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‘Some people just don’t like us:’ In a Texas synagogue, 11 hours of terror

Law enforcement officials investigate the hostage incident at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Tex. (Ralph Lauer/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Rabbi Charlie had spoken just the previous Saturday about how hard it is now. Life seemed overwhelming, he said in his last sermon before the man came into the synagogue and changed everything.

“We are living through a challenging time,” Charles Cytron-Walker told members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Tex. “We don’t always know how to cope. . . . There’s a lot of fear and there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

But the Jewish people had been here before, the rabbi said, and had always endured.

“They’ve been enslaved and they are watching plague after plague,” he said. “Imagine . . . watching the world get turned upside down time and time again. It would have been amazing to experience — and terrifying.”

On Saturday, the call came into Colleyville police at 10:41 a.m. Emergency at the synagogue. A man came into the sanctuary during Sabbath services and took hostages.

The terror was broadcast to worshipers at the Reform Jewish synagogue in a suburb of 26,000 people, northeast of Fort Worth, and to anyone else around the world live on Facebook. And as the intruder lashed out at Jews and Israel and America, in Colleyville and Dallas and Washington, the American machinery of counterterror switched from Ready to Go.

Police swarmed the area, cordoned off the neighborhood, evacuated people from nearby homes, and set up a command center to coordinate more than 200 law enforcement officers who arrived from nearby cities, from around Texas, and, with startling speed, from Quantico, Va. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team scrambled and put more than 60 people on the ground in Colleyville in a few hours.

There weren’t many people inside the synagogue when the man, identified Sunday by the FBI as Malik Faisal Akram, 44, a resident of Great Britain, walked in and turned life upside down. Most congregants were in their own homes on Zoom, prevented by the pandemic from gathering in one room and embracing each other and their traditions of worship.

Those who came to the building — now Akram’s four hostages — included an elderly man in fragile health, two other congregants and their leader, Cytron-Walker, whom the temple had hired in 2006, two years after it opened its own building, seven years after a group of 25 families who had tired of traveling half an hour or more to the nearest synagogue decided to build their own community.

And now, one more person in the building, this stranger, threatening violence, and, according to law enforcement officials, brandishing a gun and what he said were explosives.

Akram entered Beth Israel by knocking on a glass door and pretending to be looking for shelter, he said on the live stream of the morning service.

Akram said he liked Rabbi Charlie. “I can see they’re good guys,” he said on the live stream, apparently speaking with negotiators. “They let me in. I didn’t look nice. They let me in. 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.”

The rabbi opened the door, Akram said: “It’s a glass door. I made a knock on it. He let me in. And I go, Oh, my word. Because I did pray. Before everything, I did pray, I said God . . . I don’t want to shoot anyone to get in.”

Akram had come from across the ocean, arriving at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on Dec. 29, according to law enforcement officials, and he said he had spent 16 hours somewhere in the synagogue’s area, “walking around with what I have in my bag, and with my ammo.” If he’d been confronted by a police officer, he said, “he was gonna die. . . . He would have gotten shot in the head, straight away.”

Akram chose this place, according to people who heard him on the live stream, because it appeared to be the closest assemblage of Jews to a federal facility in Fort Worth where an American-educated Pakistani convicted terrorist is serving an 86-year sentence for shooting at U.S. soldiers and FBI agents.

Akram wanted Aafia Siddiqui released. He wanted to see her, after which, he said, he and she — “my sister,” he called her, though her relatives say they were not related — would rise together to Jannah, the Muslim paradise where the faithful are taken after Judgment Day.

People being held hostage at a Colleyville, Tex., synagogue were freed and unharmed on Jan. 15. Authorities said the suspect died. (Video: Reuters)

In Colleyville and beyond, word of the standoff spread instantly. In Dallas, the man who had worked to secure Beth Israel against attack received a phone call. In Cincinnati, the teacher who had trained Rabbi Cytron-Walker recalled his own trip to Prague, where the heavy security around a synagogue seemed like something foreign to American Jewish life. And all around the suburbs of Dallas and Fort Worth, Jews rushed to connect with each other — worried (who were the hostages?), sickened (this, again?), scared to death.

