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Texas synagogue standoff ends with hostages freed, suspect dead

People being held hostage at a Colleyville, Tex., synagogue were freed and unharmed on Jan. 15. Authorities said the suspect died. (Video: Reuters)
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COLLEYVILLE, Tex. — Law enforcement rescued a rabbi and other people who were being held hostage at a Dallas-area synagogue on Saturday night, ending an hours-long standoff as the suspect was confirmed dead.

“All hostages are out alive and safe,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted about 9:30 p.m. local time, after a loud boom and what sounded like gunshots erupted from the area. Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller confirmed that “the subject is deceased” but would not say whether he had been killed by law enforcement or himself.

Miller and FBI Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno declined in a news conference after the standoff’s conclusion to share more information about the identity of the suspect, saying an investigation with “global reach” is underway.

A law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, said the man’s motive for taking hostages appears to have been his anger over the U.S. imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman being held in federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill U.S. soldiers. Siddiqui, who was convicted on terrorism charges in 2010 and sentenced to 86 years in prison after opening fire on Americans, has become a cause celebre in Islamist militant circles, eliciting frequent demands for her release.

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The confrontation began during Saturday services at Congregation Beth Israel in this suburb of Fort Worth and Dallas, which were streamed on the synagogue’s Facebook page for people to watch from home. Police were called about 11 a.m. after a man with a gun and explosives captured four people, including the rabbi, the law enforcement official said. After “constant contact” between negotiators and the suspect, one man was released uninjured shortly after 5 p.m., Miller said.

About 9 p.m., the FBI’s hostage rescue team breached the synagogue. Authorities said the team flew from Quantico, Va., that day. In total, at least 200 members of law enforcement responded to the tense scene, DeSarno told reporters.

“It’s very likely this situation would have ended very badly earlier in the day had we not had professional, consistent negotiations,” DeSarno said.

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In the Facebook live stream of the Shabbat service, which has since been taken down, a man seemed to be speaking on the phone off-camera, sometimes shouting, sounding increasingly distressed. He said he wanted to speak with his “sister,” seemingly referring to Siddiqui with an expression of solidarity. The hostage-taker was not the brother of Siddiqui, according to two people familiar with the family.

Siddiqui’s attorney, Marwa Elbially, before the standoff ended said the suspect was not a member of her family, adding that they do not know of the individual’s identity or approve of his actions. “They condemn any type of violence done in [Siddiqui’s] name,” Elbially said.

Stacey Silverman, who has been a member of the congregation for 13 years and was watching the service when the hostages were taken, said the suspect could be heard saying that he had flown to the area from 5,000 miles away, and that he said he chose a synagogue because the United States “only cares about Jewish lives.”

Minutes before the live stream cut off, the man could be heard talking on the phone, sharing chilling words to whomever he was speaking with: “Don’t cry about me. I’m going to die.”

“This has been a nightmare for our community,” Silverman, 53, told The Washington Post, describing Congregation Beth Israel as “small and close knit.” The rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, is “hugely respected” and “a friend to all,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Dallas division, Katie Chaumont, said early Sunday that she was not yet aware whether the bureau would be investigating the episode as a hate crime.

President Biden said in a statement late Saturday that “there is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker. But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate — we will stand against anti-Semitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.”

Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, said Saturday’s events at the synagogue were “energizing jihadis and terrorist groups both online and on the ground who haven’t had much to be excited about since the Taliban’s return to power.”

In response to news of the hostage situation, Jewish communities in several cities heightened their security. Police in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Calif., and Dallas said they increased patrols around their local synagogues. The law enforcement official who talked to The Post said that early in the standoff, the hostage-taker said he wanted a rabbi in New York to know that he was taking the hostages because he wanted Siddiqui freed. As a precaution, New York police officials sent officers to provide additional security to the synagogue where the rabbi works.

As recently as September, British extremist preacher Anjem Choudary announced a campaign calling for Siddiqui’s release. “The obligation upon us is to either free her physically or to ransom her or to exchange her,” Choudary said on his Telegram channel. “However, until such time as we can fulfill one of these obligations the minimum that we can do is to use all that we have to raise awareness about her case, to keep her name in the hearts and in the minds of Muslims.”

On Jan. 13, a pro-Islamic State outlet released a video in which a narrator denounced what he described as the attacks and torture by “the enemies of Allah” against female Muslim prisoners. A poster mentioning Siddiqui is visible in the background of the video. In 2014, the Islamic State offered to release American hostage Kayla Mueller in exchange for Siddiqui and $6.6 million.

Siddiqui, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from MIT and a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University, was married with three children and living in the Boston area during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She left her husband and returned to Pakistan in 2003, fearing that if she stayed in the United States, her children would be forcibly taken from her and converted to Christianity, according to a psychological report prepared for her trial. The report said that her thoughts were “replete with numerous conspiratorial ideas” and that “she also related a number of beliefs that appeared delusional.”

Siddiqui disappeared after her return to Pakistan. She was captured in Afghanistan in July 2008, when she was found with a flash drive containing documents on chemical and biological weapons, according to U.S. prosecutors. When FBI agents and U.S. military personnel were interviewing her in Afghanistan, she grabbed a rifle and opened fire on the Americans before she was herself shot. She was flown to the United States and convicted in federal court in New York of attempted murder for the attack.

Police blocked off streets leading to the synagogue Saturday afternoon. Journalists and bystanders had huddled in the parking lot of Good Shepherd Catholic Community.

Among the crowd were members of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit organization that works with Jewish congregations to prepare for scenarios such as the one unfolding nearby. Chairman Harold Gernsbacher, who lives in Dallas, was called about the situation about 11 a.m.

He said the group worked with Congregation Beth Israel, including Cytron-Walker, on Aug. 22 to evaluate the perimeter of the synagogue and practice safety drills in case a shooting ever occurred.

“We’re dealing with the fact that antisemitic acts are on the rise across America,” said Amy Korenvaes, a board member of the Secure Community Network.

Anna Salton Eisen, a founder and former president of Congregation Beth Israel, described the congregation as “a lot of people who are from other places.” Mostly, she said, it has become a mosaic of individuals from all over the country bound together by the desire to create a community for themselves. From potlucks to worship, “we have become a tightknit, caring family,” she said.

From its origins, the congregation’s engagement with different faith communities has been central to its identity, Salton Eisen said. Before the temple was built, local churches opened their doors and allowed the group to worship in their spaces. Every year, they organize “Peace Together,” an interfaith walk created by churches and mosques. Cytron-Walker is known for cultivating “wonderful relationships” with both ministers and imams, she said.

Jewish leaders and others condemned the attack, noting other assaults on Jewish people and places of worship. In 2018, a shooter killed 11 people and injured six others at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Six months later, a shooter killed one and injured three in a synagogue near San Diego.

correction

A previous version of this article said that a shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue occurred in 2019. It happened in 2018. An earlier version also incorrectly stated that Tree of Life is the oldest synagogue in Pittsburgh. The article has been corrected.

Kornfield, Barrett and Mekhennet reported from Washington. Paúl reported from Lakeville, Minn. Pietsch reported from Seoul.

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