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Texas synagogue hostage describes what it was like inside temple, shares escape story

Jeffrey Cohen said he positioned himself so he was in line with the exit, which he learned in a course about what to do in active shooter situations.

One of the hostages who was held for hours in a Texas synagogue described Tuesday how he, his rabbi and other congregants were able to escape.

The man, Jeffrey Cohen, was one of four people who made it out alive after the gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, held them captive for more than 10 hours Saturday at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, about 30 miles northwest of Dallas.

Akram, 44, was shot and killed by the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, a senior law enforcement official said.

Cohen said in an appearance on MSNBC that he arrived at the synagogue a few minutes after Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker had invited Akram inside so he could "warm up."

“We invited him in. The rabbi gave him a cup of tea, let him sit in the back," Cohen said. "When I came in, Rabbi Charlie told me to come say hello, because I’m one of the congregants, I’m the vice president, so I normally would greet someone. [I] went over and had no reason to assume that he was anything other than what he said. ... He was quite jovial. He was friendly. He was on the phone.”

There was a prayer less than an hour into Saturday's service, Cohen said.

"It's part public and part private prayer. And we got into the private prayer, and I had gone through mine and sat down," he said. "And then I heard the unmistakable click of a semi-automatic being loaded, but it was context — it didn’t make sense that we would hear that kind of sound there, so I didn’t put much to it.

"Rabbi Charlie heard it, as well, and he was looking over at the attacker, and very soon after that he started yelling," Cohen continued. "To be perfectly honest, as soon as I heard him yelling, I knew there was something going on, so I wasn’t really concentrating on what he said."

Cohen said he dialed 911 and then turned his cellphone upside down so Akram would not see it. Akram is alleged to have started calling the congregants to the back of the room. Cohen said he positioned himself so he was in line with the exit, which he learned in a course about what to do in active shooter situations.

He credited the course with helping him get out alive.

“The whole time I was focused on what do I need to do to get out," he said.

Cohen said Akram said he did not want to hurt anyone and told them that “he was the only one who needed to die.” Cohen said he believes Akram was mentally ill, echoing a statement Akram's family made in an apology to the victims.

"The way he behaved makes me believe that," Cohen said.

He added that he did not think Akram was "your typical attacker" who wanted to kill Jewish people but that he had "bought into these tropes."

"He came to the Jews because he bought into these very dangerous stories that the Jews control the world and the Jews control the government and the banks and the media. And we as good people and we as patriotic Americans, we need to challenge those things when we hear them, because these words do have consequences," Cohen said.

It is not clear why Akram chose Congregation Beth Israel or what led him to take the group hostage. During the standoff, he demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a federal prisoner being held in North Texas after she was convicted in 2010 of trying to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

The rabbi said three of the four hostages were able to flee after he threw a chair at Akram. The other hostage had been released hours earlier.

An investigation revealed that Akram, who was from Lancashire in northwest England, had been the subject of a short, low-level investigation in the U.K. in 2020. A British security source said that the investigation was based on information that he may have been involved in Islamist terrorism but that the case had been closed by the time he traveled to the U.S. because it did not meet the threshold for further investigation.