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Bennett speaks to Rabbi Cytron-Walker, hails his leadership

Texas rabbi: Hostages managed to escape as gunman became ‘increasingly belligerent’

Congregation chairman appears to downplay antisemitic motive, calling attack ‘random act of violence,’ rabbi credits security training with giving hostages awareness when to flee

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

Law enforcement officials gather at Colleyville Elementary School near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Law enforcement officials gather at Colleyville Elementary School near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

COLLEYVILLE, Texas — Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, among four people held hostage at his Congregation Beth Israel, said Sunday that the attacker grew “increasingly belligerent and threatening” toward the end of the 11-hour standoff, and revealed that the captives had escaped, crediting security courses he had taken for helping them flee.

Authorities identified the hostage-taker as a 44-year-old British national, Malik Faisal Akram, who was killed Saturday night after the last hostages ran out of the synagogue around 9 p.m and an FBI SWAT team rushed into the building, apparently shooting him dead.

“Over the years, my congregation and I have participated in multiple security courses from the Colleyville Police Department, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, and Secure Community Network,” Cytron-Walker said in a statement late Sunday.

“We are alive today because of that education. I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools, and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses,” he said.

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

Asked to clarify whether the hostages escaped or were freed by the gunman, as indicated by other officials and the attacker’s family, a spokeswoman for Cytron-Walker told The Times of Israel, “They escaped.”

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

“I am not at liberty to discuss more because there is an active investigation,” the spokeswoman added.

However, FBI Public Affairs Officer Katie Chaumont told The Times of Israel that “there aren’t any FBI restrictions that would prevent [former hostages] from speaking.”

Video 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 just seconds later before he turned around and closed it. Moments later, several shots and then an explosion could be heard.

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

Congregation president Michael Finfer, who was not among the hostages, appeared to suggest that Akram had not deliberately targeted the synagogue, calling the attack “random.”

“We know that a situation of this magnitude could increase the concern many of us live with on a day-to-day basis due to antisemitism,” Finfer said. “It is important to note that this was a random act of violence. Indeed, there was a one in a million chance that the gunman picked our congregation. Further, the FBI is confirming that the attacker appeared to be working alone.”

His comments are at odds with most officials who described the incident as a deliberate antisemitic terror attack.

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

US President Joe Biden on Sunday called the weekend hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue an “act of terror,” as did Britain’s foreign minister Liz Truss, who condemned the hostage-taking as an “act of terrorism and antisemitism.”

In a briefing to reporters, US Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas declined to comment on “ongoing law enforcement efforts, the motives for the attack, or the individual involved.”

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. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP)

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

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.

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 with Cytron-Walker and Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“I was so relieved to hear that you and the other hostages are safe and sound. Your leadership in this time of crisis was admirable. Israel stands united with the Jewish community in Colleyville,” he told Cytron-Walker.

“I was praying here for your safety together with the rest of Israel and we are so relieved that you’re ok. Please send strength to your congregation. We are brothers.”

In the call with Abbott, Bennett thanked him for the “determined and professional action of law enforcement forces,” who managed to deescalate the situation without any casualties.

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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