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EFSAS Commentary

The Texas synagogue hostage saga has its roots in extremist ideas floated by successive Pakistani regimes


The fact that the prominent Pakistani daily The News International thought it important in a headline to claim that “Texas hostage-taker had no links to Pakistan, radicalised in England” speaks volumes about how defensive and insecure the country has become over the damaging impact that its sustained policy of inciting radicalism and extremism and promoting terrorism has had across the globe. The daily quoted unspecified family sources of the 44-year-old Pakistani origin hostage-taker as saying that he had been “radicalised locally in Blackburn” in the United Kingdom (UK) and “had no links to Pakistan”. The family source spoken to by The News International proved, at best, to be ill-informed, as details of regular visits to Pakistan by the hostage-taker, including as a member of the pan-Islamic Tablighi Jamaat (TJ – Society for Spreading Faith) movement, came to light. As brought out in the EFSAS Commentary of 31-12-2021, the TJ had recently been branded a terrorist group and banned by none other than Saudi Arabia. It is not without reason that a Pakistani link has emerged in a high proportion of recent terrorist incidents across the world, and implausible comments by anonymous relatives of hostage-takers are, unfortunately for Pakistan, not likely to cloud this hard fact.

How the day-long hostage-taking incident unfolded at the Reform Jewish synagogue just outside Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, where members of Congregation Beth Israel had gathered on 15 January for Sabbath service, is interesting on a number of counts. A British man of Pakistani origin, Malik Faisal Akram, arrived at the synagogue unannounced but was welcomed by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and offered a cup of tea. When the rabbi began the prayers, Akram drew and cocked a gun and began yelling. He took four people, including Cytron-Walker, hostage. Since many Congregation Beth Israel members had opted to watch the weekly prayers from home via Facebook or Zoom, the live stream captured what Akram was saying frantically, shifting frequently between languages. “I’m gunned up. I’m ammo-ed up”, he said, adding, “I’m going to die at the end of this, alright? Are you listening? I am going to die! OK? So, don’t cry over me”. The hostage crisis stretched over the next ten hours, even as security personnel gathered outside the synagogue in numbers. Akram did not harm the hostages, but threatened them the entire time. He released one hostage at about 5 PM. As the day wore on, Akram’s demeanor began to change. Cytron-Walker later said in a statement that “In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening”. Cytron-Walker sensed an opportunity when Akram asked for a drink. In Cytron-Walker’s words, “As he was drinking, the gun wasn’t in the best position and I thought this was our best chance, I needed to make sure the people who were still with me that they were ready to go. And so there was a chair that was right in front of me. I told the guys to go, I picked it up and I threw it at him with all the adrenaline. It was absolutely terrifying and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be shot, and I did not hear a shot fired as I made it out the door. I was the last one out”. Akram was shot dead by Special Forces who entered the synagogue shortly thereafter.

The FBI, in a statement, informed that Akram “spoke repeatedly about a convicted terrorist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States”. Jeffrey Cohen, the vice president on the synagogue's board of trustees who was one of the four hostages, was quoted by CNN as saying that “He wanted this woman released and he wanted to talk to her and he thought – well, he said point-blank – he chose this synagogue because ‘Jews control the world. Jews control the media. Jews control the banks’”. The convicted terrorist that Akram wanted released was Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani serving an 86-year sentence in a prison near the synagogue. Akram, in the initial part of the hostage crisis had claimed to be Muhammad Siddiqui, Aafia Siddiqui’s brother.

So who was Malik Faisal Akram, and what caused him to travel all the way from the UK to Texas to get shot without achieving much. The British media has reported claims by locals that Akram had mental health issues, but the precision and planning behind his moves indicate that the impairment could not have been too severe. Some others viewed Akram’s desperate attempt to free Aafia Siddiqui as a botched operation of Pakistani intelligence agencies mandated to fulfill Prime Minister Imran Khan’s poll promise of getting Siddiqui released and brought back to Pakistan. They argue that the hope was to secure a victory abroad that was big enough to stall the sharp downward slide in Khan’s popularity within Pakistan. The FBI found Akram to be “singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community, but we’ll continue to work to find motive”. It later added that Akram’s actions constituted “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted”, and that the case “is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force”. US President Joe Biden called Akram’s hostage-taking an “act of terror”, and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss described it as an “act of terrorism and anti-Semitism”, adding that “We stand with US in defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens against those who spread hate”.

Whatever be Akram’s real motive, the facts that are known about him are that he belonged to the Blackburn area of Lancashire. His family originally belonged to the Jhelum district of Punjab, Pakistan, from where it immigrated to the UK. Akram had reportedly earlier served as the head of the Rondell Street Islamic Centre in the London area that is frequented mostly by people of Pakistani origin. He was a regular participant in demonstrations supporting the Palestinian cause and the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay. Akram had arrived in the US via New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in late December 2021, and in the two weeks before he visited the synagogue he had spent several nights in a Dallas homeless shelter. President Biden said that Akram had apparently bought the weapons that he used in the hostage-taking after he landed in the US, and that he had not used bombs. Significantly, two UK teenagers, believed to be Akram’s sons, were arrested from Blackburn on 16 January following a raid.

