed and it turns out there apparently were no bombs that we know of. … Apparently he spent the first night in a homeless shelter. I don’t have all the details yet so I’m reluctant to go into much more detail.”

Akram’s brother Gulbar posted on Facebook that the suspect, from the industrial town of Blackburn, in the north of England, suffered from mental illness and said the family had spent all night at the local police station “liaising with Faisal, the negotiators, FBI etc.” “There was nothing we could have said to him or done that would have convinced him to surrender,” Gulbar wrote on the Blackburn Muslim Community’s Facebook page.

He said the the family “do not condone any of his actions and would like to sincerely apologize wholeheartedly to all the victims involved in the unfortunate incident.”

In the United Kingdom, the Greater Manchester Police issued a statement yesterday saying officers from Counter Terror Policing North West “have made two arrests in relation to the incident” in Texas, adding that the two teenagers detained “remain in custody for questioning.”

Synagogues in New York and elsewhere in the US bolstered security in response, and officials condemned anti-Semitic acts.

“What happened yesterday at Congregation Beth Israel is a reminder that we must speak up and combat antisemitism and hate wherever it exists,” US Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement. “Everyone has a right to pray, work, study, and spend time with loved ones not as the other – but as us.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett began his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday saying, “After a night full of worry, we are greatly relieved. With God’s help, the hostages at the Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, have been freed.”

The Israeli leader expressed thanks to “the law enforcement agencies for their swift response and courageous action that brought the hostages home safely to their loved ones.”

“This event is a stark reminder that the dark forces of anti-Semitism still exist. We must and we will fight it,” said Prime Minister Bennett, underscoring, “To the Jewish community in the US and Diaspora Jewry around the world, I say: You are not alone. We are one family and we stand strong and united together.”

According to a statement TV7 obtained from the Prime Minister’s Media Advisor, Bennett later spoke with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whom he thanked “for the determined and professional action by the law enforcement authorities in his state, which brought the incident to a peaceful conclusion,” as well as for the Governor’s “steadfast solidarity with the Jewish community in Colleyville in particular and in Texas as a whole, his support for Israel and his fight against anti-Semitism and the BDS movement.” Prime Minister Bennett invited Governor Abbott to visit Israel and he two men agreed to be in contact as necessary.

Prime Minister Bennett also spoke with Rabbi Cytron-Walker, who relayed “his harrowing account of the incident, the courageous rescue by law enforcement teams and the resilience of his Jewish community,” according to a separate statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I was so relieved to hear that you and the other hostages are safe and sound. Your leadership in this time of crisis was admirable. Israel stands united with the Jewish community in Colleyville,” Prime Minister Bennett told the Rabbi, adding, “I was praying here for your safety together with the rest of Israel and we are so relieved that you’re ok. Please send strength to your congregation. We are brothers.”