SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Jan. 15, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Andy Jacobsohn-AFP via Getty Images)
SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Jan. 15, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Andy Jacobsohn-AFP via Getty Images)

SFPD to increase patrols around Jewish institutions in wake of hostage-taking at Texas synagogue

San Francisco police will be more visible and increase patrols around Jewish institutions in the city in the wake of the hostage-taking event Jan. 15 at a synagogue in Texas, according to Rafael Brinner, director of security for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. 

All four hostages at a synagogue in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area were declared “out alive and safe” by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in the late evening following a 12-hour standoff with an armed assailant in an unfolding saga that terrified Jews worldwide.

The FBI has released the name of the assailant, who died at the scene, as Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen.

“Throughout the day, we have been in touch with the Secure Community Network as well as local law enforcement. SCN reports that the situation appears to be local and isolated, and they are not aware of any direct, credible threats to any other institutions,” said Brinner in a statement.

“In a show of support for the Jewish community in San Francisco, SFPD has decided to be more visible and increase patrols around Jewish institutions in the city. You may see or hear about police in other localities doing this as well. We are grateful for such response and concern for our community’s safety,” Brinner’s statement said. 

The hostage situation unfolded during Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, a suburb north of Fort Worth. The synagogue had been live-streaming its services on Facebook; the suspect’s actions had been partially recorded on the stream.

“The suspect is deceased,” Colleyville’s police chief, Michael Miller, told reporters at a late-night press conference, adding that the hostages had been unharmed. It is unclear whether he was killed by the SWAT teams that freed the hostages or if he died of a self-inflicted wound.

Police said one of the four hostages, a male, had been released in the early evening, leaving three still being held. Reporters and bystanders heard a loud bang and what sounded like gunshots around 9:30 p.m. local time, which CNN reported were flashbangs used during a raid to distract the hostage-taker; Abbott sent his tweet shortly after.

“Prayers answered,” he wrote. “All hostages are out alive and safe.”

An FBI official said at the press conference that the agency was working closely with Secure Community Network, the agency that consults with national and local Jewish communities, as well as Jewish federations and police in Israel and London.

The assailant had been holding Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants hostage.

The FBI was on the scene as well as local police, and the FBI had led negotiations with the hostage-taker for several hours. The White House was also “monitoring” the situation, per reports. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also said in a tweet that he was “closely monitoring” the situation.

In an alert, Secure Community Network, which consults with national and local Jewish organizations, said the man was reportedly armed and making bomb threats.

“We’re not aware of any direct credible threats to any other synagogues,” Michael Masters, who directs SCN.

Masters said the synagogue underwent SCN training in August.  “It was a full training,” he said. “We worked on a number of different scenarios and issues and we have been engaged with that congregation.” Masters said it was too early to tell if the protocols kicked in during the hostage taking.

According to recorded audio recovered from the livestream, the man was seeking the freedom of Aafia Siddiqui, a relative by marriage of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the chief architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in the Fort Worth area for attempting to kill American military personnel after she was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 on suspicion of plotting attacks in New York. She made multiple antisemitic outbursts during and after her trial.

NBC reported that the man asked Cytron-Walker to call a rabbi in New York, demanding Aafia Siddiqui’s release. The livestream went down around 2 p.m.

Because the man at one point reportedly referred to Siddiqui as “sister,” some initial reports erroneously concluded he was her brother. However, a lawyer for a brother of Siddiqui, Muhammad Siddiqui, said Siddiqui was not the man inside the synagogue. The lawyer, John Floyd, is the chairman of the Houston affiliate of CAIR, the Muslim legal advocacy group. CAIR and the Free Aafia movement, which contends that the charges against her are trumped up and that she has been tortured, condemned the hostage-taking.

“This assailant has nothing to do with Dr. Aafia, her family, or the global campaign to get justice for Dr. Aafia,” Floyd said in a statement. “We want the assailant to know that his actions are wicked and directly undermine those of us who are seeking justice for Dr. Aafia.”

The attack came after two deadly attacks on American synagogues in recent years — in Pittsburgh in 2018 and in Poway, California in 2019 — that changed how many Jewish communities thought about synagogue security. Organizations like SCN have intensified security training in communities across the country.

“This highlights the need for all of us to be aware and vigilant and most importantly to keep the individuals in the synagogue in our thoughts and prayers and hope for a peaceful resolution,” said Masters.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the ADL, issued the following statement: We are deeply grateful to Texas law enforcement and the FBI for their work in ending the tense hostage situation in Colleyville and for the safe return of the hostages to their families. This situation is a painful reminder of the fact that synagogues in America continue to be at risk for terrorist attacks. There is no doubt, given what we know so far, that the hostage-taker chose his target carefully. We urge law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate the role antisemitism may have played in motivating the suspect.

“And yet let us hope,” Greenblatt’s statement continued, “the resolution of this crisis can serve as an opportunity for dialogue and engagement between the American Jewish and Muslim communities, so we do not allow hate and those who promote it to divide us.

According to Beth Israel’s website, Cytron-Walker is the congregation’s first full-time rabbi and has been with the congregation since 2006. A native of Lansing, Michigan, Cytron-Walker and his wife have two daughters.

The synagogue is in the process of hiring a rabbi, according to its online calendar.

Cytron-Walker served as a past president of the South West Association of Reform Rabbis and received an award from QESHET: A Network of LGBT Reform Rabbis. Before becoming a rabbi, he worked for a human rights organization in Detroit as well as a soup kitchen in Amherst, Massachusetts.

JTA

Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.