By Eric Levenson, CNN
It started like most any Saturday for members of Congregation Beth Israel.
Families of the Reform Jewish synagogue just outside Dallas-Fort Worth had gathered — in person and online — to participate in the Sabbath service, even amid the twin perils of a fresh pandemic wave and a swelling tide of attacks on Jewish people in the United States.
By day’s end, the community of faith in Colleyville, Texas, would be at the center of a global drama involving a livestreamed hostage-taking, an imprisoned terrorist icon, an elite FBI rescue team, a rabbi’s quick thinking and a final, frantic sprint to freedom.
More details may yet offer a deeper understanding of why it happened. But already, the tale is one of searing trauma, with the broader American Jewish community now again forced to be resilient as it’s reminded of the ever-present potential for disaster.
A rabbi welcomes a stranger
A stranger arrived that morning at the synagogue.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker welcomed in the man and made him a cup of tea, the rabbi told CBS on Monday.
Cytron-Walker may not have known immediately that Malik Faisal Akram, 44, was a British national. Akram had arrived in the US via New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in late December, a US law enforcement source familiar with the investigation told CNN.
In the two weeks before he met Cytron-Walker, Akram had spent three nights — January 6, 11 and 13 — at a Dallas homeless shelter, according to Union Gospel Mission Dallas CEO Bruce Butler. He was very quiet and wasn’t there long enough to build any relationships, Butler said.
Over their shared tea, Cytron-Walker and Akram talked, the rabbi said.
“Some of his story didn’t quite add up, so I was a little bit curious, but that’s not necessarily an uncommon thing,” said the rabbi, who soon that day would lead a religious service for the 157 membership families of his congregation, established in 1999.
The rabbi pointed Jeffrey Cohen, the vice president on the synagogue’s board of trustees, to their guest that day. Cohen went over and introduced himself, he wrote in a Facebook post describing his experience.
“He was on the phone, but briefly stopped his conversation,” Cohen said. “He said hello, smiled, and after we introduced ourselves, I let him go back to his call. He seemed calm and happy to be in from the frigid 20 degree morning. His eyes weren’t darting around; his hands were open and calm, he said hello, he smiled.”
Because of the recent coronavirus surge, many of Congregation Beth Israel’s members had stayed home on Saturday to watch the weekly prayers via Facebook or Zoom. Services began at 10 a.m.
As the rabbi led the prayers — his back turned as he faced toward Jerusalem — he heard a click. It came from the stranger.
“And it turned out, that it was his gun,” Cytron-Walker said.
Cohen said he heard that same click, the “unmistakable sound of an automatic slide engaging a round.” The mysterious guest then began yelling something. Cohen dialed 911 on his phone, put the screen side down and moved as commanded, he wrote.
Akram took four people hostage, including the rabbi, authorities said.
‘I’m going to die at the end of this’
Police got an emergency call at 10:41 a.m.
They rushed to the synagogue and set up a perimeter, evacuating residents nearby, police said. Soon, nearly 200 members of local, state and federal law enforcement, including the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were on hand, FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno said.
Meanwhile, the livestream — intended for the faithful who’d stayed home to be safe from Covid-19 — appeared to capture some of what Akram was saying.
“I’m gunned up. I’m ammo-ed up,” he told someone he called nephew. “Guess what, I will die.”
The audio can be difficult to understand, and it’s not clear whom Akram is talking to. But it’s clear he planned to die during the standoff, he repeatedly told people.
“OK, are you listening? I don’t want you to cry. Listen! I’m going to release these four guys … but then I’m going to go in the yard, yeah? … And they’re going to take me, alright? I’m going to die at the end of this, alright? Are you listening? I am going to die! OK? So, don’t cry over me,” the man said to someone else.
Congregation member Stacey Silverman watched the livestream for more than an hour. She heard the suspect ranting, sometimes switching between saying, “I’m not a criminal,” to apologies, she said.
The man vacillated among languages and was “screaming hysterically,” she said. He claimed to have a bomb.
Akram also “spoke repeatedly about a convicted terrorist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States,” the FBI said in a statement. The convict is believed to be Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani with a PhD in neuroscience who is serving a federal prison sentence in Fort Worth after being found guilty of attempted murder and other charges in an assault on US officers in Afghanistan.
She was not involved in the Colleyville attack, her attorney said Saturday.
“He wanted this woman released and he wanted to talk to her and he thought — well, he said point-blank — he chose this synagogue because ‘Jews control the world. Jews control the media. Jews control the banks. I want to talk to chief rabbi of the United States,'” Cohen told CNN, adding there is no chief rabbi in the US.
Inside the synagogue, Cohen resisted following exactly as Akram commanded, he wrote in his Facebook post. Rather than go to the back of the room as ordered, Cohen stayed in line with one of the exits. When a police officer came to the door and the hostage-taker became more agitated, Cohen moved closer to the exit door, he wrote.
Akram let them call their families, and Cohen called his wife, daughter and son and even posted on Facebook. He also slowly moved a few chairs in front of him — “anything to slow or divert a bullet or shrapnel,” he wrote.
