As a gunman ranted, the hostages whispered instructions and edged closer to the door. The rabbi credited security training for their safe exit.
The Texas rabbi held hostage Saturday said that he and the other two remaining hostages escaped by throwing a chair at the gunman and then fleeing the synagogue where they had been held for 11 hours.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker credited security training with the successful escape — which involved whispered instructions, edging closer to the door and talking with the gunman, who was agitated and ranting.
President Joe Biden called the attack an "act of terror" Sunday, and the FBI said it was investigating the attack as a "terrorism-related matter."
Synagogues across the United States have paid increasing attention to security issues since 2018, when an antisemitic assailant killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
"It's a horrible thing that this kind of instruction is needed in our society today," Cytron-Walker said. "But we don't get to always deal with the reality we want. We have to deal with reality as it exists."
The rabbi said he first suspected something was amiss about the visitor to his synagogue Saturday morning when he heard a "click."
He had let the stranger in to Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, in the suburbs of Fort Worth, before Shabbat services that morning. The man didn't seem nervous, the rabbi said in an interview Monday. He said he thought the man was just coming in to the synagogue to get warm on an unusually cold day in North Texas, so he made the man some hot tea.
The man was Malik Faisal Akram, and had travelled from England to New York just before New Year's Day, authorities said Sunday. A few weeks later, he walked into the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue and began a hostage situation that ended with the congregants' dramatic escape, gunfire and Akram's death.
Akram sat quietly as the prayer service began, the rabbi said. In-person attendance was sparse, with just three other congregants present, the rabbi leading services at the front of the sanctuary, and others watching a livestream on Facebook from their homes. About 30 or 40 minutes into the service, the rabbi turned his back to the congregation to face Jerusalem as he prayed. That's when he heard the click.
"It could have been anything, but it also could have been a gun," Cytron-Walker recalled.
During the period of silent prayer that followed, the rabbi said, he approached the stranger and gently told him he was welcome to stay for the full service but that he did not need to stay.
Akram then revealed a gun and pointed it at the rabbi. (The rabbi declined to say in the interview what kind of gun Akram brandished, citing the ongoing investigation.) That began a protracted ordeal that the rabbi described as alternately 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."
Jeffrey Cohen, who is identified on the synagogue's website as its vice president, posted his own account of the dramatic escape on Facebook on Monday. Cohen wrote that he was in the synagogue, and had dialled 911 and laid down his phone facing downward when it was clear what was happening.
Law enforcement was alerted to the situation around 10:40am, when police received a 911 call about a gunman entering the synagogue and taking hostages. City, state and federal officials, including an FBI team that flew in from Quantico, Virginia, arrived on the scene over the course of the day and entered into extended negotiations with Akram.
The FBI said Sunday that Akram spoke about Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted in 2010 of trying to kill American military officers in Afghanistan. She was sentenced to 86 years in prison and is incarcerated at a federal women's prison in Fort Worth.
Cytron-Walker confirmed that Siddiqui was Akram's sole focus.
The four hostages were kept together, Cytron-Walker said, and were able to build enough goodwill with Akram that one of them was released around 5pm. The rabbi and the other two remained as night fell and as Akram became increasingly belligerent in his conversations with law enforcement.
"There was a lot more yelling, a lot more threatening," Cytron-Walker said.
Akram let the hostages telephone their families, Cohen wrote. Cohen called his wife, his daughter and his son, and also posted a Facebook message that was later deleted.
Throughout their ordeal, the lessons received in security training helped guide the hostages. Cytron-Walker compared his security training — with the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network — to CPR training, noting that a person does not necessarily expect to use it every time they leave home but will find it to be crucial when the moment arises.
He said one of the other hostages had also gone through some of the training with him but did not give a name.
Cohen wrote on Facebook that training from the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit group that provides security resources to Jewish institutions nationally, "saved our lives — I am not speaking in hyperbole here."
He described a series of subtle strategies that set up the hostages with the opportunity to make an escape. When the armed man told him to sit down, he chose a row with clear access to an exit. When he had an opportunity to rub a fellow hostage's shoulders, he whispered to him about the exit door. And when pizza was delivered to the synagogue, he suggested that another hostage go to retrieve it from the door. Eventually all the hostages were within 20 feet of the exit.
At another point, Cohen used his feet to slowly move chairs in front of himself to potentially divert bullets or shrapnel.
As the negotiations dragged on, Cytron-Walker was looking for an opportunity to escape. By around 9 pm, the three hostages were all fairly close to an exit and were poised to run "if the opportunity arose," the rabbi said. "There was a real immediacy."
Cohen wrote that he was prepared to wrap his prayer shawl around Akram's neck or his shooting hand, but he did not get the chance. He was not armed, he wrote, but even if he had been, he was not confident that he could have been able to draw a weapon and fire before Akram fired.
Cohen wrote that finally, Akram instructed the hostages to get on their knees. "I reared up in my chair, stared at him sternly," he wrote. "I think I slowly moved my head and mouthed 'no.' "
At that moment, Cytron-Walker told the men to run, threw a chair at Akram and bolted for the exit himself. SWAT officers received them and ushered them to safety. Law enforcement then entered the building.
"We escaped," Cohen wrote in his account on Facebook. "We weren't released or freed."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Ruth Graham
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