• Mon. Oct 3rd, 2022

Texas rabbi says he and 2 hostages escaped synagogue standoff

COLLEYVILLE, Texas (AP) — The rabbi of a Texas synagogue where a gunman took hostages during live-streamed services said Monday he threw a chair at his captor before escaping with two others after an hour-long stalemate, awarding past security training to get himself and his followers out safely.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told “CBS Mornings” that he left the shooter inside the synagogue in suburban Fort Worth on Saturday because he appeared to need shelter. He said the man was not threatening or suspicious at first. But later he heard a gun click as he prayed.

Another man held hostage, Jeffrey R. Cohen, described the ordeal on Facebook Monday.

“First, we escaped. We weren’t released or freed,” said Cohen, who was one of four people in the synagogue for services that many other Beth Israel congregations members were watching online.

Cohen said the men were working to keep the shooter engaged. They talked to the shooter and he lectured them. At some point, as the situation evolved, Cohen said the shooter told them to get on their knees. Cohen remembers rearing up in his chair and slowly shaking his head, saying “no.” As the shooter moved to sit down, Cohen said Cytron-Walker yelled to run.

“The exit wasn’t too far off,” Cytron-Walker said. “I told them to leave. I threw a chair at the shooter and headed for the door. And the three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.

Authorities have identified the hostage taker as a 44-year-old British national, Malik Faisal Akram, who was killed on Saturday evening after the last three hostages fled the Colleyville synagogue around 9 p.m. The first hostage was released shortly after 5 p.m.

The FBI released a statement late Sunday calling the ordeal a “terrorism-related issue, in which the Jewish community was targeted” and said the Joint Terrorism Task Force was investigating. The agency noted that Akram spoke several times during negotiations about a prisoner who is serving an 86-year sentence in the United States. The statement followed comments Saturday from the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas field office that the hostage taker was focused on “not specifically related to the Jewish community.”

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 links to al-Qaeda who was found guilty of attempting to kill US army officers in Afghanistan.

“The last hour or so of the standoff, he wasn’t getting what he wanted. It didn’t look good. It didn’t sound good. We were terrified,” Cytron-Walker told “CBS Mornings.”

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At a service held Monday evening at a nearby Methodist church, Cytron-Walker said the amount of “good wishes, kindness and compassion” had been overwhelming from Colleyville – a town of about 26,000 people, 23 kilometers away. northeast of Fort Worth – and surrounding communities.

“Thank you for all the compassion, from the bottom of my heart,” Cytron-Walker said.

“Although very few of us are doing well right now, we will get through this,” he said.

Video of the end of the showdown 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 closing 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.

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. Speaking to reporters in Philadelphia on Sunday, Biden said Akram allegedly purchased 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 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.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel told the House of Commons on Monday that she had spoken to her American counterpart, Alejandro Mayorkas, and offered “the full support” of British police and security services in the ‘investigation.

In the two weeks before Akram was taken hostage at the synagogue, he had stayed at homeless shelters in the Dallas area.

Wayne Walker, CEO and pastor of OurCalling, which provides services to the homeless, said Akram stayed at their downtown Dallas facility on Jan. 2, and their review of camera footage showed that he had been dropped off by someone he seemed to know well. Walker said he contacted the FBI and gave them access to their photos and videos.

“He was dropped off by a guy who had conversations with him outside and brought him to our facility, had other conversations with him inside,” Walker said. “And then before he left they gave each other long hugs like they were long lost friends and patted each other on the back before one took off.”

“So he was dropped off by someone who seemed to have a relationship with him,” he told The Associated Press.

An FBI spokeswoman said late Monday night that they had no information to confirm regarding Akram’s stay at OurCalling facilities. The agency said there was no early indication anyone else was involved in the hostage-taking.

Akram spent three nights between Jan. 6 and Jan. 13 at Union Gospel Mission Dallas, homeless shelter CEO Bruce Butler told CNN. According to their records, Akram left for the last time on January 13, two days before taking the hostages from the synagogue.

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.

Akram’s reason for choosing the synagogue was unclear, although the prison where Siddiqui is serving his sentence is in Fort Worth.

A Texas attorney who represents Siddiqui said Monday that Siddiqui had no connection to Akram.

“She said from the start, when she was sentenced, that she did not want any violence to be committed in her name and that she does not condone any type of violence,” lawyer Marwa Elbially said.

Akram, who was called Faisal by his family, was from Blackburn, an industrial town in the northwest of England. His family said he “suffers from mental health issues”.

“We would also like to add that any attack on any human being, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim etc. is wrong and must always be condemned,” wrote his brother, Gulbar Akram.

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Stengle reported from Dallas and Tucker reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writers Paul J. Weber and Acacia Coronado in Austin also contributed to this report; 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; Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem; and Danica Kirka in London.