(NewsNation Now) — In the weeks leading up to this weekend’s violence at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, alleged hostage-taker Malik Faisal Akram spent time between several area homeless shelters.
People staying inside one of them, OurCalling in Dallas, said it was frightening knowing that Akram was there in the previous days.
“He was here. He was … eating right here,” one man, whose stay at the OurCalling overlapped with Akram’s, told NewsNation. He did not have direct contact with Akram. “We’re going through a crisis in our life, being homeless. So knowing that someone would be right among us — and that he would attack our country like that — is scary.”
The man said those who stay at OurCalling are only asked to show ID. That detail matters because it sheds light on how Akram, a British citizen, was able to enter the country.
U.S. officials say Akram raised no red flags when he arrived through John F. Kennedy International Airport at the end of December on a tourist visa. Through phone and financial records, investigators believe he traveled to Texas by bus.
It was in Colleyville, Texas, where Akram entered a synagogue and held four people hostage during a live-streamed service. The synagogue members survived the attack, although Akram was killed.
“[Akram] was checked against U.S. government databases multiple times prior to entering the country,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “The U.S. did not have any derogatory information about the individual in our systems at the time of entry.”
However, British media report Akram was investigated by the British intelligence service MI-5 as a possible “terrorist threat” in 2020. Authorities at the time concluded he posed no threat.
In England, two teens who were arrested over the weekend have been identified as Akram’s sons. They were later released without charges.
For many Jewish leaders, the hostage standoff was all too familiar.
The attack recalled recent deadly assaults on synagogues, including Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life in 2018 and California’s Chabad of Poway in 2019. Unlike those attacks, when assailants linked to white nationalist motives went on shooting rampages soon after entering, Akram took hostages to have them use their influence to try to obtain the release of federal prisoner Aafia Siddiqui.
Although the FBI initially said Akram was focused on an issue “not specifically related to the Jewish community,” survivors said the captor voiced beliefs that Jews controlled the world and had the power to arrange Siddiqui’s release. The agency later clarified that the Jewish community was targeted.
Rabbi Noah Farkas, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said he has been speaking with rabbinic colleagues in the wake of the Texas incident, many many of whom have trepidations about leading services.
“To be a Jew in America today, to wear Jewish ritual garb like the yarmulke or a Star of David, is an act of courage, and I would say defiance as well,” Farkas said.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker — the heroic leader of Congregation Beth Israel who helped get his congregants out alive — addressed the horrors in a healing service.
“Thank God. Thank God,” Cytron-Walker said. “It could have been so much worse.”