By Ron Kampeas and Andrew Lapin
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — All four hostages at a synagogue in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area were declared “out alive and safe” by Texas Governor Greg Abbott at 9:33 p.m. CST on Saturday following a 12-hour standoff with an armed assailant in an unfolding saga that terrified Jews worldwide.
The hostage situation unfolded during Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, a suburb north of Fort Worth. The synagogue had been live-streaming its services on Facebook; the suspect’s actions had been partially recorded on the stream.
“The suspect is deceased,” Colleyville’s police chief, Michael Miller, told reporters at a late-night press conference, adding that the hostages had been unharmed. Officials said they had identified the suspect and that he had acted alone, but they were not ready to reveal him to the public.
Police said one of the four hostages, a male, had been released in the early evening, leaving three still being held. Reporters and bystanders heard a loud bang and what sounded like gunshots around 9:30 p.m. local time, which CNN reported were flashbangs used during a raid to distract the hostage-taker; Abbott sent his tweet shortly after.
“Prayers answered,” he wrote. “All hostages are out alive and safe.”
“The SWAT situation in Colleyville is resolved and all hostages are safe,” the local police said on Twitter.
An FBI official said at the press conference that the agency was working closely with Secure Community Network, the agency that consults with national and local Jewish communities, as well as Jewish federations and police in Israel and London.
The assailant had been holding Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants hostage.
The FBI was on the scene as well as local police, and the FBI had led negotiations with the hostage-taker for several hours. The White House was also “monitoring” the situation, per reports. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also said in a tweet that he was “closely monitoring” the situation.
In an alert, Secure Community Network, which consults with national and local Jewish organizations, said the man was reportedly armed and making bomb threats.“We’re not aware of any direct credible threats to any other synagogues,” Michael Masters, who directs SCN, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Masters said the synagogue underwent SCN training in August. “It was a full training,” he said. “We worked on a number of different scenarios and issues and we have been engaged with that congregation.” Masters said it was too early to tell if the protocols kicked in during the hostage taking.
According to recorded audio recovered from the livestream, the man was seeking the freedom of Aafia Siddiqui, a relative by marriage of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the chief architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Aafia Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in the Fort Worth area for attempting to kill American military personnel after she was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 on suspicion of plotting attacks in New York. She made multiple antisemitic outbursts during and after her trial.
NBC reported that the man asked Cytron-Walker to call a rabbi in New York, demanding Aafia Siddiqui’s release. The livestream went down around 2 p.m.
Because the man at one point reportedly referred to Siddiqui as “sister,” some initial reports erroneously concluded he was her brother. However, a lawyer for a brother of Siddiqui, Muhammad Siddiqui, said Siddiqui was not the man inside the synagogue. The lawyer, John Floyd, is the chairman of the Houston affiliate of CAIR, the Muslim legal advocacy group. CAIR and the Free Aafia movement, which contends that the charges against her are trumped up and that she has been tortured, condemned the hostage-taking.
“This assailant has nothing to do with Dr. Aafia, her family, or the global campaign to get justice for Dr. Aafia,” Floyd said in a statement. “We want the assailant to know that his actions are wicked and directly undermine those of us who are seeking justice for Dr. Aafia.”
The attack came after two deadly attacks on American synagogues in recent years — in Pittsburgh in 2018 and in Poway, California in 2019 — that changed how many Jewish communities thought about synagogue security. Organizations like SCN have intensified security training in communities across the country.
“This highlights the need for all of us to be aware and vigilant and most importantly to keep the individuals in the synagogue in our thoughts and prayers and hope for a peaceful resolution,” Masters told JTA.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group, said it was monitoring the situation. “Collectively, we must spare no effort to ensure that American Jews are safe in their houses of worship and community centers,” it said in a statement.
Jessika Harkay, a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, shared a number of quotes from the livestream in a series of tweets.
“Don’t cry on the f**king phone with me,” a man says at one point. “Don’t f**king cry on me. I have six beautiful kids … There are hostages in the synagogue who are going to die. … What are you crying for?”
“I’m going to die, are you listening?” the man says, repeatedly. “I’m going to die doing this all right? Are you listening? I’m going to die. Don’t cry about me.”
According to Beth Israel’s website, Cytron-Walker is the congregation’s first full-time rabbi and has been with the congregation since 2006. A native of Lansing, Michigan, Cytron-Walker and his wife have two daughters.
The synagogue is in the process of hiring a rabbi, according to its online calendar.
Cytron-Walker served as a past president of the South West Association of Reform Rabbis and received an award from QESHET: A Network of LGBT Reform Rabbis. Before becoming a rabbi, he worked for a human rights organization in Detroit as well as a soup kitchen in Amherst, Massachusetts.