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‘Time to go’: Hostages escaped Texas synagogue as FBI SWAT team moved in

Special agent, rabbi reveal new details about final moments of standoff at Congregation Beth Israel, say both took ‘near simultaneous plans of action’ as situation deteriorated

SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on January 15, 2022.(Andy Jacobsohn/AFP)
SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on January 15, 2022.(Andy Jacobsohn/AFP)

COLLEYVILLE, Texas — In the final moments of a 10-hour standoff with a gunman at a Texas synagogue, the remaining hostages and officials trying to negotiate their release took “near-simultaneous plans of action,” with the hostages escaping as an FBI tactical team moved in, an official said Friday.

“I think we both kind of realized around the same time that: It’s time to go,” Matt DeSarno, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Dallas, said at a news conference.

DeSarno said that just after 9 p.m. on January 15, he authorized his teams to enter the synagogue at the moment the hostages came to “a similar conclusion” to escape.

“My perception of the events were that what I was perceiving and what my leadership team and the negotiators were perceiving was that the situation had gone from bad to significantly worse and that it was time to take action,” he said.

As agents approached the building, he said, they encountered the three remaining hostages running out and continued moving toward the synagogue to face Malik Faisal Akram, the 44-year-old British citizen who had taken four hostages during morning services at Congregation Beth Israel in the Dallas-area suburb of Colleyville.

Akram had released a hostage shortly after 5 p.m. but those remaining said he became more belligerent and threatening as the night wore on. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said Friday that while Akram had a drink in his hand, he threw a chair at Akram and he and the two other remaining hostages fled.

FBI special agent Matt DeSarno and Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel shake hands during a news conference about the recent hostage-taking at the Texas synagogue, January 22, 2022. (Screen capture: YouTube)

“We were constantly looking for an opportunity to leave,” Cytron-Walker said.

As the moment came, the FBI rushed in and fatally shot Akram, DeSarno said.

Both DeSarno and the rabbi also said they each decided to act after noticing the situation was deteriorating.

“As the hours passed and Akram’s behavior changed he wasn’t as communicative with the negotiators. He became combative and issued ultimatums and deadlines… Rabbi Charlie and the hostages seem to have come to a similar conclusion,” the special agent said.

Cytron-Walker said: “I can honestly tell you that as things were getting bad, it was really bad. I was absolutely in fear of my life.”

“We had no idea (that the FBI was also ready to move in) and he went from extremely agitated with the negotiator to all of a sudden, very calm like he was earlier in the day just asking me for juice,” he recounted. “I was highly, highly concerned in that moment. And yet, fortunately, that was what gave us the opportunity, when he had [a cup of] liquid in his hand, that was part of the opportunity that we took advantage of.”

The Tarrant County Medical examiner on Friday said Akram was killed by multiple gunshot wounds and ruled his death a homicide, a determination that does not necessarily indicate it was a crime. The medical examiner determined that Akram died at 9:22 p.m.

This January 2, 2022 photo provided by OurCalling, LLC shows Malik Faisal Akram, at a Dallas homeless shelter. (OurCalling, LLC via AP)

DeSarno, who had attracted attention for saying on January 15 that the hostage-taker was focused on an issue not specifically connected to the Jewish community, took pains Friday to stress that the FBI regarded the episode as an act of terrorism that threatened the Jewish community and “intentionally targeted” a house of worship. The act, he said, “was committed by a terrorist espousing an anti-Semitic worldview.”

“This was both a hate crime and an act of terrorism,” DeSarno said.

DeSarno said Akram is believed to have selected the synagogue because it is close to a federal prison in nearby Fort Worth that houses a “convicted terrorist” with suspected al-Qaeda links. During negotiations, Akram demanded the release of that prisoner in exchange for letting the hostages free. Though he did not name the prisoner, other law enforcement officials have identified her as Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year prison sentence after being convicted of shooting at American military personnel after being detained in Afghanistan.

Siddiqui’s attorney said she had no connection to Akram.

Akram was from the English industrial city of Blackburn. His family said he had been “suffering from mental health issues.”

He arrived in New York on a tourist visa about two weeks before the attack and cleared checks against law enforcement databases without raising any red flags, officials said. He spent time in Dallas-area homeless shelters before the attack, and visited an area mosque at least twice to pray.

A law enforcement vehicle sits in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 16, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)

Investigators had been trying to determine how Akram got to Colleyville from Dallas. On Friday, the Colleyville police chief said they’d found a mountain bike at a nearby soccer complex, and they were able to unlock it with a key found on Akram’s body.

The FBI is still investigating how Akram got the gun used in the attack, though it has had success in tracking his movements from the time he arrived in New York on December 29 until his entrance into the synagogue. DeSarno said agents were still reviewing his devices and scrutinizing his contacts but that he was not known to the FBI or US intelligence communities until the hostage-taking.

DeSarno said that where and how Akram acquired the gun is “a primary gap” in the investigation.

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