What made it possible for a British extremist to attack a Texas synagogue?

Authorities need to review how extremism is detected and deterred before the perpetrator takes action

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel addresses reporters during a news conference at Colleyville Centre on Friday. AP Photo
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Having travelled from northern England to the wilds of Texas to take hostages in a synagogue, Malik Faisal Akram could not be described as an accidental terrorist. Indeed, his trajectory encapsulated some of the darkest threats to life at play in the world.

According to leaked audio of the man’s final phone call, he had nurtured his attack plan for just about the entire period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Akram had, before that, been in some of the UK’s prisons that are most prone to extremist radicalisation among the population.

His demand for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistan-born US terrorist, touched on a core cause resonating among Al Qaeda sympathisers. Choosing to use a synagogue siege to further his demands was an act predicated on anti-Semitism and the conviction that the power of Jewish communities runs unseen but absolute through the political elites.

Whatever internal thoughts and motives were at play for Akram may never be properly established. Looking at the early factors, there is an amalgam of history, heritage and ideology in the attack. Blackburn, the English town that Akram left last year, is one of a string of old industrial conurbations where pandemic has represented a successive blow after years of decline.

Akram says he made his pledge to free Siddiqui to a brother.

Malik Faisal Akram is seen in this handout photo taken at a faith-based daytime outreach centre in Dallas, Texas. Reuters
UK Security Minister Damian Hinds during a visit to the Joint Police and Fire Command and Control in Liverpool in November. AP Photo

Damian Hinds, the UK security minister, has a new term for the type of security threat posed by the conditions of lockdown in 2020 and 2021: self-initiated terrorists. Speaking late last year, Mr Hinds's words can now be read as anticipating the type of action that was perpetrated by Akram.

Explaining the spectrum of dangers, he said there should be no loss of focus by the authorities. “Islamist extremism terrorism, though, remains a potent threat,” he said. “We also have quite a few people who you might describe as having a sort of mixed or unclear or unstable mindset. Sometimes they are looking at flirting with different ideologies, different groups, sometimes apparently mutually exclusive – very, very different types of ideology.”

Not many could have predicted that a man would leave desolate northern England, fly to New York and find his way down to Texas. But intelligence failures are apparent because he had criminal convictions that should have barred him from entering America. Considering his trip happened just after the US opened up to travellers from the UK, one is driven to ask whether the long interregnum meant that the information-exchange systems were not working.

Akram was, by his own words, spurred by his death-bed promise to his now dead brother Gulzameer, a man who was a master forger previously jailed for operating a money printing press in his house.

FILE - Protesters rally near the U. S.  consulate in Karachi, Pakistan on Thursday, Sept.  23, 2010, to condemn the arrest of alleged Al-Qaida suspect Aafia Siddiqui.  (AP Photo / Shakil Adil, File)

When in the US, Akram’s phone records reveal that he zeroed in on Jewish religious figures that he wanted to target. He searched for influential rabbis, according to The Washington Post, including Angela Buchdahl, who had been named in most powerful lists.

By these means, he zeroed in on the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue near Dallas. He was also searching for gun shops, eventually buying his stolen weapon on the street. He searched online for information about Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence for a plot to kill US soldiers. Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born scientist, is often a focus for Al Qaeda-inspired extremists.

Akram’s generational pull would have been to that stream of extremism. Those radicalised by ISIS terrorists tend to focus on death rates and extreme violence, having been instructed in operational details online. Akram, instead, was prepared for a long siege. He asked his hostages to call Buchdahl, to whom he referred as a guitar player, so that she would make the demand for Siddiqui’s freedom.

There is plenty in this sorry tale to cause the authorities to review how extremism is detected and deterred before the perpetrator gets to the stage of action.

A general view of Blackburn in northern England where Texas synagogue hostage-taker Malik Faisal Akram is reported to be from. Getty Images
Akram's cultivated extremism means he needed saving from himself

Structural issues within communities such as those in Blackburn need to be addressed. Powerful family dynamics are obviously at play here; another brother pleaded with Akram to give up and ensure that he did not lose his life – advice that proved futile.

The UK’s counterextremism programme, called Prevent, needs to be reinforced. It picked up suspicions about Akram and monitored his views. Eventually, however, the security service MI5 decided on taking no further action and the file was closed.

There is an ongoing national review of Prevent. Mr Hinds seems confident that it operates at an “industrial scale” and that it has the standing to cope with the threats the country faces. In fact, this incident should stand as an empowering moment for counterextremism in the UK and beyond.

Mr Hinds talked about the diffusion of motives and the make-up of terrorists. The commonality of anti-Semitism between extremists on both the left and right of the political spectrum needs to be tackled.

Broadening the focus of anti-extremism and raising the systemic ambition that lies behind the programmes means that help could have been available to Akram. For that in the end is critical about Akram, whose cultivated extremism means he needed saving from himself.

Published: January 24, 2022, 5:00 AM