Texas rabbi: Captor turned ‘belligerent’ late in standoff

COLLEYVILLE, Texas (AP) — A rabbi who was among four people held hostage at a Texas synagogue said Sunday that their armed captor had become “increasingly belligerent and threatening” toward the end of the 10-day standoff. hours, which ended with an FBI SWAT team rushing into the building and the death of the kidnapper.

Authorities have identified the hostage taker as a 44-year-old British national, Malik Faisal Akram, who was killed Saturday evening after the last hostages fled Congregation Beth Israel around 9 p.m. The FBI said there was no early indication anyone else was involved but did not provide a possible motive.

The investigation has spread to England, where Manchester police announced on Sunday night that two teenagers were in custody in connection with the clash. Greater Manchester Police tweeted that counter-terrorism officers had made the arrests, but did not say whether the couple faced charges.

President Joe Biden called the episode an act of terror. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker credited the safety training his suburban Fort Worth congregation has received over the years with getting him and the three other hostages through the ordeal he has described as traumatic.

“During the last hour of our hostage situation, the shooter has become increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said in a statement. “Without the instructions we received, we would not have been ready to act and flee when the situation arose.”

Akram could be heard for some time ranting on a Facebook live stream of the services and demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having links to al-Qaeda who was found guilty of attempting to kill US army officers in Afghanistan.

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Video of the end of the standoff from Dallas TV station WFAA showed people running through a synagogue door, then a man holding a gun opening the same door seconds later before turning around and to close it. A few moments later, several shots and then an explosion are heard.

Authorities declined to say who shot Akram, saying the case was still under investigation.

Speaking to reporters in Philadelphia on Sunday, Biden said Akram allegedly bought a gun on the street.

Federal investigators believe Akram purchased the handgun used in the hostage crisis at a private sale, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity as the investigation is ongoing. . Akram arrived in the United States at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport about two weeks ago, a law enforcement official said.

Akram recently arrived in the United States on a tourist visa from Britain, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not intended to be public. London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement that its counter-terrorism police were in contact with US authorities over the incident.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno said late Saturday that the hostage taker was specifically focused on an issue not directly related to the Jewish community. Akram’s reason for choosing the synagogue was unclear, although the prison where Siddiqui is serving his sentence is in Fort Worth.

On Sunday evening, the FBI issued a statement calling the ordeal “a terrorism-related case, in which the Jewish community was targeted.” The agency said the Joint Terrorism Task Force was investigating.

Michael Finfer, the congregation’s president, said in a statement “there is a one in a million chance the shooter will choose our congregation.”

Authorities said police were first called to the synagogue around 11 a.m. and people were evacuated from the surrounding neighborhood soon after.

Akram used his phone during negotiations to communicate with people other than law enforcement, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Several people heard the hostage taker refer to Siddiqui as his “sister” on the livestream. But John Floyd, chairman of the board of directors of 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 abuser to know that his actions are evil and directly undermine those of us who seek justice for Dr Aafia,” said Floyd, who is also legal counsel to Mohammad Siddiqui.

Texas resident Victoria Francis, who said she watched about an hour of the live stream, said she heard the man denounce 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 quite irritated and the more irritated he was, the more threats he made, like “I’m the guy with the bomb”. If you make a mistake, it’s all up to you. And he was laughing about it,” Francis said. “He was clearly in extreme distress.”

Colleyville, a community of about 26,000, is about 14 miles 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 entering and exiting the building. A sign saying “Love” – ​​with the “o” replaced by a Star of David – was planted in a neighbour’s lawn.

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

Andrew Marc Paley, a Dallas rabbi who was called to the scene to help families and hostages after their release, said Cytron-Walker acted as a calm and comforting presence. The first hostage was released shortly after 5 p.m. It was around the time food was being delivered to people inside the synagogue, but Paley said he wasn’t sure if that was part of the negotiations.

“He appeared a bit unfazed, actually, but I don’t know if it was some kind of shock or just the timing,” Paley said of the first hostage to be freed.

Cytron-Walker said his congregation received training from local authorities and the Secure Community Network, which was founded in 2004 by a coalition of Jewish organizations and describes itself as the “official safety and security organization” of the Jewish community in North America. Michael Masters, the organization’s CEO, said the congregation conducted safety training in August and had no knowledge of Akram before.

The standoff has led authorities to step up security in other places, including New York, where police said they have increased their presence “in key Jewish institutions” out of an abundance of caution.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter that “this event is a stark reminder that anti-Semitism is still alive and that we must continue to fight it around the world.”

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Tucker reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writers Paul J. Weber and Acacia Coronado in Austin also contributed to this reporter; Michael Balsamo in Washington; Colleen Long in Philadelphia; Elliot Spagat in San Diego; Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island; Michael R. Sisak in New York; Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee; and Issac Scharf in Jerusalem.

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