Texas synagogue hostage-taker identified as 44-year-old British man, FBI says

A law enforcement vehicle parked near the synagogue where hostages were held by British Citizen Malik Faisal Akram in a Dallas suburb in Texas, Jan 15 2022 Photo: Reuters/Shelby Tauber

The man who took a rabbi and three other people hostage at a Dallas-area synagogue Saturday night (Jan. 15, 2022) in an hours-long standoff with law enforcement has been identified as 44-year-old British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Matthew DeSarno, the FBI special agent in charge of the Dallas field office, confirmed the identity of the Colleyville, Texas, hostage-taker in a statement Sunday, adding that there was no indication that any other individuals were involved.

Akram’s brother Gulbar Akram said Sunday that their family was “devastated.”

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“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 posted in a WhatsApp chat that a Blackburn, England, Muslim group later posted to Facebook.

He said he was in a room with U.S. law enforcement officers for hours, “liaising with Faisal, the negotiators, FBI.”

“My brother was suffering from mental health issues,” the post said.

In an interview with The Washington Post, in which he confirmed writing the WhatsApp message, Gulbar Akram said the hostages had not been in danger of losing their lives.

“I was there in the incident room,” he told The Post. “I know my brother wouldn’t hurt the hostages. He didn’t have it in him. I’m not excusing what he did. … Not one of them needed medical attention.”

Gulbar Akram declined to elaborate on his brother’s mental health.

In the post, Gulbar Akram took issue with how police and the news media were portraying the end of the hostage situation, saying the captives had been released before “a firefight” in which his brother was killed.

“There was nothing we could have said to him or done that would have convinced him to surrender,” Gulbar Akram said in the post, which has since been removed from the Blackburn Muslim Community page.

“Please if you can grant us some privacy as we are grieving privately in our homes,” the post continued. “Please keep our family present and deceased in your prayers.”

Authorities from Texas to London were working to answer key questions about the standoff at Congregation Beth Israel, which ended with the suspect confirmed dead and all the hostages safe. The incident sent shock waves through the Jewish community and far beyond the United States, sparking calls for officials to do more to ensure safety at synagogues.

President Joe Biden said Sunday that he had spoken with Attorney General Merrick Garland about the standoff and that they were working to “address these types of acts.”

“This was an act of terror,” Biden told reporters during a visit to a Philadelphia food bank.

The suspect arrived at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 29, according to law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is an ongoing investigation. As the crisis unfolded, he spoke to his family in England, as part of the FBI negotiators’ attempts to defuse the situation, the officials said.

Across the Atlantic, Metropolitan Police and other U.K. authorities said they were working closely with their U.S. counterparts on the U.S.-led investigation. A spokesperson for Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed in a statement to The Washington Post that officials were “aware of the death of a British man in Texas and are in contact with the local authorities.”

The ordeal – part of which was caught on a live stream – shook many in Colleyville, a suburb between Fort Worth and Dallas, where Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker is known for his humanitarian and interfaith work. Several people who know the rabbi said they believed his calm demeanor was vital during the tense moments of the standoff.

“The way he was able to comport himself with clarity and strength and gentleness was quite remarkable,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the country’s biggest Jewish denomination.

After getting word of the crisis, Jacobs logged on to the synagogue’s live stream and caught part of Cytron-Walker’s exchange with the suspect. Jacobs described the congregation as “very serious about security,” declining to provide details, noting that it was a delicate matter.

“This is a congregation that was well aware of the things that must be done to keep congregations secure,” he said.

In a statement released Sunday, Cytron-Walker credited security training for the reason “we are alive today.”

“I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools, and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses.”

Members of Beth Israel, including Cytron-Walker, have participated in a security training with the Secure Community Network (SCN), a group dedicated to protecting the North American Jewish community, according to CEO Michael Masters.

The training was not prompted by any specific security threat, Masters and other SCN leaders said in a call with reporters Sunday. They said the session covered basic safety practices and how to respond to violent intruders but declined to “speculate” on what security measures were used Saturday, including whether those entering the synagogue were checked for weapons.

Masters said SCN had not been familiar with Akram.

“The reality for us is that this can happen any day, anywhere,” Masters said. “Every time we have responded to an incident … we have heard someone utter the phrase, I never thought it could happen here. We have to move beyond that mind-set. We have to understand that it can happen. And we need to be prepared and vigilant for it to happen.”

In the early hours of the hostage-taking, the suspect ordered Cytron-Walker to call a rabbi in New York to convey his demand that a federal prisoner be freed. That second rabbi, a woman, called authorities. FBI officials did not believe the New York rabbi was being threatened, but federal and local authorities provided security for her and her synagogue as a precaution, according to law enforcement officials.

Stacey Silverman, who has been a member of the Congregation Beth Israel for 13 years, watched as the hostages were taken while the service was being live-streamed and said the suspect could be heard saying that he had flown to the area from 5,000 miles away – and that he chose a synagogue because the United States “only cares about Jewish lives.”

A law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation said the man’s motive for taking hostages appeared to be his anger over the U.S. imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman being held in federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill U.S. soldiers. Siddiqui was convicted on terrorism charges in 2010 and sentenced to 86 years in prison after opening fire on Americans.

During the standoff, according to law enforcement officials, the suspect brandished a gun and what he said were explosives. It is unclear what the purported explosive devices were, but they were rendered safe by law enforcement after the standoff ended.

Cytron-Walker, originally from Lansing, Mich., has a long career of working for social and humanitarian causes. He previously worked at a civil and human rights organization in Detroit and later as an assistant director of a center in Amherst, Mass., that provides food and other services to those in need, according to a biography posted on the congregation’s website.

At Congregation Beth Israel, he has worked to bring “a sense of spirituality, compassion, and learning” to the community, welcoming anyone “from interfaith families to LGBT individuals and families to those seeking to find a spiritual home in Judaism,” the website says.

Gary Zola, a professor at Cincinnati-based Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, recalled the days when a younger Cytron-Walker was his student.

“Charlie was memorable in a way that few people are,” Zola said. “He had a gift of being kind to everybody. He took to heart the Reform Jewish idea that we are meant to build bridges.”

Before becoming Congregation Beth Israel’s first full-time rabbi in 2006, Cytron-Walker received his rabbinical ordination in Cincinnati, where he was an intern at a local temple.”

“They still remember him,” Zola said, adding that he received a flurry of worried calls Saturday, a testament of how Cytron-Walker “touched the hearts of people everywhere he went.”

In Cytron-Walker’s statement Sunday, the rabbi sent a message of relief.

“There is no question that this was a traumatic experience.” Cytron-Walker said. “We appreciate all the love, prayers and support from our local community and throughout the world. We are grateful for the outcome. We are resilient and we will recover.”

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