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As F.B.I. Breached Texas Synagogue, Hostages Were Dashing for Exit

COLLEYVILLE, Texas — Eleven hours into the standoff in a synagogue in suburban Fort Worth on Saturday evening, it was clear to the F.B.I. that the situation was devolving. The attacker, who had entered Congregation Beth Israel that morning and taken four hostages, was becoming more agitated and less communicative.

“He was giving ultimatums and deadlines about killing hostages,” Matthew DeSarno, the bureau’s top agent in Dallas, said in an interview on Friday. “We took him at his word.”

Mr. DeSarno decided to launch the F.B.I.’s elite Hostage Rescue Team, which had arrived from Quantico, Va. Inside the synagogue, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker had come to a similar conclusion: It was time to take action.

At around 9 p.m., almost simultaneously, and unaware of the other group’s plans, the hostages inside the sanctuary moved for an exit as the highly trained agents outside moved in elsewhere. As the congregants staged a daring escape, the agents shot and killed the attacker, Malik Faisal Akram, a British citizen.

The details of the hostages’ dramatic recovery had been murky until Friday. Law enforcement initially characterized the event as a rescue. But two of the hostages described it an escape.

On Friday, Rabbi Cytron-Walker described looking for an opportunity to flee as night fell with three hostages remaining; one had been released around 5 p.m. “None of us could imagine one person going and leaving the others behind,” he said. When Mr. Akram had a cup of juice in one hand and seemed less prepared to respond to a quick motion, they got their chance. Rabbi Cytron-Walker threw a chair at Mr. Akram and the hostages ran for the door.

The F.B.I. also provided a more detailed account of what happened outside the sanctuary in those final moments at a Friday news conference and in interviews with The New York Times.

Paul Haertel, the assistant director of the F.B.I.’s Critical Incident Response Group, said the call to mobilize the hostage teams and other personnel went out quickly after law enforcement officials got word of the standoff at 10:40 a.m. The two rescue teams made their way to Richmond, Va., where they boarded one of the F.B.I.’s Boeing 757s. Roughly six hours later, the team and other personnel, including bomb technicians and medics, arrived in Colleyville.

“We were starting to develop a picture of what was going on,” Mr. Haertel said.

Mr. DeSarno, a veteran counterterrorism investigator, said he had never ordered a hostage rescue before. “The situation was quickly getting more dire,” he said, adding that it was “high risk and high reward.”

Mr. DeSarno said the hostage teams breached the south and west sides of the temple as the hostages exited the northeast side. He said he had no idea the hostages had escaped when the teams entered the temple.

The medical examiner said on Friday that Mr. Akram’s death had been ruled a homicide.

Rabbi Cytron-Walker and Jeffrey Cohen, who is identified on the synagogue’s website as its vice president, have credited security training with their ability to maneuver the escape from inside. The rabbi told The Times that he had participated in least four trainings in recent years.

The other two hostages have not been named publicly.

Part of the attack at Congregation Beth Israel was livestreamed because the synagogue had been sharing its services online as a pandemic precaution. On that feed, Mr. Akram could be heard referring to Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in nearby Fort Worth. Ms. Siddiqui was convicted in a federal court in 2010 for trying to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan and other “terroristic events.”

Mr. DeSarno said during a news conference on Friday that it appeared Mr. Akram had targeted the synagogue because it was the closest one to the federal prison where Ms. Siddiqui is being held in Texas.

Christopher A. Wray, the bureau’s director, said on Thursday that the F.B.I. was treating the attack as “an act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community.” Mr. DeSarno described it as “both a hate crime and an act of terrorism.”

Rabbi Cytron-Walker has said Mr. Akram’s first demand was to speak with Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York. Mr. Akram believed “she was the most influential rabbi,” the rabbi said on Thursday in a webinar hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. DeSarno said the F.B.I. was still investigating how Mr. Akram managed to acquire the handgun used to hold the worshipers hostage. He said the gun appeared to be illegally obtained.

The deployment to Texas was the one of several for members of the Hostage Rescue Team last week, including another high-risk operation in which a 31-year-old man named Michael Neuman was killed in Arkansas.

Some synagogues across the country are using this weekend’s services to express solidarity against antisemitism. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams was scheduled to speak at Friday evening services at Central Synagogue, where Rabbi Buchdahl presides.

And in Colleyville, Rabbi Cytron-Walker planned to conduct services for his congregation on Friday and Saturday. His wish for the Jewish community and beyond, he said, was “to have a Shabbat shalom, a sabbath of peace.”

Circassia News

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