As the FBI investigates the Colleyville, Texas, hostage standoff as terror-related, the rabbi who was officiating services at the synagogue recalled Monday tossing a chair at the armed intruder before he and his congregants escaped.
Recounting Saturday’s “terrifying” encounter to CBS, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said his experience as a “calm presence” in hospital rooms and other difficult moments helped him remain collected during the hostage situation.
The deceased hostage taker – whom authorities have identified as 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram – first knocked on a glass door, and Cytron-Walker thought he needed shelter, he said. He let him in, made him tea and didn’t find anything suspicious, the rabbi told CBS.
It was during the Sabbath service’s prayer, when the rabbi had his back turned as he and the other worshipers faced Jerusalem, that he heard a click, he said.
“It turned out that it was his gun,” Cytron-Walker told the network.
He’s taken security courses focusing on this type of situation, which taught him he needed to get himself and his flock to safety. There was a moment during the hostage negotiations in which Akram was not getting what he wanted, and “it didn’t look good. It didn’t sound good. We were terrified,” the rabbi said. That’s when he decided to take a chance on escaping.
“When I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position, I made sure the two gentlemen who were still with me that they were ready to go. The exit wasn’t too far away,” he told CBS. “I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman and I headed for the door, and all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”
An FBI team killed Akram after the hostages were released around 9 p.m. (10 p.m. ET).
Video from CNN affiliate WFAA shows a police vehicle outside the synagogue when two people burst through a door, followed by another person. A fourth figure, whom WFAA identified as Akram, then steps out of the doorway with his arm extended as if he’s holding a gun.
As a dog barks and officers in tactical gear run around the synagogue, four gunshots erupt followed by a loud explosion, the video shows. About 15 seconds later, several more gunshots are heard.
At a healing service held Monday night at a United Methodist church, Cytron-Walker spoke about the traumatic events and how appreciative he was of the broader community’s support. More than 4,400 people viewed the event on Facebook Live on Monday.
“I’m so grateful, so unbelievably grateful, tonight – unlike every other service like this that I have done – we will not be saying our traditional prayer for mourning,” he said. “Thank God, thank God. It could’ve been so much worse and I am overflowing, truly overflowing with gratitude. And I am so grateful, I’m so grateful for your presence here tonight – whether you’re joing us in person or online.”
The rabbi also said he understands it will take time for the members of Congregation Beth Israel to heal.
“To my CBI family, I wish I had a magic wand. I wish I could take away all of our pain and struggle,” Cytron-Walker said. “I know that this violation of our spiritual home was traumatic for each and every one of us, and not just us. In the road ahead, this is going to be a process.”
Attacks on Jewish people are on the rise, the Anti-Defamation League warns. While the majority of the anti-Semitic incidents involve harassment and vandalism, there have also been assaults, and on at least six occasions since 2016, attacks have turned fatal.
In a letter Monday to state and local partners, top officials with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned that faith-based communities will likely remain targets for violence, urging them to evaluate their security posture for mass gathering events and at houses of worship.
“Faith based communities have and will likely continue to be targets of violence by both domestic violent extremists and those inspired by foreign terrorists,” said the letter from Paul Abbate, FBI deputy director, and John D. Cohen, the top intelligence official at DHS.
In reference to the hostage incident at the Texas synagogue, the letter said it appeared to be “an isolated incident.”
“There are currently no additional specific and credible threats associated with it, we will continue to monitor all reporting to ensure this incident is not a catalyst for similar attacks,” the letter said.
‘This is a terrorism-related matter’
Expressing its relief the hostages were not physically hurt and touting its focus on extremist threats to the Jewish community, the FBI noted Akram “spoke repeatedly about a convicted terrorist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States,” its statement said.
“This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” the statement said, declining to provide more details due to the continuing investigation.
FBI Director Chris Wray was holding a call with the Jewish community Monday afternoon. Later Monday, Cytron-Walker planned to lead a healing service at a Methodist church in nearby Southlake.
The convicted terrorist the FBI mentions is believed to be Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year federal prison sentence in Fort Worth after being found guilty of attempted murder and other charges in an assault on US officers in Afghanistan. She was not involved in the Colleyville attack, her attorney said Saturday.
Akram, a British national, was armed when he entered Congregation Beth Israel on Saturday morning as the house of worship livestreamed its Sabbath service on Facebook and Zoom, Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller said.
Akram took four people, including Cytron-Walker, hostage. One man was released unharmed around 5 p.m., Colleyville police said.
Two teenagers were arrested in south Manchester, England, in connection with the Texas incident and were awaiting questioning, UK Counter Terrorism Police for Greater Manchester said Sunday. Akram hailed from Blackburn, an industrial city of 121,000 just northwest of Manchester, British authorities said.
Hostage taker arrived in the US weeks ago
Akram arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in late December, a US law enforcement source familiar with the investigation told CNN. Authorities are investigating how he traveled from New York to Texas.
Akram arrived legally, a separate federal law enforcement source said, and was vetted before his arrival, meaning his information would’ve been cross-checked with classified and unclassified information available at the time. He was on no US government watch list, the source said.
British intelligence told its US counterparts a preliminary review of its databases showed no worrying information on Akram, the source said, but UK authorities continue to investigate.
Between January 6 and 13, Akram spent three nights at Union Gospel Mission Dallas, a homeless shelter, according to shelter CEO Bruce Butler. “We were a way station for him,” he said. “He had a plan. He was very quiet. He was in and out.”
Akram left the mission for the last time Thursday, according to their records. Butler did “not recall seeing him, but he was not there long enough to build any relationships. We had a lot of new faces coming in because of the cold weather,” he said.
Based on discussions with Akram as well as audio from the livestream, officials said they believe Akram was motivated by a desire to see the release of Siddiqui, who is serving her sentence in Fort Worth’s Federal Medical Center, Carswell after being found guilty of seven charges, including attempted murder and armed assault, in a 2008 attack on US officers in Afghanistan.
“He wanted this woman released and he wanted to talk to her and he thought – well, he said point-blank he chose this synagogue because ‘Jews control the world. Jews control the media. Jews control the banks. I want to talk to the chief rabbi of the United States,’” said Jeffrey Cohen, the vice president for the board of trustees at Congregation Beth Israel, who was one of the hostages Saturday.
Siddiqui “has absolutely no involvement with” the taking of hostages in Texas, her attorney said.
Akram’s brother said the family is “absolutely devastated” by his actions and they “apologize wholeheartedly to all the victims,” he wrote in a statement on Facebook, adding the family was in contact with police during the incident. Akram suffered from mental health issues, the statement said without elaborating.