British hostage-taker behind Texas synagogue siege named as Malik Faisal Akram

Two teenagers in England have been arrested and remain in custody, UK police say

A man who took worshippers hostage at a synagogue in Texas was British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, US authorities said on Sunday.

Akram, 44, took four worshippers hostage for more than 10 hours on Saturday at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, a city about 50 kilometres west of Dallas.

Throughout, he could be heard speaking with a British accent in a Facebook live stream. The hostages were “safe and alive” after intensive negotiations and a rescue operation by the FBI, police and Swat teams.

Akram, who is originally from Blackburn, is said to have demanded the release of a convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, after he stormed the building during the Shabbat morning service.

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden called the attack a terrorist act and urged US Attorney General Merrick Garland to co-ordinate further action from the Justice Department.

“We will stand against anti-Semitism and against the rise of extremism in this country,” he said.

Asked about the assailant's motives, Mr Biden said the investigation was continuing and he would have more to say on the subject at his press conference on Wednesday.

Malik Faisal Akram. Photo: Handout

“I do not think there is sufficient information to know why he targeted that synagogue or why he insisted on the release of someone who has been in prison for over 10 years, why he was engaged — why he was using anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli comments,” he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said the government was promising its “full support” to US authorities working on the investigation.

“This was a terrible and anti-Semitic act of terrorism,” Mr Johnson's spokesman said.

US officials believe Akram, who had a visa, arrived at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York about two weeks ago and bought a handgun used in the incident.

Reports suggested he had been staying at a homeless shelter run by a Christian charity in the week leading up to the attack and that he bought a gun “off the street".

Bruce Butler, chief executive of Union Gospel Mission in Dallas, told CNN that staff saw him “come and go” from January 6 — but he never mentioned religion or his plans to attack the synagogue.

In an update to reporters on Sunday, Mr Biden said while he did not have all the details, it was believed Akram had “got the weapons on the street”.

“He purchased them when he landed,” he said.

Mr Biden said there were “no bombs that we know of”, and that Akram is thought to have “spent the first night in a homeless shelter”.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said a number of federal agencies were working to understand the attacker’s motives.

“We have the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and law enforcement and intelligence agencies working intensively to get a full picture of what this person's motives were and whether or not there are any further connections,” Mr Sullivan told CBS.

Britain's Foreign Office on Sunday confirmed a British citizen had died in the incident.

“We are aware of the death of a British man in Texas and are in contact with the local authorities,” a representative said.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss condemned the incident and tweeted: “My thoughts are with the Jewish community and all those affected by the appalling act in Texas. We condemn this act of terrorism and anti-Semitism.

“We stand with US in defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens against those who spread hate.”

The Metropolitan Police’s counterterrorism unit in London said officers were working closely with their American counterparts as part of the investigation.

“Officers from Counter Terrorism Policing are liaising with US authorities and colleagues from the FBI regarding the incident in Texas,” a representative said.

Greater Manchester Police in the UK also confirmed they had arrested two teenagers, whose ages and genders they did not immediately confirm.

“Two teenagers were detained in south Manchester this evening. They remain in custody for questioning,” the force said on Sunday night.

“CTP North West and CTP International operations continue to assist the investigation being led by the US authorities, and police forces in the region are liaising with local communities to put in place any measures to provide further reassurance.”

Akram’s family said they were “absolutely devastated” by what had happened and “do not condone any of his actions”, according to a statement shared on the Blackburn Muslim Community Facebook page.

The statement, attributed to Akram’s brother Gulbar, who said he had been involved in negotiating from the UK with his sibling, said that the hostage-taker “was suffering from mental health issues”.

Condemning what had happened, Akram’s family said: “We would like to say that we as a family do not condone any of his actions and would like to sincerely apologise wholeheartedly to all the victims involved in the unfortunate incident.”

Speaking to reporters after the incident, FBI special agent in charge Matt DeSarno said they believed the man was “singularly focused on one issue and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community”. He said the FBI would continue to “work to find motive”.

Confirming that the hostage-taker had died, Mr DeSarno said there would be “an independent investigation of the shooting incident”.

He said the FBI had been in contact with their legal attache offices in London and Israel for an investigation with “global reach”.

The attacker had initially taken four people hostage, including the rabbi, officials said. One hostage was released unharmed six hours later.

Quote
I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

Members of the FBI's hostage rescue team stormed the synagogue to free the three remaining hostages.

Video of the end of the stand-off from Dallas TV station WFAA showed people running out a door of the synagogue, and then a man holding a gun opening the same door a few seconds later before he turned around and closed it. Moments later, several shots were heard, then an explosion.

