A rabbi who was among four people held hostage at a Texas synagogue said Sunday that their captor grew “increasingly belligerent and threatening” toward the end of the 10-hour standoff, which ended with an FBI SWAT team rushing into the building and the captor’s death.
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 Congregation Beth Israel around 9 p.m. The FBI said there was no indication that anyone else was involved, but it had not provided a possible motive as of Sunday afternoon.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker credited security training that his suburban Fort Worth congregation has 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,” 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.”
President Joe Biden called the episode an act of terror. Akram could be heard ranting on a Facebook livestream of the services and demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having ties to al-Qaida who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan.
Speaking to reporters in Philadelphia on Sunday, Biden said Akram allegedly purchased a weapon on the streets and might have been in the U.S. for only a few weeks.
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.
“Rest assured, we are focused,” Biden said. “The attorney general is focused and making sure that we deal with these kinds of acts.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to questions Sunday about Akram’s immigration status and history. London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement that its counter-terrorism police were liaising with U.S. authorities about the incident.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno said the hostage-taker was specifically focused on an issue not directly connected to the Jewish community, and that there was no immediate indication that he was part of any broader plan.
It wasn’t clear why Akram chose the synagogue, though the prison where Saddiqui is serving her sentence is in Fort Worth. Michael Finfer, the president of the congregation, said in a statement “there was a one in a million chance that the gunman picked our congregation.”
Authorities have declined to say who shot Akram, saying it was still under investigation.
Law enforcement officials who were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation and who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity earlier said the hostage-taker demanded Siddiqui’s release and wanted to be allowed to speak to her.
Authorities said police were first called to the synagogue around 11 a.m. and people were evacuated from the surrounding neighborhood soon afterward.
Saturday’s services were being livestreamed on the synagogue’s Facebook page for a time. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that an angry man could be heard ranting and talking about religion at times during the livestream, which didn’t show what was happening inside the synagogue.
Shortly before 2 p.m., the man said, “You got to do something. I don’t want to see this guy dead.” Moments later, the feed cut out. A spokesperson for Meta Platforms Inc., the corporate successor to Facebook Inc., later confirmed that Facebook had removed the video.
Multiple people heard the hostage-taker refer to Siddiqui as his “sister” on the livestream. But John Floyd, board chair for the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations — the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group — said Siddiqui’s brother, Mohammad Siddiqui, was not involved.
“We want the assailant to know that his actions are wicked and directly undermine those of us who are seeking justice for Dr. Aafia,” said Floyd, who also is legal counsel for Mohammad Siddiqui.
Texas resident Victoria Francis, who said she watched about an hour of the livestream, said she heard the man rant against America and claim he had a bomb. Biden said there were apparently no explosives, despite the threats.
“He was just all over the map. He was pretty irritated and the more irritated he got, he’d make more threats, like ‘I’m the guy with the bomb. If you make a mistake, this is all on you.’ And he’d laugh at that,” Francis said. “He was clearly in extreme distress.”
Colleyville, a community of about 26,000 people, is about 15 miles (23 kilometers) northeast of Fort Worth. By Sunday morning, the police perimeter around the synagogue had shrunk to half a block in either direction and FBI agents could be seen going in and out of the building. A sign saying “Love” — with the “o” replaced with a Star of David — was planted in a neighbor’s lawn.
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 AP.
Andrew Marc Paley, a Dallas rabbi who was called to the scene to help families and hostages upon their release, said Cytron-Walker acted as a calm and comforting presence. The first hostage was released shortly after 5 p.m. That was around the time food was delivered to those inside the synagogue, but Paley said he did not know if it was part of the negotiations.
“He appeared a little unfazed, actually, but I don’t know if that was sort of shock or just the moment,” Paley said of the first hostage after his release. “He was calm and grateful to law enforcement and Rabbi Charlie.”
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter that “this event is a stark reminder that antisemitism is still alive and we must continue to fight it worldwide.”
The standoff led authorities to tighten security in other places, including New York City, where police said that they increased their presence “at key Jewish institutions” out of an abundance of caution.
Tucker reported from Washington, D.C. Also contributing to this reporter were Associated Press writers Paul J. Weber and Acacia Coronado in Austin; Michael Balsamo in Washington; Colleen Long in Philadelphia; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Michael R. Sisak in New York; Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tenn.; and Issac Scharf in Jerusalem.