Federal officials on Friday declared the hostage standoff at a Texas synagogue an act of antisemitic terrorism.
“Let me be clear,” Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Jill Sanborn said, “the FBI is and has been treating Saturday’s events as an act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community.”
She made the remark during a White House call that sought to reassure unnerved Jewish Americans that law enforcement is dedicated to rooting out terroristic violence.
For more than 10 hours, suspect Malik Faisal Akram held four hostages, including a rabbi, at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville.
Hostage Jeffrey Cohen said it started when Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker invited the suspect inside and gave him a cup of tea so he could "warm up."
Negotiators were able to get the suspect to release one hostage, but he became more agitated as the evening progressed, and the three remaining victims escaped when he took a moment to drink juice, Cytron-Walker said Friday at a news conference in Colleyville, which is about 30 miles northwest of Dallas.
"That gave us the opportunity when he had liquid in his hand," Cytron-Walker said.
An FBI team moved in at almost exactly the same time and encountered the hostages as they were fleeing before a confrontation in which the man was fatally shot by agents, the FBI's Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno said.
DeSarno on Friday called the incident “both a hate crime and an act of terrorism.”
No ties between suspect Malik Faisal Akram, a British citizen, and terror groups have been publicly revealed. Akram, 44, was questioned in the U.K. in 2020 over possible terror links, but the case was closed because it didn’t meet the threshold for further investigation, a British security source said.
U.K. authorities detained two people as part of the global investigation into the Texas attack. A senior law enforcement source said the two are Akram's sons.
His brother said in family statement Sunday said Akram was “suffering from mental health issues.”
DeSarno said Friday that the suspect specifically targeted the Jewish community. But shortly after the incident, he said investigators believed Akram was "singularly focused on one issue and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community."
That issue was said to be Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman convicted in 2010 of attempting to murder U.S. service members in Afghanistan. She's serving an 86-year sentence at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Forth Worth. Authorities said Akram was demanding her release.
"It was his belief that Congregation Beth Israel was the closest synagogue to the federal prison," DeSarno said Friday.
Siddiqui's incarceration has become a cause célèbre among Islamic terrorists with extremist beliefs. DeSarno on Friday claimed she is "a convicted al Qaeda terrorist," but her case did not include terrorism charges, and connections to al Qaeda or any other terror group were not found by prosecutors. A terror enhancement was added to the case after prosecution, during sentencing, with the approval of the judge.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations' Dallas-Fort Worth chapter has condemned Saturday's hostage situation as an act of antisemitism while trying to bring certain facts and claims about Siddiqui's case to light.
The group has characterized her prosecution as an overzealous response to 9/11 with no evidence she ever actually handled or fired the gun alleged to have been used against service members.
Additionally, the group has noted that she was "never charged or convicted of terrorism."
Saddiqui's attorney, Plano-based Marwa Elbially, said her client has been unwavering in her denial of the government's narrative.
"She was never charged with terrorism, there was no discussion of any specific terrorist groups at her trial, let alone Al Qaeda," Elbially emailed.
Faizan Syed, spokesman for CAIR's Dallas-Fort Worth chapter, said federal authorities have let politics influence terror-related probes involving Muslim suspects while they've been less focused on right-wing extremism.
"The FBI has made it a point to make political statements rather than statements based on evidence, especially when it comes to ‘Muslim terrorists,'" he said.
He added, "We believe Dr. Siddiqui is a political prisoner, a victim of the so-called War on Terror."