At one point — at the suspect’s request — the rabbi being held hostage called a well-known rabbi in New York City so the suspect could say Siddiqi was framed and he wanted her released, two officials briefed on investigation said.
As hours ticked on, law enforcement negotiators had a “high frequency and duration of contact” with the suspect, DeSarno said. The FBI called out its Hostage Rescue Team from Quantico, Virginia, and some 60 to 70 people came to the site, Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller said.
One hostage — a man — was released unharmed around 5 p.m., Colleyville Police Sgt. Dara Nelson said. The hostage-taker did not harm the hostages, the rabbi told CBS.
But, he added, they were threatened the entire time.
A thrown chair activates a bold escape
With threats and attacks targeting Jewish people growing more common in recent years, Cytron-Walker and his congregation had participated in security courses with law enforcement agencies, he said.
As Saturday afternoon rolled to the night — and the hostage-taker’s demeanor began to change — that training helped the rabbi and the two others who were still held against their will.
“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said Sunday in a statement. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”
Cohen helped another hostage move closer to that exit, and whispered to him about the door, he wrote. The third hostage later joined them when they received pizza to eat, putting them all within 20 feet of the exit door.
They spoke with Akram and asked him questions, trying to buy the FBI time to move into position, he wrote.
Yet the situation began to devolve. “At one point, our attacker instructed us to get on our knees. I reared up in my chair, stared at him sternly. I think I slowly moved my head and mouthed NO. He stared at me, then moved back to sit down. It was this moment when Rabbi Charlie yelled run,” he wrote.
Cytron-Walker saw his opening when he got the gunman a drink in a glass, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday.
“As he was drinking, the gun wasn’t in the best position and I thought this was our best chance, I needed to make sure the people who were still with me that they were ready to go,” the rabbi said.
“And so there was a chair that was right in front of me. I told the guys to go, I picked it up and I threw it at him with all the adrenaline,” Cytron-Walker said. “It was absolutely terrifying and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be shot, and I did not hear a shot fired as I made it out the door. I was the last one out.”
The three hostages burst through the exit door and sprinted away from the building, video taken from outside the synagogue by CNN affiliate WFAA shows. Seconds later, a man in black holding what appears to be a gun stepped halfway through the exit to look outside. He then returned inside the building without shooting, the video shows.
A group of heavily armed law enforcement personnel moved toward another part of the building, the video shows. About 30 seconds later, a series of four bangs erupted, followed by a louder explosive boom that set a number of car alarms to begin wailing. Other armed law enforcement personnel moved into a different position by the building, and another three loud bangs then went off, the video shows.
The loud boom, heard by a CNN team near the synagogue at about 9:12 p.m., was the result of entry tools used by the hostage rescue team, an ATF spokesperson said.
The rescue team breached the synagogue, Miller said. The suspect was killed.
None of the four hostages was harmed, DeSarno said.
More booms echoed as the tactical team disposed of leftover entry explosives brought by the rescue team. Crime scene investigators recovered one firearm they believe belonged to the suspect, the ATF spokesperson said. An ATF dog found no more explosives, the spokesperson said.
On Facebook, Cohen credited active shooter training he received for his survival and escape.
“We weren’t released or freed,” he said. “We escaped because we had training from the Secure Community Network on what to do in the event of an active shooter.”
The Secure Community Network describes itself as the “official safety and security organization of the Jewish community in North America.”
“Those courses, that instruction, helped me to understand that you need to act in moments where your life is threatened. I would not have had the courage, I would not have had the knowhow or what to do without that instruction,” Cytron-Walker said. “I want people to understand, it doesn’t matter if you are in a synagogue, if you’re Jewish, if you’re Muslim, if you’re Christian, if you’re religious at all, it can happen in a shopping mall. Unfortunately this is the world that we’re living in.”
‘The time to heal our community has begun’
On Sunday morning, Cytron-Walker took to Facebook, this time to express his gratitude to those who supported him throughout Saturday’s ordeal.
“I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support, all of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all of the security training that helped save us,” he wrote in the Facebook post.
“I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the CBI Community, the Jewish Community, the Human Community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive,” Cytron-Walker said in the post.
Nothing suggests the threat posed by Akram is continuing, officials said. The investigation into the case and its motive is likely to be global, DeSarno added, including contacts with Tel Aviv and London.
Initially, the FBI, based on its exchanges, found the suspect to be “singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community, but we’ll continue to work to find motive,” DeSarno said.
On Monday, the agency called Saturday’s attack “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted,” according to a statement. The case “is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
Congregation Beth Israel held a special service Monday night at which the rabbi spoke about the need to heal after the incident.
“Thank God, thank God,” Cytron-Walker said. “It could’ve been so much worse, and I am overflowing, truly overflowing, with gratitude.”
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CNN’s Keith Allen, Melissa Alonso, Tina Burnside, Josh Campbell, Kacey Cherry, Ashley Killough, Ed Lavandera, Raja Razek and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.