Texas rabbi recounts escape from synagogue

The rabbi and congregants of the Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, have begun offering accounts of their 11-hour, partially live-streamed ordeal at the hands of British hostage-taker Malik Faisal Akram.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told CBS he initially welcomed the stranger, who had been staying in a Dallas homeless shelter, and made him a cup of tea. He said the man was not threatening or suspicious at first.

“Some of his story didn’t quite add up, so I was a little bit curious, but that’s not necessarily an uncommon thing,” the rabbi said. Cytron-Walker said he invited Akram to join the morning service.

As he turned his back to face the direction of Jerusalem, he heard the click of a gun. During a period of silent prayer that followed, the Rabbi told the New York Times, he approached Akram and told him he was welcome to stay for the full service.

Akram then revealed a gun and pointed it at the rabbi, setting off a drama that he said was tense and terrifying. “It was a lot of conversation, trying to keep things calm, trying to help him to see us as human beings, and listening to him rant,” he said. “Everybody, for the most part, was able to stay calm.”

Akram took four people hostage, including the rabbi, with some of his comments being live-streamed to remote worshippers.

“I’m gunned up. I’m ammo-ed up,” Akram told someone that he called nephew. “Guess what, I will die.” He was also heard to say, “I’m not a criminal.”

The FBI said in a statement that Akram “spoke repeatedly about a convicted terrorist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States” – an apparent reference to Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence after being found guilty of attempted murder in an assault on US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Akram ultimately did not harm the hostages, the rabbi told CBS, but they had been threatened throughout their ordeal.

The situation grew more tense as the hours passed. Jeffrey R Cohen, another man held hostage, described the ordeal on Facebook. “First of all, we escaped. We weren’t released or freed,” Cohen said.

Cohen described how they’d talked to the gunman during their captivity. He later told the New York Times that the four hostages were kept together and were able to build enough good rapport with Akram that one was released.

Yet, as the situation dragged on, Cohen said the gunman eventually told the remaining three to get on their knees. But as the gunman moved to sit back down, the rabbi told them to run according to an escape plan they’d developed.

“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said on Sunday in a statement. “There was a lot more yelling, a lot more threatening,” he told the Times.

Escape plan

The rabbi said he devised a plan to make a break for it. They edged towards an exit. When pizza was delivered, he suggested another hostage fetch it. Eventually, all were within 20 feet of the exit.

“We were terrified,” Cytron-Walker told CBS. “And when I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position, I made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were ready to go.

“The exit wasn’t too far away. I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door,” he said. “And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”

After the hostages exited the building, Akram briefly followed before returning inside the building. Law enforcement then moved to another part of the building before setting off an explosive device to gain entry. Akram died amid gunfire.

Cytron-Walker credited security training with the hostages’ successful escape. “It’s a horrible thing that this kind of instruction is needed in our society today,” he said. “But we don’t get to always deal with the reality we want. We have to deal with reality as it exists.” – Guardian

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