Biden: Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis ‘an act of terror’; concerns over copycats

·4 min read

President Joe Biden called the hostage crisis at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, an “act of terror” on Sunday, praising local and federal law enforcement for resolving the 11-hour standoff with all four hostages safe and free.

Biden said he would be speaking with the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, who was one of the four held at gunpoint, in the coming hours, and that he had instructed Attorney General Merrick Garland to work to prevent future violence targeting Jewish institutions.

“This was an act of terror,” Biden told reporters. “I wanted to make sure we got the word out to synagogues and houses of worship that we’re not going to tolerate this.”

The FBI on Sunday identified the hostage-taker as Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen.

Multiple Biden administration officials told McClatchy and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sunday that the administration focused on security for the Jewish community as the hostage crisis unfolded.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas waited until sundown on Shabbat on Saturday before personally calling Jewish community leaders with a message of reassurance. The entire federal government was involved in the unfolding hostage crisis, he said.

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, told Jewish leaders that she was activating “every mechanism” of the Justice Department to focus on the events in Texas. Chanan Weissman, the White House liaison to the Jewish community, who himself learned of the crisis after switching electronics back on after sundown, said President Joe Biden was closely monitoring the incident.

An FBI representative is facing criticism Sunday for telling reporters that the focus of the Colleyville hostage-taker was “not specifically related to the Jewish community,” shortly after the crisis resolved on Saturday night after an 11-hour standoff, with all four hostages at Congregation Beth Israel safe and free.

But the Biden administration’s initial response reflected widespread community concern that the targeting of a synagogue during Shabbat services could fuel a recent surge of antisemitism nationwide.

“We continue reaching out to Jewish leaders and faith leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as nationally, to offer support and check in, and make sure we’re in regular contact,” a White House official said.

“The White House was in regular contact with the Department of Justice, law enforcement leadership and Department of Homeland Security throughout the day, and provided those updates to the president,” the official added.

Top administration officials also told Jewish leaders in those calls that they shared the concern that events in Colleyville could inspire “copycat” attacks against Jewish institutions across the United States. And those concerns remain even with the hostage crisis resolved.

Calls have continued into Sunday morning between administration officials and Jewish community leaders, and a formal Zoom call is being planned to discuss security lessons. The Department of Homeland Security is working closely with the Secure Community Network, an umbrella organization that works as a liaison between law enforcement and the Jewish community, according to two officials familiar with the matter.

White House officials note that DHS provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year to provide physical security enhancements to non-profits, including synagogues and mosques.

But the Anti-Defamation League is responding to the event by calling on Congress to double its funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, to $360 million a year.

The Secure Community Network’s security training program was seen as critical: the group provided training to the Colleyville synagogue just five months before its rabbi and three others were held hostage at gunpoint.

“They received training for exactly what to do in this sort of situation,” said William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I think it speaks to the importance of that training.”

Audio from a livestream of the synagogue’s Shabbat service, which was interrupted by the gunman, revealed the hostage-taker sought freedom for Aafia Siddiqui, wife of one of the architects of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison in Fort Worth for attempting to kill U.S. military personnel and was apprehended in 2008 for plotting a terrorist attack targeting New York City.

The gunman had reached out to the senior rabbi at one of New York’s largest synagogues, Central Synagogue, in midtown Manhattan, the synagogue confirmed on Sunday.

“It was hard to see that across the country police forces went on high alert with increased patrols and attention to Jewish institutions,” Daroff said.

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