Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker decided to take action hours into the attack, fearing the situation was deteriorating.
FLOWER MOUND, Texas – Hours after being taken hostage by an armed stranger at the synagogue he leads, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker feared that the situation was deteriorating. The captor’s demands weren’t being satisfied. Terror was mounting among the rabbi and two remaining hostages.
Glimpsing an opportunity, Cytron-Walker sprang into action.
“I made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were ready to go,” the rabbi recounted in an interview with CBS. “The exit wasn’t too far away. 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.”
A more complete picture emerged of what unfolded inside the Texas synagogue where an armed British citizen took a rabbi and three congregants hostage in an attack the FBI is now investigating as an act of terrorism. Cytron-Walker and another hostage, Jeffrey Cohen, described how hostage-taker Malik Faisal Akram revealed a gun as the group said prayers on Saturday at Congregation Beth Israel, then repeatedly threatened them over the course of 11 terrifying hours. He allowed them to call their families, Cohen said in a lengthy Facebook post, and at one point told them to get on their knees.
Those accounts came as police in north-west England questioned two teenagers as part of an investigation that now spans two countries. Britain’s Greater Manchester Police said on Sunday that the pair had been taken into custody by counter-terrorism officers and that the department would assist US officials with the inquiry. The agency declined to share further details on Monday.
In the United States, the FBI described the stand-off as a “terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.” The agency added that the incident – which ended with the hostages safe and 44-year-old Akram dead – is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
“We never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial, and ethnic groups,” the FBI said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post.
Details of the hostage-taker’s background were beginning to emerge in his home of Blackburn, a town in Lancashire, England, with a significant population of immigrants who arrived from Pakistan and India beginning in the 1960s. There, Akram grew up in a well-known family, his father the founder of a small mosque. He struggled with mental health issues, according to his brother, Gulbar Akram, who declined to elaborate further.
The area is “unfortunately well-known for producing some terrorists in the past,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think tank.
In 2015, a 14-year-old from Blackburn became the youngest person convicted of a terrorism offence in Britain. The teen was jailed for inciting terrorism in Australia after instructing an Islamist militant to behead or kill officers at an Anzac Day parade.
But Pantucci said things had been quiet in recent years.
“Blackburn is quite a conservative community, quite fundamentalist,” he said. “The mosques there do not like violence nor the attention it attracts.”
Akram’s father, Malik, founded one of the tightknit, heavily Muslim community’s small local mosques, called Masjid e Raza, according to the older men who came for prayer on Monday afternoon. They declined to discuss the seizing of hostages in Texas.
Young people who gathered down the street at fast food joints described their neighbourhood as “super Muslim” but “chill.” The teenagers said they didn’t view Blackburn as a hothouse for radical Islam – their conservative parents were most worried about drug use, not al-Qaeda.
Abdul Samad Umerji Ismail, a trustee at the Masjid-e-Irfan mosque on Eldon Road in Blackburn, confirmed Akram had prayed at his mosque, but said he hadn’t seen him there for a couple of years.
The news has left the community wondering how “from our town … something happened like this.” He added, “People like this ruin everybody’s name.”
Akram landed at New York City’s John F Kennedy International Airport on December 29, according to law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. The synagogue attack came about two weeks later and more than 1,500 miles away, in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville.
That morning, Akram visited a local Starbucks and ordered two cappuccinos, according to employees Heidi Risley and Sierra Ketron. He asked Risley for the time after ordering – it was 8.43am – and sat at a corner table for at least a half hour, constantly looking around him, Ketron recalled. Risley said she shared the encounter with police after recognising Akram in news footage.
He knocked on the door of the synagogue during morning services. Cytron-Walker said he let the man inside and spoke with him while making him a cup of tea.
“And in that moment, I didn’t hear anything suspicious,” the rabbi told CBS News. “Some of his story didn’t quite add up. So I was a little bit curious, but that’s not necessarily an uncommon thing.”
Cohen, in his Facebook post, described the synagogue’s guest as seemingly “calm and happy to be in from the frigid 20 degree morning.” Akram said hello and smiled, he added.
The first hint of what was to come happened as the congregants gathered at the synagogue – a small in number due to the pandemic – were praying. Cytron-Walker’s was facing away from the congregation, toward Jerusalem, when he heard a clicking sound. It was, Cohen wrote “that unmistakable sound of an automatic slide engaging a round.” He dialed 911, his phone screen facing down. He considered wrapping his prayer shawl around their captor’s neck if he could get behind him, but “never got the chance.”
During the stand-off, Akram repeatedly referenced Aafia Siddiqui, an American-educated Pakistani woman widely known as “Lady al-Qaeda” who was convicted on terrorism charges in 2010, calling for her release.
People who heard him on the live stream of services, which carried part of the ordeal, said Akram chose Congregation Beth Israel because it appeared to be the closest gathering of Jews to a federal facility in Fort Worth where Siddiqui is being held on an 86-year sentence for trying to kill US soldiers.
Akram, who could be heard saying he targeted the synagogue because the United States “only cares about Jewish lives,” called for Siddiqui to be released. He referred to Siddiqui as “my sister,” an expression of solidarity because her family says they were not related. He asked to see her and said they would rise together to Jannah, the Muslim paradise where the faithful are taken after Judgment Day.
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.
His brother said the family was “devastated” and “do not condone any of his actions.” He told The Post on Monday his brother “released” the hostages through the fire exit, adding that he was at the Blackburn police station working with FBI negotiators, so “I should know.”
But that claim was contradicted by the accounts of those taken hostage.
Cohen and Cytron-Walker described relying on active threat training to manage the frightening situation.
“This training saved our lives – I am not speaking in hyperbole here,” Cohen wrote.
In courses over the past year – the most recent on August 22 – Secure Community Network instructor Stuart Frisch said in an interview that he taught the rabbi and temple members how to react to situations using the “run, hide, fight” method.
Cytron-Walker said he was taught “that if your life is threatened, you need to do whatever you can to get to safety, you need to do whatever you can to get out.” It was in the final hour, when “it didn’t look good,” that he threw the chair. The congregants, who according to Cohen’s account inched closer to the door over the hours they were held, were within 20 feet of it and able to flee.
“We escaped,” he wrote. “We weren’t released or freed.”
Some members attributed the escape to the calm demeanour and quick thinking of their rabbi. Devorah Titunik, a member for about 15 years, said she wasn’t surprised by Cytron-Walker’s handling of the standoff, adding: “If ever I was in a situation like that, the person I’d want to have there would be Rabbi Charlie.”
The attack sent shockwaves through the congregation. In interviews, congregants said they feared anti-Semitism in the US, with many referencing the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people.
Stacey Silverman, 53, watched Sunday’s crisis over the synagogue’s livestream with her 20-year-old daughter, unable to see what was happening because the video was stuck on a prayer book. Listening for hours as Akram ranted, she was terrified that “at any minute we could hear a tragedy unfold.”
Even after the hostages escaped to safety, mother and daughter did not fall asleep until 6am, still shaken by what happened. Silverman said it was “kind of a scary time to be a Jew in this country.”
“We’re horrified that [this] happened,” Silverman said. “But I don’t think we’re shocked.”
– THE WASHINGTON POST