TERROR at my synagogue,” Beth Israel member Stacey Silverman posted on Facebook. The hostage-taker “is holding my beloved Rabbi and congregants hostage. He says he will shoot unless his sister is released. Ranting about Jews and Israel. He says he doesn’t care if he dies a martyr.”

For American Jews, the Beth Israel attack was less a watershed event than one more wearying, numbing reminder that they are targets. Not long ago, Jews could walk into synagogues without thinking about security. But after a torrent of threats and attacks — and especially after the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman opened fire, killing 11 Jews — houses of worship became forbidding gauntlets of protective measures: armed guards, searches, identity checks, questioning.

At 11:32 a.m., Anna Salton Eisen, one of Beth Israel’s founders, was at home when she received a text message from another member: “Rabbi Charlie is being held hostage in CBI right now.”

Eisen logged on to the live stream, heard the intruder and had a sinking realization: This was really happening. She had helped her father write a memoir about his harrowing experiences in 10 Nazi concentration camps. Now she had to tell her mother, who also survived the Holocaust and will turn 100 on Saturday, what was happening at their temple in Texas.

Her mother’s eyes filled with tears.

“She didn’t think that after the Holocaust she would have an experience like this so close to our lives,” Eisen said.

On the Zoom, the prayer service ended abruptly, replaced by snatches of conversation between the attacker and the rabbi, the attacker and the police negotiator who had him on the phone, the attacker and whomever else was in the sanctuary or on the phone. The feed captured the sounds of terror — at times chilling, yet at times calm, conversational, even trusting.

Akram could sound incoherent, but also self-aware. He fixated on one goal, the release of Siddiqui.

Akram told the assembled that he chose to attack a synagogue because “America only cares about Jewish lives,” according to Silverman, who attended the Shabbat service online.

Akram knew what he was doing was extreme, maybe even irrational. “Either there’s something wrong with me or there’s something wrong with America,” he said at one point.

At another juncture, he insisted that “I’m not a sociopath. I have feeling. I have emotion. I’m human. I bleed.”

On social media, on TV, millions followed the thin reports, clicking on bits of audio from the Facebook feed, listening to security experts speculate about what negotiators might be doing to win release of the hostages, trying to make sense of what was happening in an unseen sanctuary.

On the Zoom screen, the rabbi had posted a prayer: “My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.”

At the bottom of the screen, captions transcribed the words of the heavily accented intruder as he rocked back and forth between conciliatory and catastrophic:

“We have no casualties,” he told a negotiator. “I am really happy with that.” He repeatedly said he didn’t want to shoot anyone.

Then he warned: “If anyone tries toward this building, everyone, everyone . . .” He let them imagine the rest of the sentence.

He swung between fatalistic and agitated, rushing through his words. “I’m sorry, bro,” he told the negotiator. “I’m pumped up. I’m armed up. Guess what? I will die. I will die. . . . Are you listening?”

At other points, he babbled about “disaster industrial facilities,” mentioned filmmaker Oliver Stone, and repeatedly promised to release the hostages, after which he said he would go out into “the yard” and then, “they’re going to take me, all right? . . . I am going to die. Okay, so don’t cry over me.”

No one was crying at Colleyville Middle School, two blocks from the synagogue, where law enforcement set up shop, negotiating by phone with Akram even as officials prepared for a menu of outcomes, ranging from a SWAT team assault to a quiet surrender.

Two blocks in the other direction from Beth Israel, at Good Shepherd Catholic Community, Cheryl Drazin, a Dallas-based vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s regional division, and other local faith leaders set up their own command center, where representatives from the Israeli consulate in Houston and relatives of the hostages gathered.

Drazin saw Catholic priests and Chabad rabbis, in their long beards and black suits, sitting in a waiting area comforting each other.

