The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Synagogue hostage-taker’s hometown doesn’t want to be known as a place that produces terrorists

Malik Faisal Akram was from Blackburn, England, about 30 miles outside of Manchester. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

BLACKBURN, England — The British man who took four hostages at a Texas synagogue grew up in a neighborhood that is predominantly immigrant, religious, aspirational — and residents say they are appalled that one of their own traveled to America to carry out an act of terrorism.

“People are genuinely surprised. That is an understatement,” said Zaffer Khan, a local son and founder of the group One Voice Blackburn, which promotes interfaith ties.

“People in these situations always say they are shocked, right?” Khan continued. “It’s a cliche, when something like this comes from their community. But here, we really didn’t see it coming.”

On Saturday, an 11-hour standoff at Congregation Beth Israel in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville ended with the hostages escaping. But their captor, Malik Faisal Akram, 44, was shot dead by an FBI rescue team, law enforcement officials said.

Asif Mahmud, a community activist who knows Akram’s family, said people in their English town are saddened by the hostage-taking. And as investigators search for the roots of Akram’s radicalization, people here are fearful that Blackburn “will be marginalized and stigmatized for this one guy,” who Mahmud called, “an idiot, I am sorry to say.”

In 2015, a 14-year-old from Blackburn became the youngest person convicted of a terrorism offense 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 people who spoke to The Washington Post this week described the heavily Muslim neighborhoods of Blackburn as religiously conservative yet “old school,” even “dull,” not hot with Islamist fervor.

The mosques, people said, are mostly attended by older retired men. “They want us to get into Oxford,” said one young man.

“You looking for al-Qaeda crazy stuff, you have to go the Internet,” said Zain, 16, interviewed with high school friends at a fast food joint, who declined to give his last name — because, he said, “I don’t know how this information will be used by the mainstream media.” He laughed. “No hard feelings.”

The founding generation — the grandparents — came to Blackburn in the 1960s, immigrants from Pakistan and India, to work in the textile trade in and around Manchester, England.

The spinning machines shut down, moved offshore, and Blackburn hit the skids in the 1970s, a poster child for destitute Britain. But the immigrant families stayed and transformed the town, for the better, they say.

Two of the richest men in England, the billionaire Issa brothers, Mohsin and Zuber, still live in Blackburn. Their parents were immigrants from India. They own the new hotel, a Hampton Inn. Their company is also reportedly considering a takeover of the Boots pharmacy chain worth up to $13.5 billion.

The locals are proud that two of the highest performing schools in the country are located here.

The city, though, is famously segregated — so much so that it has been a case study for BBC documentaries. Mostly, the White residents moved out. In the city center, many former churches are boarded up, or repurposed as snooker halls or new businesses.

On the streets where Akram grew up — and where family members still live — some rowhouses look a little scruffy, with trash bins tipped over in the yard, but others are spiffed up, with posh front doors, security cameras, flower boxes and a Mercedes parked out front.

Akram’s father, Malik, founded one of the 40-plus mosques in the city.

“The father — he is a respectable man,” said Mahmud, the community activist.

But his son Akram had some troubles, Mahmud said. “Would I have thought he could do this? No, I could not.”

Gulbar Akram, the hostage-taker’s younger brother, told The Post that Malik had mental health issues, but he declined to elaborate.

During the hostage standoff, Gulbar Akram worked with police and called his brother, to urge him to release the people at the synagogue and turn himself in.

“The whole town shouldn’t be blamed for this,” said Iftakhar Hussain, a member of the city council and a former mayor.

Hussain said, “no one accepts this violence. We stand against it. We say this is wrong, this is wrong.”

Hussain, 57, said he is old enough to recall when English white nationalists came into his neighborhood to taunt Pakistani immigrants.

“Oh, I remember the skinheads, shouting at us,” Hussain said.

The Guardian newspaper reported that Akram was banned from a Blackburn court in 2001 after he said he “wished a court usher had been on the planes flown into buildings to commit mass murder” in the 9/11 attacks.

Akram was also known to security officials in Britain, two other officials told The Post.

The BBC reported Tuesday that MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence and security agency, investigated Akram in 2020 and had him on a watch list as a “subject of interest,” but concluded that he no longer posed a threat.

Britain’s Home Office declined Tuesday to comment on the investigation.

During the standoff at the Texas synagogue, Akram repeatedly referenced Aafia Siddiqui — an MIT-educated Pakistani woman widely known as “Lady al-Qaeda,” who was convicted on terrorism charges in 2010 — and called for her release.

People who heard Akram on a live stream from the synagogue, which had been conducting shabbat services and ended up broadcasting part of the ordeal, said Akram explained he 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 U.S. soldiers.

In Blackburn, locals said the Siddiqui case is well known, especially among those of Pakistani heritage.

“People have heard of her, of course. The government of Pakistan have even called for her release. But I don’t see her as a cause celebre in the town,” said Khan, the leader of One Voice Blackburn.

Who is Aafia Siddiqui? Texas synagogue hostage-taker allegedly sought release of ‘Lady al-Qaeda.’

In an interview with Shuiab Khan, a columnist at the Lancashire Telegraph, Gulbar Akram said he didn’t know his brother had flown to America.

Gulbar said he spoke with his brother from a local police station, alongside FBI hostage negotiators on the line.

“My mind went blank. I was in shock. I realized that this may be the last time I would speak to him,” Gulbar told the newspaper.

“I tried to convince him and think about his kids. I told him ‘pack it in’…’pack it in’. His mind was made up. At no point did he say he would harm these people.

“I knew he had no bomb as he switches between Punjabi and English when he is lying. He had a handgun I told him, ‘You wanted to create awareness and you made your point’. As the call went along, I feared he would not get out of this alive,” he said. “All I could do is plead with him. I was in tears at this point.”

Blackburn’s former mayor, Hussain, said “this is terrible situation. We are ashamed. We worry. We were thriving. We were living in peace. We hope to continue to do so.”

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