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Hostages held at Texas synagogue are safe but the attacker is dead

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why did a gunman attack a Texas synagogue over the weekend? The man took hostages at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. He pretended to look for shelter, got past security and walked in during Sabbath services. After 10 hours, police moved in. They rescued the rabbi and three members of the congregation while the gunman died. His name was Malik Faisal Akram. Miranda Suarez of our member station KERA is covering this story. Good morning.

MIRANDA SUAREZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we got to start with the unknowns here. What questions are investigators asking?

SUAREZ: Yeah. There is still a lot we do not know regarding this case. You know, we don't know why Akram chose to target a suburban synagogue in Dallas-Fort Worth. But Dallas FBI's Matt DeSarno says they're investigating his motive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT DESARNO: 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.

SUAREZ: We do know Akram was 44 years old and that he was a British citizen and that this investigation is going to have global reach. Police in the U.K. said yesterday that they have arrested and are questioning two teenagers in relation to the case but, again, didn't give a lot of details on that.

INSKEEP: OK. So he's communicating with some place back in the U.K., where he's from. But we don't know what that's about yet. We'll keep looking for that. But there is one thing that is known. While he was holding the hostages, he kept mentioning a person, a woman named Aafia Siddiqui. Who's she?

SUAREZ: Yeah. So in the livestream that caught this first part of this hostage crisis, you could hear Akram in the background calling for Siddiqui's release from prison. Aafia Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison in Fort Worth, which is pretty much right next door to Colleyville, where this hostage situation happened. Siddiqui was convicted after shooting at U.S. officials in Afghanistan. The Justice Department suspects her of ties to al-Qaida. The U.S. government considers her a terrorist. I should note, too, that Siddiqui's lawyer told CNN that Siddiqui herself had no involvement in the hostage situation.

INSKEEP: Other than being near - imprisoned near the location of this synagogue. Now, let's put this in a wider context, if we can. This is hardly the only attack on Jews or synagogues in recent years.

SUAREZ: Yeah. This has been a really scary time for American Jews, especially in the past few years. The Anti-Defamation League tracks hate incidents against Jewish people, whether it be vandalism or threats or actual violence. And, you know, they say the past few years have seen historic levels of these anti-Semitic incidents. The deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history happened in 2018 in Pittsburgh. That was the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 people.

INSKEEP: Right.

SUAREZ: During the hostage situation on Saturday, I actually spoke to Holly Huffnagle, who kind of leads the American Jewish Committee's response to anti-Semitism in the U.S. And she says, you know, even though we don't know the suspect's motive right now, it's still really important to note that this happened at a synagogue.

HOLLY HUFFNAGLE: It wasn't a government office. It wasn't another house of worship by a different faith community. It was targeting Jews.

INSKEEP: Whatever the reason, it was targeting Jews. Isn't this a circumstance where synagogues have already increased security because there've been so many threats?

SUAREZ: Oh, absolutely. So the American Jewish Committee did a survey in 2020 asking, you know, various Jews in America, you know, are the Jewish institutions that you attend, have they increased their security? And 56% of the people in the survey said, yes. So a lot of Jewish institutions have beefed up their security in recent years, including Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. The rabbi came out with a statement yesterday saying, you know, when he was a hostage in the building, the security training that he and his congregation have undergone over the years actually helped save their lives.

INSKEEP: Miranda, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

SUAREZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Miranda Suarez is a reporter at KERA in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miranda Suarez
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