The Texas synagogue hostage drama continued to have ripple effects in the national Jewish community, leading to new initiatives to enhance security for Jewish facilities and calls for more antisemitism education in the wake of the FBI’s initial downplaying of the terrorist’s motivation.
FBI Reverses on Antisemitism
A social media backlash against the FBI led to national media coverage about the flap and the problem of antisemitism. Right after the hostages were freed, FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno told reporters, “We do believe from our engagement with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community. But we are continuing to work to find the motive.”
The FBI’s statement was curious given the terrorist’s own statements during the hostage drama.
Stacey Silverman, who was a member of the synagogue for 13 years, described to The Jewish Press what she heard on the synagogue’s Facebook livesteam after the terrorist, Malik Faisal Akram, took the hostages.
“He was spouting off that he was going to kill them, that he had a bomb, Jews control the media, all kinds of antisemitic tropes, Jews control the world, America only cares about Jewish lives, Biden and Trump only care about Jewish lives, so that’s why he picked this synagogue… He did mention Israel and Palestine also. I couldn’t hear because he kept switching languages, but it was not favorable towards Israel.”
She added, “He was very profane. A few times he screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’ and we were terrified that meant he was going to start shooting.”
Throughout the ordeal, the camera remained pointed at a prayer book opened to Shemoneh Esrei. Silverman recalled hearing Akram on the phone with his family and police, demanding for the release of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, also known as “Lady Al Qaeda,” who is serving an 86-year sentence at a nearby federal prison for attempting to murder U.S. soldiers and blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building. “Aafia Siddiqui was notorious for her outspoken anti-Semitism,” Liora Rez, Executive Director, StopAntisemitism.org stated, “She said her entire trial was orchestrated by ‘Jews’ and called for all jurors to be DNA-tested to make sure they weren’t Jewish. She even wrote to the court that Jews are ‘cruel ungrateful, back stabbing people’ who brought the Holocaust upon themselves.”
He said numerous times, “I know I’m going to die today.” Akram had Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker call a rabbi in New York City, who Silverman believed he thought was the Chief Rabbi of America, to take charge of this situation, and possibly bring Siddiqui to him.
Brooke Goldstein, human rights attorney and director of The Lawfare Project, said the agent’s initial statement was irresponsibly taken out of context by certain media, such as the BBC, to spread a false narrative that the attacker did not intentionally target the Jewish community. “You have to be living on a different planet not to understand that when a hostage taker goes into a Jewish synagogue, on the Jewish Sabbath, and holds the rabbi and congregants at gun point, he is intentionally targeting Jewish people with violence,” said Goldstein.
Less than 24 hours later, the FBI reversed its position and released the following statement: “This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
“Only after the FBI is widely mocked for their ludicrous stance does it somehow come to the realization that the terrorist targeted a synagogue for one reason only: it contained Jews,” complained criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, who has sat opposite the FBI on numerous occasions in court.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that early statements by the FBI did enormous damage to the FBI’s credibility and gave much of the media from AP to the BBC an opportunity to repeat the lie and shape their coverage. The flap prompted his organization to urge the US Justice Department to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and to make it part of training for all federal law enforcement personnel.
Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, also said more education is needed. “At a time when antisemitism is rising and over 60% of religious hate crimes in America are directed at Jewish people, we must work together to clearly define it as antisemitism in order to defeat it. Downplaying acts of antisemitism, intentionally or out of misunderstanding, underscores the urgent need for a definition for antisemitism,” she said.
Security Upgrades Across Nation
The hostages recounted the ordeal in media interviews, particularly how it finally ended. After about 10 hours, Akram ordered the three remaining hostages to get down on their knees. That is when Cytron-Walker, the rabbi of the Reform synagogue, said he remembered his training for dealing with an assailant. He threw a chair at Akram to disorient him, and told the other two to run out the door, and he followed. The FBI team then entered through another area, saw Akram with the pistol, and killed him.
Cytron-Walker attributes courses he took with the FBI, the local police department, the ADL, and Secure Community Network (which provides security assistance for Jewish facilities) with helping prepare him for this hostage situation, including creating a plan to escape.
In the wake of this incident, both police departments and Jewish organizations are ramping up security and training across the country.
Attorney General Merrick Garland held a Zoom call on Tuesday with more than 1,200 synagogue leaders to address security concerns. The United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York will also be holding a meeting with Mitch Silber, executive director of the Community Security Initiative.
The Jewish Federations of North America recently launched a $54 million campaign called LiveSecure to pay for security for U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities. It is the largest-ever campaign of this type before and will work with Secure Community Network to provide intelligence and security details for Jewish institutions.
The rapidly unfolding investigation revealed that terrorist Akram, 44, entered the United States two weeks prior to the incident through JFK Airport in New York, and then traveled a few days later to Texas where he stayed at a homeless shelter. Given he had a criminal record in the U.K. and known affiliations with radical Islamic organizations, questions are being raised about how he was allowed to enter the country.
“The FBI must answer why a person with an extensive criminal history and known ties to Muslim terror organizations abroad was permitted not only entry into the U.S. but permitted on internal domestic flights,” Lichtman said. “Have we learned absolutely nothing since 9/11?”
Another mystery is how Akram obtained the pistol used in the crime. The gun has been traced to a recorded purchase by a third party in 2020, but it is not clear yet how Akram acquired it. The theory is he bought it “on the street” in Texas.
Despite the questions, investigators believe Akram did not have collaborators, and was not part of broader plot. The investigation extended to the United Kingdom where his two teenage sons were apprehended for questioning, according to NBC News.
The FBI did not respond to specific questions from The Jewish Press – aside from emailing media statements.