The credentials of Aafia Siddiqui, whom Akram intended to free through his violent acts, are infinitely more sinister. Born into an educated, devout Muslim family in Karachi, Pakistan, Siddiqui, at the age of 18, travelled to the US in 1991 to study at Boston’s prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In a 2010 statement, the FBI had said that “While a student in Boston, Siddiqui had undertaken training and instruction on the handling and shooting of firearms”. She went on to earn a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University. After the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001, she came to the FBI’s notice for donations to radical Islamic organisations and was linked to the purchase of $10,000 worth of night-vision goggles and books on warfare. She moved back to Pakistan in 2002, but disappeared from her native Karachi a year later and her whereabouts were not known until she re-surfaced in neighboring Afghanistan in suspicious circumstances in 2008. The US suspected that she had joined Al-Qaeda while still living in the US and returned to Pakistan where she married into the family of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks.

Siddiqui was next heard of when she was taken into custody in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2008, after local authorities became suspicious of her loitering outside the provincial governor’s compound. American prosecutors said that at the time of her arrest she was carrying handwritten notes plotting a “mass casualty attack” with a list of potential targets including the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. Other notes in her possession referred to the construction of “dirty bombs”. Prosecutors also said that on 18 July 2008, while in custody in Afghanistan, Siddiqui grabbed an M4 rifle from a police station floor and fired on Army officers and FBI agents. She was shot in the abdomen in retaliation. Siddiqui was immediately flown to the US, where two years later a federal court found her guilty of attempted murder and assault of US officials during interrogation in Ghazni and sentenced her to 86-years imprisonment.

Akram’s choice of venue for his attack may have been influenced by physical proximity to where Siddiqui was being held. It, however, also exposed Akram’s subscription to Siddiqui’s virulently anti-Semitic beliefs, which she let be known abundantly clearly during her trail and thereafter. Siddiqui wanted jury members to be “genetically tested” for signs of being “Jewish or Zionist”, and insisted that they be removed if found. She asked that her own lawyers, who were being paid millions of dollars by the Pakistani government, be fired because they were Jewish. Psychologist Thomas Kucharski assessed that “Her beliefs that Israel, the United States and India are conspiring to invade Pakistan, that Jews are responsible for 9/11 and have infiltrated American political and nongovernmental organizations” suggested that Siddiqui was not fit to stand trial. The tabloids, meanwhile, nicknamed her “Lady Qaeda”.

Pakistani Islamist parties have rallied for her Siddiqui’s release over the past 13 years, as have major global jihadist outfits. Vows to avenge Siddiqui and offers to exchange prisoners with her have come from major global jihadist outfits including the Taliban, Al Qaida, and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with attacks being orchestrated as a persuasive tactic towards this aim. Islamist militants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria and Syria have made Siddiqui’s release a condition for their freeing foreign hostages. Over 50 people have been killed over the years by jihadis seeking Siddiqui’s release. While this is not surprising given her background and inclinations, it is the strong and consistent backing of Siddiqui by the Pakistani State that has worried terror-watchers.

Every single Pakistani regime since Siddiqui’s arrest has made her release a rallying cry.  Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister, and Foreign Minister have all personally taken up Siddiqui’s case with their American counterparts, and the Pakistani Senate has called on the US to release her. In 2010 the then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who had described Siddiqui as a “Daughter of the Nation”, joined opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in promising to push for her release. Senators in the country passed a resolution to demand her return. According to Foreign Policy magazine, Pakistani officials had in 2012 offered to help secure the release of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl if the US agreed to release Siddiqui. In November 2018, the Pakistani Senate again unanimously passed a resolution formally proclaiming her a “Daughter of the Nation” and urged the government to take “concrete steps” for her urgent repatriation from the US. The issue was considered such a national priority that in his sole White House meeting with President Donald Trump in 2019, PM Imran Khan offered a prisoner exchange involving Aafia Siddiqui and Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the US track down Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and who is serving a 33 year jail sentence in an unknown location in Pakistan.

As Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, the Pakistan-based correspondent of The Diplomat put it, “Populist leaders in the Muslim world who push an Islamist narrative studded with anti-Semitic tropes, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s Imran Khan (who likes to equate caricatures of Muhammad with the Holocaust) do so in the name of ‘protecting’ Muslims… The story of Aafia Siddiqui, and her zealous fans, is a long saga about the intersection of Islamist violence, Pakistani politics, anti-Semitism and the relentlessness of apologists for terror”.

The lesson from Texas for Pakistan is that so long as the country continues to drill extremist ideologies into its population, hobnob openly with radical organizations and ideas, and liberally set-up terrorist producing nurseries, publications such as The News International will continue to need to try, even if unsuccessfully, to distance Pakistan from a majority of the terrorist incidents that take place across the Western world in which clear links to Pakistan undoubtedly exist.