Bob Roberts, an evangelical pastor at Northwood Church in Keller, five miles from Beth Israel, was eating lunch with his wife at an Italian restaurant around noon when they started getting texts about the hostage situation. He called Muslim leaders and they gathered at Good Shepherd, where Roberts spent the afternoon with the Cytron-Walker’s wife and daughter.

“We’re all people of faith,” Roberts said. “We have disagreements. The reality is we believe in God. And so we prayed.”

At one point, the wife of Shahid Shafi, a prominent Muslim figure in the county and a former city council member in Southlake, came into the room. She and the rabbi’s wife embraced.

“It was just profound,” Roberts said. “I just remember thinking to myself: People could use this [situation] as a tool to do more antisemitic and Islamophobic-type things. But this is the reality. A Muslim and a Jewish lady, embracing. This is how it’s done.”

As the afternoon wore on, Akram seemed driven by one purpose: to somehow win the release of Siddiqui, widely known as “Lady al-Qaeda,” who was tried and convicted in 2010 of attempted murder in New York. She had fired on U.S. soldiers and FBI agents who were interviewing her in Afghanistan following her capture there.

At Beth Israel, Akram spoke with disdain about Israel and Jews and engaged in detailed negotiations with the FBI and with the rabbi. The clergyman and his captor seemed to reach an understanding.

“No one is harmed,” Cytron-Walker told negotiators at one point. “When [one hostage’s] blood sugar was low, he allowed us to get fruit.”

Akram jumped in: “Rabbi, I need you to tell him that you trust me that I will let you out. You’ve got to take my word for it.”

“We do trust that,” the rabbi replied. “Again, I want to acknowledge, my word doesn’t mean much in this situation, but — I do believe that he would let us out.”

Akram appeared to offer to let the hostage with low blood sugar out if the authorities let Akram talk to Siddiqui on the phone.

“You get my sister on the phone, I’ll let [the hostage] out. . . . His sugar levels are dropping. His heart’s beating. And I’ll let him go. . . . That’s a good gesture. . . . That’ll show I’ve got compassion for you.”

A few minutes later, Akram told the hostage that pizza would be delivered to help with his low sugar.

Twice during the negotiations, Akram pushed Cytron-Walker to phone a rabbi at New York’s Central Synagogue to convey his demand that Siddiqui be freed. That rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, said she called police. Federal and local authorities provided security for her and her synagogue as a precaution, according to law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.

Inside Beth Israel, the talks were primarily between Akram and Cytron-Walker, who was keenly aware of the threat that his and all American Jewish institutions faced. Synagogues are targets and their leaders now routinely train for the worst.

“We know that some people just don’t like us,” Cytron-Walker said in his final sermon of 2021. “Antisemitic attacks over the past couple weeks include a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, a hateful attack on a Hanukkah party bus in London, and multiple cases of vandalism worldwide. We know that antisemitism is out there.”

Cytron-Walker had emphasized building relationships with other faiths throughout his 16 years at Beth Israel, Eisen said. Every year, he helped organize “Peace Together,” an interfaith walk with churches and mosques.

As welcoming as he was, Cytron-Walker made security “very much a part of the congregational culture” at Beth Israel, Drazin said. The rabbi did not start meetings without announcing where the exits were, she said, and synagogue leaders had gone through active-shooter training.

On Aug. 22, security experts from the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit that works with Jewish congregations to prepare for attacks, visited Beth Israel and met with Cytron-Walker, inspecting the building’s perimeter, reviewing safety measures and practicing drills on how to behave in the event of a shooting.

During that training, Stuart Frisch taught the rabbi and about 25 Beth Israel members how to identify behavioral cues that could lead to violence. It was the third course the Secure Community Network had led at the synagogue in the past year.

Now, the negotiations inched forward and lurched backward again, and Akram grew frustrated.

“I’m giving you a deal on the plate,” he said. “I’m being kind. Who’s going to give you a deal like this?”

