11 Hours of Fear, Negotiation and Finally, Relief – The New York Times
The F.B.I. identified Malik Faisal Akram, a British national, as the man who took hostages in a Texas synagogue on Saturday. He was killed during the rescue operation.
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Giulia Heyward, Azi Paybarah and
Just before New Year’s, a 44-year-old man from an industrial city in the north of England landed at Kennedy International Airport. On his travel documents, he listed his destination as a hotel on Queens Boulevard. His arrival raised no red flags.
Two weeks later, without explanation, he entered a service at a synagogue in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, some 1,600 miles from Queens and some 4,800 miles from his home. Thus began an 11-hour ordeal on Saturday that was partly livestreamed, captured the nation’s attention and ended dramatically in a barrage of flashes and gunfire that left him dead and four people he had held captive unharmed and thankful for their lives.
On Sunday, the authorities identified the man as Malik Faisal Akram, a British national. What drew him to Texas was still a mystery, though a possible motivation emerged as investigators reviewed the ranting demands he made as he held captive the rabbi and three other members of the synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville.
President Biden called the hostage-taking “an act of terror,” and British authorities confirmed that counterterrorism police were involved in their investigation.
Late on Sunday, the Greater Manchester Police Department in England announced that it had detained two teenagers for questioning in connection with the investigation. The department did not say who they were or why they were being questioned. Mr. Akram was originally from the Blackburn area of Lancashire, in Northwest England, the British authorities said.
Mr. Akram had entered the United States legally, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the continuing investigation.
The address Mr. Akram used on his entry papers appears to be the same as the Queens Hotel in New York City, according to the officials.
Inexpensive by New York standards, with rooms costing around $80 per night, the hotel overlooks an entrance to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and is described on Google Maps as “unassuming lodging.”
Though Mr. Akram said on his entry documents that he would be staying there, it was not clear whether he actually did. A clerk on duty there on Sunday could not say. F.B.I. agents came by to review the hotel’s camera recordings but found nothing useful, the clerk said.
At a news conference on Saturday night, Matthew DeSarno, special agent in charge of the Dallas Field Office of the F.B.I., would say only that Mr. Akram, whom he did not name at the time, “was singularly focused on one issue.” The Texas Department of Public Safety said that during the ordeal on Saturday, Mr. Akram had demanded to see a woman who is currently in U.S. federal custody for “terroristic events” in Afghanistan.
The F.B.I. said on Sunday that he spoke of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist, who was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 86 years in prison for trying to kill American military officers while she was in custody in Afghanistan.
She is incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, about 24 miles southwest of Congregation Beth Israel, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The man claimed that he and the woman would be “going to Jannah (Muslim belief of heaven) after he sees her,” the department said in a statement on Saturday.
The episode began around 10:40 a.m. when the police received a 911 call that “a gunman had entered the synagogue” and taken several hostages, Chief Michael C. Miller of the Colleyville Police Department said at the news conference on Saturday.
Soon, homes near the synagogue were evacuated as city, state and federal officials descended on the scene, the chief said. Mr. Akram was in contact with law enforcement officials throughout the ordeal, according to Mr. DeSarno.
“The negotiation team had a high frequency and duration of contact with him,” Mr. DeSarno said. There were times when the communication ceased, he said. The “relationship” between Mr. Akram and the negotiators, according to Mr. DeSarno, “ebbed and flowed a little bit” and sometimes “got intense.”
Experts on hostage situations say that maintaining dialogue is crucial.
“Crusaders, criminals and crazies are the people that hold hostages, and you’re not always sure which one it is at first,” said Robert J. Louden, a professor emeritus of criminal justice and homeland security at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. “The information you can develop about the situation allows you to best determine which kind of situation you have.”
The synagogue’s service was being livestreamed on Facebook, and for a while after he arrived, the audio remained live, letting anyone listen in real time as Mr. Akram angrily made his demands.
At one point, apparently referring to the hostages while speaking to a negotiator, Mr. Akram said, “Their children are being traumatized right now because you guys … don’t want to work with me.”
After asking the hostages, one by one, how many children each of them had, he appeared to address the negotiator, saying “Why are you going to leave seven children orphaned?”
At about 5 p.m., one male hostage was released, unharmed, while the other three continued to be held, the authorities said.
At some point during the crisis, it appears that Mr. Akram contacted a rabbi in New York City, Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue, according to a statement from her synagogue, though the subject of their interaction was unclear.
Rabbi Buchdahl had “no prior contact” with Mr. Akram and “immediately contacted law enforcement and followed their directions,” the statement said. Rabbi Buchdahl did not respond to requests seeking further comment.
In the last hour of the crisis, Mr. Akram became “increasingly belligerent and threatening,” said one of the hostages, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, in a statement issued through a representative.
By around 9 p.m. the F.B.I.’s elite hostage rescue team, which had flown in from Virginia, breached the building and rescued the three remaining hostages, Chief Miller said at the news conference. It’s not clear what triggered the team to enter the synagogue and mount a risky operation to save the congregants.
A video from WFAA, a local news station, showed people sprinting out of the synagogue. Moments later, a man holding a gun is seen briefly at the doorway before going back inside the building. The video then shows groups of law enforcement personnel entering the building from two entrances. What sounds like gunfire and a loud blast are heard in the video.
When a reporter asked on Saturday night whether the suspect shot himself or was shot by law enforcement officials, Chief Miller said, “I think that is still part of the ongoing investigation.”
Reached at his home on Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Cytron-Walker declined to comment. Members of a family that worships at the temple had just arrived for a visit, and as soon as the rabbi opened the door, they hugged one another tightly.
In a statement, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said that he and the congregation had participated in “multiple security courses” from the police, F.B.I. and other organizations. “We are alive today because of that education,” he said.
The training was organized in part by the Secure Community Network in August, leaders of that organization said at a news conference on Sunday.
The organization consults with synagogues on safety plans and procedures. The session in August had been initiated at the request of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and was not prompted by any particular security threat, said the network’s chief executive, Michael Masters.
Synagogues around the country have been on alert since an antisemitic attacker killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
The training for Beth Israel consisted of instructions on sheltering in place, exiting safely in emergency situations, countering active threats and situational awareness, among other topics.
“The Talmud teaches us that we shouldn’t plan on miracles,” Mr. Masters said. “We hope for them, we pray for them, but we have to rely on ourselves.”
Devorah Titunik, a congregant of Beth Israel, said that the door of the synagogue would have been locked at the service on Saturday and that anyone looking to enter would have to be let in by someone inside. But unless the suspect had been “waving a gun at the door,” Ms. Titunik said, he would have been welcomed inside, noting that the synagogue has a security guard in place only for major events.
“We’re a small congregation and we just don’t have the type of finances that can allow us to have a security guard,” she said.
In fact, Mr. Akram didn’t need to force his way in. During the livestream, he told a negotiator that the synagogue had let him in even though he “didn’t look nice.”
“I said, ‘Is this a night shelter?’ and they let me in. And they gave me a cup of tea. So I do feel bad.”
Reporting was contributed by Ruth Graham, Megan Specia, Jesus Jiménez, Michael Levenson, Margarita Birnbaum, Nadav Gavrielov and Adam Goldman. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.