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New details emerge about hostage-taker’s behavior in days before Texas synagogue standoff

<i>Andy Jacobsohn/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>As authorities work to learn more about the armed man who held four people hostage at a Texas synagogue
AFP via Getty Images
Andy Jacobsohn/AFP/Getty Images
As authorities work to learn more about the armed man who held four people hostage at a Texas synagogue

By Travis Caldwell, Amir Vera and Jason Hanna, CNN

As authorities work to learn more about the armed man who held four people hostage at a Texas synagogue Saturday, new details are emerging of his activities in the days leading up to the incident, including a heated exchange at a nearby mosque.

Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British national who arrived in the US last month, engaged in an 11-hour standoff with police at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, about 15 miles from downtown Fort Worth, that resulted in his death; all the hostages survived.

Just 10 days before the attack, Akram was thrown out of a mosque in nearby Irving, after displaying what was described as erratic behavior.

“He was hostile because he was told that he would have to leave the mosque, that he couldn’t spend the night,” Khalid Hamideh, chief legal counsel of the Islamic Center of Irving, told CNN.

Those held hostage on Saturday also described Akram’s behavior as “increasingly belligerent and threatening,” saying he waffled at times between being apologetic and making anti-Semitic remarks.

The FBI is investigating the standoff as “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted,” the bureau said.

Investigators said they believe Akram was motivated by a desire to see the release of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year federal prison sentence in Fort Worth. She was not involved in the Colleyville standoff, her attorney said.

The incident has put Jewish communities across the United States on edge. Attacks on Jewish people have been on the rise, the Anti-Defamation League warns. And while the majority of anti-Semitic incidents involve harassment and vandalism, assaults have also happened, with at least six turning deadly since 2016, including at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

Here’s what we know about the events leading up to the standoff and how it unfolded:

Akram arrives in the US

It is not yet known how Akram traveled to Texas after landing in New York in late December. He was not on any US government watch list, a US law enforcement source told CNN, and cleared vetting before arriving in the US legally, according to a separate US federal law enforcement source.

Two men were arrested in the UK Thursday in connection with the Texas standoff, the Greater Manchester Police said.

The men were taken into custody in Birmingham and Manchester and were being questioned as part of a counter terrorism investigation, the statement said.

The Greater Manchester Police said Sunday that two teenagers had been arrested in south Manchester in connection with the hostage situation and were awaiting questioning. The teens were released without charges Tuesday, according to PA Media, a UK-based news agency.

Akram hailed from Blackburn, British authorities said, which lies just northwest of Manchester.

Akram was known to UK security services and had been the subject of a brief investigation in 2020, a UK official told CNN Tuesday, but the investigation was closed when authorities determined Akram to no longer be a threat.

Dropped off at a shelter

How Akram spent his short time in Texas before the standoff is not yet fully known, but information is emerging about not only his visits to the mosque but also to various shelters.

He stayed the night of January 2 at OurCalling shelter in Dallas, according to the shelter’s chief advancement officer Patrick Palmer.

A man who dropped Akram at the facility stayed about 15 minutes with him inside before departing, Palmer said. Video that the shelter allowed CNN to view shows Akram hugging the man inside before the man left.

Details about who that man is or what connection he had to Akram weren’t immediately available.

OurCalling typically doesn’t house people overnight, but it did that night on an emergency basis because of cold weather, Palmer said. More than 190 people were registered on that night alone, he said.

Akram checked in shortly after 10 p.m. and left between 6:30 and 7 a.m. the next day, Palmer said.

During check-in, “no one noticed anything unusual; no one remembered anything that stood out,” Palmer said.

Akram “didn’t talk to anyone at the shelter,” Palmer said.

Asked to leave a mosque

As for his visit to the Irving mosque: Akram arrived to pray, but became upset after being told he couldn’t sleep inside the building due to city ordinances that bar overnight guests, Hamideh said.

“He became agitated and almost confrontational, telling the folks there that you’ll be judged by the Lord Almighty for, you know, not helping out a fellow Muslim brother,” Hamideh said.

Akram returned the next day, apologized for his previous behavior and prayed without any disorderly conduct, Hamideh said.

3 nights at a homeless shelter

Between January 6 and 13, Akram spent three nights at Union Gospel Mission Dallas, a homeless shelter, according to shelter CEO Bruce Butler. “We were a way station for him,” he said. “He had a plan. He was very quiet. He was in and out.”

Akram left the mission for the last time Thursday, according to their records.

Butler did “not recall seeing him, but he was not there long enough to build any relationships. We had a lot of new faces coming in because of the cold weather,” he said.

Akram didn’t raise any initial alarms at synagogue before service began

Akram arrived at the synagogue Saturday morning and was described by others there as acting polite, talking on his phone at times.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and vice president for the synagogue’s board of trustees, Jeffrey Cohen, two of the four people later held at gunpoint, talked with Akram before the incident.

“Some of his story didn’t quite add up, so I was a little bit curious, but that’s not necessarily an uncommon thing,” Cytron-Walker told CBS News of Akram as they drank tea before the service.

The rabbi later pointed Akram out to Cohen, who went over and introduced himself, he wrote in a post on social media 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.”

After the service began, Akram drew a firearm and began yelling, they said.

Gunman became ‘increasingly belligerent’

When the congregants realized they were hostages, Cohen said he quickly dialed 911, put the phone face down, and followed the hostage-taker’s directions.

“But not exactly as commanded,” he said. “Instead of going to the back of the room, I stayed in line with one of the exits.”

A livestream of the service, which had been set up so people could watch services from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, captured some of the incident before cutting off.

“At any moment, I thought there was going to be a gunshot,” Stacey Silverman, a member of Congregation Beth Israel, told CNN of watching the livestream.

The hostage-taker was “screaming hysterically” at times and occasionally speaking different languages, Silverman said.

As the hours ticked by, Akram “became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker has said.

Throughout the hostage situation, Cohen said they all worked to keep the gunman engaged in conversation. “As long as he was talking and somewhat calm, we bought the FBI time to position.”

One of the hostages was released unharmed around 5 p.m., Colleyville police said.

Hostages utilized prior training to escape

Hours later, Cytron-Walker saw his opening when he got the gunman a drink in a glass.

“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 told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday.

“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.”

An FBI team killed Akram after the hostages made their escape around 9 p.m.

Those who were held hostage credited security courses, including active shooter training, with helping them get through the ordeal.

“This training saved our lives,” Cohen said. “I am not speaking in hyperbole here — it saved our lives.”

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CNN’s Dan Przygoda, Josh Campbell, Nick Paton Walsh, Kelly McCleary, Elliot C. McLaughlin, Eric Levenson, Kacey Cherry, Ed Lavandera, Ashley Killough, Geneva Sands, Laura Jarrett, Arnaud Siad, Joe Sutton and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.

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