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Bennett speaks to Rabbi Cytron-Walker

Biden calls synagogue hostage incident an ‘act of terror’ as FBI identifies attacker

Malik Faisal Akram’s family condemns his actions, apologizes to victims, says he suffered from mental health issues; president: suspect apparently got weapon ‘on the street’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Congregation Beth Israel hostage taker, identified as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram. (Courtesy)
Congregation Beth Israel hostage taker, identified as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram. (Courtesy)

COLLEYVILLE, Texas — US President Joe Biden on Sunday called the weekend hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue an “act of terror” as the FBI identified the attacker who held four worshipers at gunpoint in Congregation Beth Israel for 11 hours.

Malik Faisal Akram was a 44-year-old citizen of the UK, the FBI said, adding that there was no indication that other individuals were involved in the attack on the synagogue in Colleyville.

The attacker’s brother Gulbar issued a statement on the family’s behalf that was posted on the UK’s Blackburn Muslim Community Facebook page, in which he condemned Akram’s actions and apologized to those impacted by them.

“We would like to say that 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 wrote.

Gulbar revealed that they had been in touch with Akram throughout the Saturday hostage crisis via FBI negotiators, and that while his brother “was suffering from mental health issues, we were confident that he would not harm the hostages.”

The statement also revealed that Akram was shot in a firefight with the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team at the scene. US authorities have withheld information on how the attacker died until now.

SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue during a hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, January 15, 2022; Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP; Congregation Beth Israel)

“There was nothing we could have said to him or done that would have convinced him to surrender,” Akram’s brother said.

“We would also like to add that any attack on any human being be it a Jew, Christian or Muslim etc is wrong and should always be condemned. It is absolutely inexcusable for a Muslim to attack a Jew or for any Jew to attack a Muslim, Christian, Hindu vice versa etc etc,” the statement added.

The rabbi of the synagogue said Akram grew “increasingly belligerent and threatening” toward the end of the 10-hour standoff. He also credited security training that his suburban Fort Worth congregation had received over the years for getting him and the other three hostages through the ordeal, which he described as traumatic.

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

Reached outside his home Sunday, Cytron-Walker declined to speak at length about the episode. “It’s a little overwhelming as your can imagine. It was not fun yesterday,” he told The Associated Press.

Earlier in the day, Biden told reporters at an event in Philadelphia that he had spoken with Attorney General Merrick Garland and received a rundown of the “overwhelming cooperation [between] the local authorities and the FBI.”

“This was an act of terror… and not only was related to someone who had been arrested… 15 years ago and had been in jail for 10 years,” Biden said, referring to Akram’s demand during the hostage crisis that US authorities release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national imprisoned at Carswell Air Force Base, roughly 15 miles southwest of Colleyville.

“I don’t have all the facts, but allegedly… he got the weapons on the street, he purchased them when he landed,” Biden said, adding that it was currently hard to tell from whom Akram purchased the weapons.

A Pakistani national known to law enforcement as “the Lady of Al-Qaeda,” Siddiqui was convicted in 2010 by a New York City federal court of attempting to kill US military personnel. She is currently serving an 86-year sentence, but her brother issued a statement through the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemning the attack at Congregation Beth Israel.

“We want the hostage-taker to know that Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and her family strongly condemn this act and do not stand by you. Dr. Aafia’s family has always stood firm in advocating for the release of their sister from incarceration by legal and non-violent means only,” the statement read.

This Federal Bureau of Investigation handout image shows undated images of a woman identified as Aafia Siddiqui. (FBI)

In insisting that Akram’s attack “not only was related” to securing Siddiqui’s release, Biden appeared to contradict Dallas FBI agent Matthew DeSarno, who told reporters Saturday night that the gunman “was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on the matter.

Further elaborating on the initial details available to him, Biden said the attacker did not have any bombs in his possession, despite threatening hostages during the ordeal that he was going to set off explosives.

Akram spent his “first night” in the US at a homeless shelter, according to the president.

Biden said he told Garland “that we’re not going to tolerate” such attacks on synagogues and other places of worship and that US authorities have the capacity to deal with “the antisemitism that is going up.”

Biden said he would be talking on the phone later in the day with Cytron-Walker.

“I don’t think there is sufficient information to know about why he targeted that synagogue, why he insisted on the release of someone who’s been in prison for over 10 years, why he was using antisemitic and anti-Israeli comments. We just don’t have enough facts,” Biden added.

Shortly after the FBI confirmed Akram’s nationality, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss released a statement condemning the attack by a UK citizen, calling the hostage-taking in Texas an “act of terrorism and antisemitism.”

“My thoughts are with the Jewish community and all those affected by the appalling act in Texas,” Truss posted on Twitter. “We stand with the US in defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens against those who spread hate.”

Also on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke on the phone with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, thanking him for the “determined and professional action of law enforcement forces,” who managed to deescalate the situation without any casualties, according to the Israeli readout.

Bennett said Israelis were following the crisis in Colleyville closely and were thrilled to wake up to the good news Sunday morning that the hostages had been freed unharmed.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prepares to deliver his State of the State speech in Lockhart, Texas, Feb. 1, 2021. (Bob Daemmrich/Pool Photo via AP)

More than 200 law enforcement officers were involved in the hostage situation throughout the day, including an FBI hostage rescue team flown in from Washington, DC.

A livestream of the synagogue’s Shabbat morning services devolved into a live viewing of a hostage situation for several hours, until Facebook intervened to take the feed down.

Congregation Beth Israel was established in 1999 and counts roughly 140 families as members.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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