In the final moments of a 10-hour standoff with a gunman at a Texas synagogue, the remaining hostages and officials trying to negotiate their release took “near simultaneous plans of action,” with the hostages escaping as an FBI tactical team moved in, an official said Friday.
“I think we both kind of realized around the same time that: It’s time to go,” Matt DeSarno, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Dallas, said at a news conference.
DeSarno said that just after 9 p.m. on Jan. 15, he authorized his teams to enter the synagogue at the moment the hostages came to “a similar conclusion” to escape.
As agents approached the building, he said, they encountered the three remaining hostages running out and continued moving toward the synagogue to face Malik Faisal Akram, the 44-year-old British citizen who had taken four hostages during morning services at Congregation Beth Israel in the Dallas-area suburb of Colleyville.
Akram had released a hostage shortly after 5 p.m. but those remaining said he became more belligerent and threatening as the night wore on. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said Friday that while Akram had a drink in his hand, he threw a chair at Akram and he and the two other remaining hostages fled.
“We were constantly looking for an opportunity to leave,” Cytron-Walker said.
As the moment came, the FBI rushed in and fatally shot Akram, DeSarno said.
The Tarrant County Medical examiner on Friday said Akram was killed by multiple gunshot wounds and ruled his death a homicide, a determination that does not necessarily indicate it was a crime. The medical examiner determined that Akram died at 9:22 p.m.
DeSarno, who had attracted attention for saying on Jan. 15 that the hostage-taker was focused on an issue not specifically connected to the Jewish community, took pains Friday to stress that the FBI regarded the episode as an act of terrorism that threatened the Jewish community and “intentionally targeted” a house of worship. The act, he said, “was committed by a terrorist espousing an anti-Semitic worldview.”
“This was both a hate crime and an act of terrorism,” DeSarno said.
DeSarno said Akram is believed to have selected the synagogue because it is closest to a federal prison in nearby Fort Worth that houses a “convicted terrorist” with suspected al-Qaida links. During negotiations, Akram demanded the release of that prisoner in exchange for letting the hostages free. Though he did not name the prisoner, other law enforcement officials have identified her as Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year prison sentence after being convicted of shooting at American military personnel after being detained in Afghanistan.
Siddiqui’s attorney said she had no connection to Akram.
Akram was from the English industrial city of Blackburn. His family said he had been “suffering from mental health issues.”
He arrived in New York on a tourist visa about two weeks before the attack and cleared checks against law enforcement databases without raising any red flags, officials said. He spent time in Dallas-area homeless shelters before the attack, and visited an area mosque at least twice to pray.
Investigators had been trying to determine how Akram got to Colleyville from Dallas. On Friday, the Colleyville police chief said they’d found a mountain bike at a nearby soccer complex, and they were able to unlock it with a key found on Akram’s body.
The FBI is still investigating how Akram got the gun used in the attack, though it has had success in tracking his movements from the time he arrived in New York on Dec. 29 until his entrance into the synagogue. DeSarno said agents were still reviewing his devices and scrutinizing his contacts but that he was not known to the FBI or U.S. intelligence communities until the hostage-taking.
DeSarno said that where and how Akram acquired the gun is “a primary gap” in the investigation.