January 18, 2022

IntelBrief: Texas Synagogue Hostage Incident Demonstrates Endurance of Transnational Terror Networks

AP Photo/Brandon Wade

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A hostage situation unfolded over the weekend near Fort Worth, TX, when 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram took worshippers hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, a Jewish synagogue.
  • President Biden called the incident an “act of terror”; Akram’s demands revealed connections to Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who has become a cause célèbre among jihadists, including al-Qaeda and ISIS.
  • Siddiqui has often been used as a rallying cry for terrorist groups who have on several occasions attempted to swap hostages or captives for her release.
  • The Colleyville incident highlighted that informal and formal networks that foster extremism and promote jihadist violence remain intact, especially in the United Kingdom and Europe.

A dramatic hostage situation took place over the weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, when 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram took worshippers hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, a Jewish synagogue. The ordeal lasted for nearly 11 hours, before an elite group of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hostage rescue team rescued all of the hostages, who emerged unharmed. Akram was neutralized by law enforcement. What is clear is that the highly professional and swift law enforcement response prevented this from being a much more devastating scenario. Investigators are also still working to learn how Akram acquired the handgun used to subdue hostages at the synagogue, although some have speculated that he purchased it in a private sale. President Biden characterized the hostage-taking as an “act of terror,” while British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss labeled it “an act of terrorism and anti-Semitism,” going on to note, “We stand with [the] US in defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens against those who spread hate.” Two teenagers in the United Kingdom have also been arrested, and the Greater Manchester Police are assisting with the U.S. inquiry.

As the investigation into the terror attack continues, there will no doubt be further scrutiny of the demands made by Akram for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who has become a cause célèbre among jihadis. Siddiqui is sometimes referred to as “Lady al-Qaeda.” Siddiqui, who is currently serving an 86-year sentence in a U.S. federal prison in Fort Worth, was arrested in 2008 in Afghanistan, where she was caught with sodium cyanide and documents detailing how to manufacture chemical weapons and dirty bombs. Amongst her documents were also detailed plans on how to weaponize Ebola and notes about famous New York City landmarks, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. While being questioned following her arrest, Siddiqui attempted to murder FBI agents and military officials after she grabbed a weapon in the interrogation room. Initial reports suggested the attacker in Colleyville might be Siddiqui’s brother, Muhammad, but later reports confirmed Akram’s identity, highlighting the complexities of reporting on an unfolding crisis situation.

On several occasions, jihadist groups have used Siddiqui as a rallying cry and have attempted to swap hostages or captives for her release. Her name surfaced in negotiations with the Taliban and Haqqani Network over the proposed exchange for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who went missing after being abducted by militants in 2009. The Islamic State allegedly demanded Siddiqui’s release in exchange for American hostages, who ISIS later killed in  gruesome videos. Interestingly, Siddiqui is one of the few individuals to transcend the al-Qaeda-Islamic State divide and remains an iconic figure for jihadists and their followers. It is unlikely that the Colleyville incident will be the last demanding her release and using her “celebrity status” to promote jihadist ideology.

Malik’s U.K. connection highlights that formal and informal global networks that foster jihadist extremism and promote violence remain intact and is a reminder of the complex terrorist threats facing the United Kingdom and Europe. Convicted terrorist Anjem Choudary, the former leader of U.K. terrorist group al-Muhajiroun, was released from prison in October 2018, and in July 2021, his ban on public speaking was lifted, though he remains listed on the UN’s counterterrorism “1267” sanctions regime. A magazine inspired by Choudary recently advocated for the release of Siddiqui, and following the recent synagogue hostage crisis, he used his official blog to continue agitating for her release. Jihadist ideologues like Choudary and Anwar al-Awlaki (the now-deceased former chief propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) have been able to exploit their understanding of the laws, policies, and cultures of Western nations to develop a carefully tailored and nuanced propaganda campaign promoting jihadist objectives. So-called “activist networks” like the Sharia4 movements in Europe were responsible for spreading propaganda, recruiting new members, and providing logistical support for Europeans and others to travel to Iraq and Syria during the height of the Islamic State’s power; such networks exploit the freedoms offered by democracies and operate within them to radicalize new recruits and undermine the very existence of the states where they live.

Protecting vulnerable targets and critical infrastructure has been an increasingly critical focus for many counterterrorism practitioners and communities grappling with the rising tide of hate crimes, intolerance, and the specter of so-called “lone wolf” attackers who have exploited the deliberate openness of places of worship to strangers. Moreover, as groups with a range of ideologies from jihadist to far-right emerge from the pandemic, there are questions of whether and how the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings will allow for more incidents like the horrific one which unfolded in Colleyville.