Authorities have declined to say who shot Akram, saying the matter was still under investigation.

The rabbi was later identified as Charlie Cytron-Walker. After the crisis ended without him being wounded, he took to Facebook to thank the police and members of the public for praying for him.

Andrew Marc Paley, a Dallas rabbi who was called to the scene to assist families and hostages upon their release, said he saw food being delivered to the hostages at about 5pm.

This was about the time that the first hostage was released, although it is not known if this was part of negotiations. He said Mr Cytron-Walker acted as a calm and comforting presence for his congregation.

Upon his release, the rabbi said that security training conducted at the synagogue over the years had provided him and his fellow hostages with valuable tools to be able to make it through the situation, which he described as traumatic.

“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Mr Cytron-Walker said. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”

“I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support, all of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all of the security training that helped save us,” the rabbi wrote on Facebook.

“I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the CBI community, the Jewish community, the human community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive.”

The stand-off led to an outpouring of concern from Jewish organisations across the US, as well as from the Israeli government.

US Vice President Kamala Harris appealed to people to take a stronger stand against hatred of Jews. Her husband Douglas Emhoff is Jewish.

“While we will learn more about the hostage-taker’s motivation, we know this: what happened yesterday at Congregation Beth Israel is a reminder that we must speak up and combat anti-Semitism and hate wherever it exists,” Ms Harris said.

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We stand in solidarity with the global Jewish community during this difficult time
Global Imams Council

The Global Imams Council condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms” and denounced the hostage-taker’s “sympathy for convicted terrorists”. Members said they were grateful the perpetrator “is no longer a threat to society”, after he was shot and killed by law enforcement.

They praised Mr Cytron-Walker for being a “prominent advocate for peace, harmony and interfaith” and said they were glad he had survived the incident.

“Furthermore, we denounce all organisations and individuals that echo the demands of the hostage-taker and his sympathy for convicted terrorists,” the council said.

“We stand in solidarity with the global Jewish community during this difficult time and pray for the speedy recovery of all the victims. Our thoughts are with them and their loved ones.”

Police said they were alerted to an emergency on Saturday morning at the synagogue, with reports circulating quickly that it was a hostage situation.

The hostage-taker was armed and claimed to have bombs in unidentified locations, ABC News reported.

Quoting a US official, it said the man had demanded the release of Siddiqui, who has been called “Lady Al Qaeda” by US tabloids.

ABC initially said the man claimed to be Siddiqui's brother but then later clarified that her brother was in Houston, Texas. Other experts said the word the man used in Arabic was more figurative.

Siddiqui's lawyer told journalists she “has absolutely no involvement” in the hostage situation. He confirmed that the man was not his client's brother and said she condemned his actions.

In 2010, Siddiqui, a former Pakistani scientist, was sentenced by a New York court to 86 years in prison for the attempted murder of US officers in Afghanistan. The high-profile case caused outrage in Pakistan.

Law enforcement teams gather near Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. AP

She is being held at Federal Medical Centre prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

In the live-stream, a man could be heard saying, “You get my sister on the phone” and “I am going to die”.

He was also heard saying: “There is something wrong with America.”

Colleyville Police said in a tweet at 11.30am that they were “conducting Swat operations” at the address of the Congregation Beth Israel.

FBI agents were also at the scene, along with Colleyville fire and rescue vehicles, Dallas police and officers from the nearby city of Southlake.

Beth Israel congregation member Ellen Smith, who grew up going to the synagogue, described the situation as “shocking and horrifying” during a CNN interview.

She said the congregation was a “tight” community and the rabbi in particular was “the best human I think anyone could ever meet".

But she said it was “not shocking” the crisis occurred in a Jewish community.

“Cases of anti-Semitism have risen lately,” she said.

Israel was monitoring the situation and praying for the hostages' safety, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.

“No one should ever be afraid to assemble in their place of worship,” the Jewish Community Relations Council said.

Police patrol Colleyville, Texas, near the synagogue where several people were held hostage. Getty

The Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the incident and said it was in contact with Colleyville Jewish leaders to “provide any assistance possible".

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said he was grateful to have received calls from people of all religious backgrounds expressing concern and hope for a peaceful outcome.

But he gave a warning that the violence would not stop with the synagogue.

“The person who hates me today is going to hate you tomorrow. So, it may start with Jews. It does not stop with Jews,” he told CNN.

Updated: January 17, 2022, 4:57 PM