Synagogue siege highlights security threat to places of worship

Anti-Semitic incidents ‘set to hit record high in 2021,’ according to CST advisors

The man who held four people hostage at a Texas synagogue was identified by US authorities as British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, 44, from Blackburn, north-west England. AFP

The fatal shooting of a British gunman who held four people hostage in a Texas synagogue highlights the need for tight security for Jewish communities worldwide, a UK charity has said.

The Community Security Trust, which offers safety and security advice to Jews and Jewish organisations, said Malik Faisal Akram, 44, had not been on its radar because his home town of Blackburn had few Jewish residents.

The CST has reported a surge in anti-Semitism in Britain in the past year. It said figures compiled by the organisation and due to be released next month are likely to show a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK last year following the worst clashes between Israel and the Palestinians since 2014.

They include allegations that four men from Blackburn, in north-west England, travelled to north London, which has a high density of Jewish residents, and shouted anti-Semitic abuse from their car. The men, all in their twenties, are due to stand trial later this year.

The CST’s most recently released annual figures for anti-Semitic incidents, for 2020, were the third-highest recorded in a calendar year.

Many of the 1,668 incidents in the UK were linked to Covid-19. It said Jews in Britain bore the brunt of conspiracy theories that said they were profiting from the pandemic.

The trust has warned of rising anti-Jewish hate crime fostered online in the UK.

In a two-year study, it found about half a million anti-Semitic tweets were made each year.

The CST has highlighted the role of right-wing youth-led movements in Europe in fostering anti-Jewish hatred.

British police said they had arrested two teenagers and were investigating whether Akram had acted alone.

During his day-long siege at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, he had demanded the release of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 and handed to the US authorities.

Siddiqui is serving an 86-year prison sentence for plotting the shooting of US soldiers and FBI agents. During her trial, in 2010, she railed against Jews and objected to the inclusion of members of the jury on the basis of their faith.

Her case has attracted the attention of UK-based extremists with “chequered records” who have called for her release, said Dave Rich, director of policy at CST.

Synagogues in the US have stepped up security in response to the siege in Texas.

“This just confirms why Jewish communities around the the world have such tight security,” said Mr Rich.

“There have been quite a few terror plots over the last decade that involved targeting of the Jewish community [in the UK] but none of them actually have come to fruition and have been stopped by the police.

“This is clearly a question the police will have to work out – how has this guy from Blackburn ended up in a synagogue in Texas that day for that purpose?”

The CST said it was contact with police to discuss “possible British involvement in the incident and any potential impact in the UK”.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews retweeted a message from an American group that found nine in 10 American Jews viewed anti-Semitism as a problem in the US.

“We are relieved that all the hostages are now safe and send our profound gratitude to the police, FBI, agencies and authorities involved in their rescue,” the Board of Deputies said.

Updated: January 17, 2022, 2:18 PM