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At least 3 believed held inside, including rabbi

Man takes hostages at Texas synagogue during Saturday service

Start of ordeal unfolds on Beth Israel Shabbat service livestream; suspect demands release of ‘Lady al-Qaeda’ jailed for plot to kill US soldiers; 1 hostage released after 6 hours

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

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

Police and federal authorities in Texas responded Saturday to a hostage situation during morning services at a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.

At least four people were taken hostage at Congregation Beth Israel, including the rabbi of the synagogue, two sources at the scene confirmed to The Times of Israel. One of the hostages was released unharmed after six hours, the Colleyville Police Department said.

While the suspect was believed to be armed, law enforcement was unable to confirm this, and there were no reports of injuries.

The first several hours of the hostage situation unfolded on a Facebook livestream video, which Beth Israel had been using to broadcast its weekly Saturday morning services.

The suspect could be heard referencing Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national known as the “Lady 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 at Carswell Air Force Base near Fort Worth, Texas, some 15 miles southwest of Colleyville.

Siddiqui has publicly employed antisemitic tropes and insisted during her trial that no Jews be allowed to sit on the jury, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The Facebook livestream of Congregation Beth Israel’s Sabbath morning services, which turned into a hostage situation on January 15, 2022. (Screenshot/Facebook)

ABC, citing a source at the scene, said the suspect was demanding Siddiqui’s release. The network named the hostage taker as Siddiqui’s brother, Muhammad, but clarified that authorities had yet to officially identify the suspect. The Daily Beast reported Muhammad Siddiqui denied he had any involvement in the incident through his lawyer.

The suspect had referred to Aafia Siddiqui as a “sister,” but experts said the word the man used in Arabic was more figurative and meant “sister” in the Islamic faith.

Law enforcement arrived at the synagogue around 11:00 a.m., an hour after the service began. The Colleyville Police Department tweeted that its forces were “conducting SWAT operations around the 6100 block of Pleasant Run Rd” and that residents in the immediate area were evacuated and urged to avoid the area.

The FBI was assisting local police in the hostage crisis and a US official told The Times of Israel that the White House was closely monitoring situation.

Hostage negotiators made contact with the suspect inside, FBI Dallas spokeswoman Katie Chaumont confirmed.

As of 3:30 p.m. local time, evacuated residents living as far as a mile away from the scene were being barred from returning from their homes.

Only an empty lectern could be seen in the corner of the synagogue’s Facebook livestream, and there weren’t believed to be a large number of people in attendance, as many congregants at the small congregation may have opted for the online option made available since the beginning of the pandemic.

The suspect could be heard ranting about a variety of topics including America and religion during the live stream, but much of what he said was unintelligible.

A law enforcement officer walks across an intersection near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)

At one point he could be heard talking on the phone to someone who appeared to be his relative, repeating, “I am going to die” and that he was holding hostages at a synagogue.

“Don’t cry on the fucking phone with me… I have six beautiful kids… There are hostages in the synagogue who are going to die,” he could be heard saying shortly before the feed was cut at around 2 p.m. local time.

A witness to the livestream told CNN the suspect could be heard screaming hysterically that he hates Jews. He later apologized, in what the network described as “wild swings of emotion.”

Between segments of his often unintelligible rant, the hostage taker was also heard saying the congregants let him into the building.

“They let me in. I said ‘Is this a night shelter?’ and they let me in and they gave me a cup of tea so I do feel bad,” he said.

“I like the rabbi, he’s a good guy, I bonded with him, I really like him… I’ve only been here for a couple hours but I can see he’s a good guy,” the suspect added.

Congregation Beth Israel was established in 1999 and counts roughly 140 families as members. The synagogue’s website lists its its leader as Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker.

Anna Salton Eisen, a founder and former president of the synagogue, said Cytron-Walker has worked hard to build interfaith relationships in the community, including doing pulpit swaps and participating in a community peace walk. She described Saturday’s events as “surreal.”

Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. (Congregation Beth Israel)

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. You know, it’s a small town and it’s a small congregation,” Eisen said. “No matter how it turns out it’s hard to fathom how we will all be changed by this, because surely we will be.”

Police increased security for synagogues in Dallas, New York and Los Angeles following the start of the incident.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said US President Joe Biden “has been briefed about the developing hostage situation in the Dallas area. He will continue to receive updates from his senior team as the situation develops. Senior members of the national security team are also in touch with federal law enforcement leadership.”

Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. (Congregation Beth Israel)

From Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he was “closely monitoring the hostage situation.”

“We pray for the safety of the hostages and rescuers,” he said.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and a handful of Israeli MKs across the political spectrum issued similar statements of concern.

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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