Akram railed against the negotiators and then exploded: “What the f--- is wrong with America?”

The rabbi appeared to try to placate his captor: “There’s something wrong with us.”

Akram replied: “Either there’s something wrong with me or there’s something wrong with America.”

On Sunday, Akram’s brother Gulbar said in a statement posted on Facebook that Akram was “suffering from mental health issues,” but that the family, which the FBI had put in contact with Akram during the negotiations, had always been “confident that he would not harm the hostages.”

Akram seemed to address his mother directly at one point in the live stream: “What are you crying for? . . . Mother, don’t cry on the f---ing phone with me. . . . I left six beautiful kids. I didn’t cry. . . . What are you crying for?”

Two hours into the live stream, Facebook cut off the feed and removed the recording from its site.

With her window onto the terror in the sanctuary closed off, Eisen grew more alarmed. She and other Beth Israel members texted continuously while they waited for news.

At 3:07 p.m., a Facebook message popped up from someone in Pittsburgh.

“Hi Anna — I just saw your post and wanted to reach out and let you know that I am praying,” the message read. “I am a long time member of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and just wanted you to know we are thinking of you in Pittsburgh today!”

The message from someone who had lived through the 2018 massacre “was really a shocking wake-up call,” Eisen said.

At Beth Israel, just after 5 p.m., police escorted an elderly man wearing a robe and a black yarmulke out of the synagogue.

Azhar Azeez, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, was at Good Shepherd, the Catholic church, waiting with Cytron-Walker’s wife and other faith leaders when the news of the first release arrived.

The assembled — evangelical pastor, rabbi, priest, imam — joined in a group prayer, eyes closed, heads down.

Though some seek “to build walls and divide us,” Azeez said, “we are not going to budge. We are all together.”

But at the synagogue, things were not going well. “In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said in a statement released late Sunday. He credited the training he’d had for helping him know how to act and when to flee.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the remaining three hostages emerged from the building.

At 9:15 p.m., a side fire door at Beth Israel opened, and under the harsh white lights that police had trained on the building, a man poked his head out, his handgun preceding him out the door.

As a dog barked, several men in camouflage crept closer to the building. Shots rang out, then a big blast. At the security perimeter, police shouted to reporters to hit the ground.

At Beth Israel, there was a lull, then more shots. Then silence. And after a minute, an armored police vehicle began to pull back from the house of worship.

Akram was dead.

“There was nothing we could have said to him or done that would have convinced him to surrender,” his brother Gulbar wrote in a statement.

At 9:33 p.m., Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted, “Prayers answered. All hostages are out alive and safe.”

Less than an hour later, Eisen, the congregation’s co-founder, watched the law enforcement news conference on TV and finally exhaled.

“Go home,” she thought. “Go to sleep in your beds. Have the day end as it was supposed to.”

Overnight, police collected and examined evidence. At 2 a.m., they warned neighbors that “FBI Bomb Techs are going to be disposing of some ordinances on the scene. . . . There is no need for concern.”

Law enforcement officials did not say what explosive devices Akram may have had. A follow-up alert declared it was “now safe for residents who were evacuated to return to their residences. We know this has been a huge inconvenience. . . .”

At 5 a.m. Sunday, Cytron-Walker posted a brief statement on Facebook, expressing gratitude for vigils and prayers and for law enforcement’s efforts. “I am grateful that we made it out,” he said.

Later, the rabbi praised the training he’d had from police, the FBI, the ADL and other Jewish groups: “We are alive today because of that education.”

In that last sermon a week ago, Cytron-Walker recognized that some people now find it hard to summon hope.

“What can we do?” he asked. “The answer is — quite a lot! . . . In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, God asked the Israelites to face their fears and do something. . . . We are living in the midst of a different kind of chaos and uncertainty and it’s our turn to do something. . . . All we need to do is act.”

Gahan reported from Colleyville, Tex. Devlin Barrett, Meryl Kornfield and Maria Paul contributed to this report.