On Saturday January 15th, a 44-year-old British Pakistani man named Faisal Akram entered the Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and took four people, including the congregation’s rabbi, hostage.
The beginning of the attack was caught on video, as the synagogue was live-streaming services at the time. The hostage-taker could be heard to say something about “my sister, Aafia”, a reference to convicted Al Qaeda terrorist Aafia Siddiqi, currently imprisoned in nearby FMC Carswell, roughly 30 minutes away. The statement led to confusion among law enforcement and media, who initially reported the attacker as Siddiqi’s actual brother misunderstanding a form of address common among Islamic circles.
Akram forced one of the hostages to call a New York city-based Rabbi to release his demands for Siddiqi’s release. Negotiations were undertaken for much of the day, but the situation was resolved after 11 hours by FBI Hostage Rescue (HRT), which conducted a successful rescue operation. Akram was shot dead by law enforcement and no hostages were harmed. The bomb disposal team later conducted controlled detonations of suspicious devices.
Initial reports indicate that Akram had recently traveled to the United States from Britain. British law enforcement arrested two young men,reportedly Akram’s sons, with whom he was in touch during the incident.
While details about Akram’s history and affiliations are still under investigation, the British newspaper The Independent cited a September 22nd2001, Lancaster Telegraph article where Akram allegedly told court staff that he, “should have been on the ******* plane” in reference to the 9/11 attack. It seems unlikely that British law enforcement or intelligence would have been totally unaware of Akram’s apparent jihadist sympathies, which in turn raises serious questions about how Akram was admitted to the U.S.
Aafia Siddiqi, known as “Lady Al Qaeda” was convicted and sentenced to 86 years in federal prison in 2010 for the 2008 attempted murder of multiple U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. Siddiqi was captured in Afghanistan in possession of multiple documents detailing potential terrorist plots against multiple U.S. landmarks and referencing the construction of “dirty” radioactive bombs, the use of drones, underwater explosives and other potential weapons.
Siddiqi has been a long-time cause célèbre among both U.S. and international Islamist groups, who have agitated for her release alleging she was unfairly prosecuted. In November of last year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) –an organization founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood to support the terrorist group Hamas– held an online meeting to discuss their “Free Aafia” campaign. Islamists have explicitly linked Siddiqi’s conviction to “Zionist judges.” CAIR came under fire for their role following the synagogue attack, with the Simon Wiesenthal Center making a direct link between the Islamist campaign to free Siddiqi and Saturday’s attack calling it “no accident.”
CAIR has come under increasing scrutiny from Jewish organizations which deal with antisemitism in recent months, especially following a leaked speech by CAIR San Francisco leader Zahra Billoo in December of last year where she described “Zionist organizations” and particularly synagogues as “the enemy.”
Siddiqi likely receives strong support from Muslim Brotherhood-linked organizations in the United States in part due to her own historic links to the organization. Siddiqi was a significant member of the MIT Muslim Students Association (MSA). She went on to fundraise for jihadist activity through the Boston-based Care International, a front of Al Qaeda. The Muslim Students Association was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s, and multiple MSA members have been convicted on terror charges. An NYPD intelligence report called the MSA a “incubator” for radicalization.
Islamist efforts to paint Siddiqi as a political prisoner and as unfairly convicted have been on-going since her initial conviction in 2010, but there has been a recent uptick in emphasis coinciding with the 20thanniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In particular, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported that in September of last year notorious British Islamist firebrand Anjem Choudary issued a statement declaring “Islamic history is replete with examples of Muslim armies being sent to liberate individual men and women held by non-Islamic regimes and the Messenger Muhammad… has informed us that it is obligatory to free the prisoners.” Choudary has been connected to more than 100 separate jihadists according to British counterterrorism officials. British law enforcement should obviously immediately investigate whether Akram had any ties to Choudary or his organization.
The FBI, which is handling the investigation, has released somewhat contradictory statements about Akram’s motivations. The FBI initially described the attack as “specifically focused on an issue not directly connected to the Jewish community,” which immediately raised indignation on social media. The FBI subsequently backtracked, noting, “This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
While we await more information to determine exactly how Akram entered the country and acquired whatever weapons he utilized in his attack, the available evidence clearly points to the significant impact that Islamist rhetoric can play in provoking jihadist attacks, and once again serves as a reminder about the link between jihadist terrorism and “non-violent” Islamist activism which serves as a force for radicalization or indoctrination.