Did the Texas Synagogue Jihadi Act Alone?
A sobering look at the Pakistani connection.
In the wake of the turbulence surrounding the 15 January 2022 Texas synagogue attack, it may be useful to take a step backward to review those events from a broader strategic perspective. John Guandolo at Understanding the Threat has done an excellent job explaining how this attack fits into the overall Islamic Movement jihad campaign against Western Civilization and the United States Constitutional Republic and the Jewish people in particular. Here, though, let us focus on the particular involvement of two international aspects: the Tablighi Jama’at Islamic revivalist/missionary organization and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
First, the event itself: from what we know as of this writing, a Pakistani jihadi with British citizenship named Malik Faisal Akram entered the Reform Jewish Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, TX (a Dallas-Ft. Worth suburb) around 10:40 the morning of 15 January 2022 during Shabbat services. The shul’s prayer and services schedule is helpfully posted online at its monthly calendar page. Services were being livestreamed for the benefit of congregation members praying from home, so much of the event and subsequent 10-hour stand-off with law enforcement was captured on audio, although apparently not on video.
Akram initially approached the closed front doors of the synagogue and was let in by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, affectionately known by his congregation as ‘Rabbi Charlie”. At first Rabbi Charlie didn’t suspect anything untoward, but interrupting Shabbat services, decided to make tea for Akram. In a 17 Jan 2022 interview with CBS News, Rabbi Charlie recounted the moment when things turned terrifying. Reportedly, Akram pulled a gun and made claims about bombs. According to a portion of the synagogue livestream broadcast obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Akram is heard saying, "I've got these prisoners" and "I am going to die." While his key spoken demand was the release from U.S. federal prison of the Pakistani jihadi known as “Lady Al-Qa’eda” – true name, Aafia Siddiqui – that was but a pretext for a broader objective. Akram claimed that he and Siddiqui would be “going to Jannah (Muslim belief of heaven) after he sees her,” according to a statement from the FBI on Saturday night.
What neither Rabbi Charlie, his congregation members, nor apparently Local Law Enforcement Officers (LLEOs) and the FBI have understood was that, with these statements, Akram was reciting his belief in core Islamic doctrine. As Robert Spencer wrote in PJ Media, antisemitism is deeply rooted in the Qur’an itself, where it is written that “Jews are called the strongest of all people in enmity toward the Muslims (5:82); they fabricate things and falsely ascribe them to Allah (2:79; 3:75, 3:181); they disobey Allah and never observe his commands (5:13), and Muslims should wage war against them and subjugate them under Islamic hegemony (9:29), among many other slanders.” Further, as Spencer writes, the abduction of infidels as hostages is also sanctioned in the Qur’an (Sura 47, Verse 4), where it is stipulated that Muslims may choose to kill hostages, enslave them, ransom them, or “show favor” and release them. Similarly applicable is Sura 9, Verse 111, which offers the promise of paradise to those who “kill and are killed” for Allah, in the act of jihad, thus becoming a shahid.
While it is a tremendous relief to know that Rabbi Charlie and all the other hostages got out of the situation alive and unharmed, their unfamiliarity with these Qur’anic passages may well have contributed to their unquestioning acceptance of interfaith dialogue associations that in retrospect may be seen as unwise. Indeed, as the synagogue’s Mission Statement declares, “we believe in interfaith inclusion” and “Tikkun Olam (Repair the World)”. Further, as the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue’s Facebook pages show, the Rabbi and his congregation had promoted interfaith events, including a 2 November 2019 and 6 November 2021 “Peace Together Walk”, with a photo of the walk beginning in front of the Colleyville Masjid, also known as the “Colleyville Association of Mid-Cities”. The Islamic Center of Southlake also was a participant. Unfortunately, each of these mosques has Muslim Brotherhood/jihadist connections, as documented by Understanding the Threat. Just one of those connections, for example, is the Imam Siraj Wahhaj, of the Brooklyn, NY Al-Taqwa Mosque, who was specifically named in a list of the unindicted co-conspirators at the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial.
Now, to the Tablighi-Jama’at and Pakistani connections. As we now know, Akram entered the U.S. through JFK Airport in late December 2021 with his British passport on the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)’s visa waiver program. He would have obtained that entry permit through the CBP’s online portal. Once waived through Customs at JFK, Akram was free to travel onward anywhere in the U.S. that he wished. It is unlikely that CBP is aware of what Tablighi Jama’at is or that Akram was affiliated with it. CBP should have, but possibly didn’t know either about Akram’s criminal record, as revealed by his brother. As Ilana Freedman documented in her excellent October 2016 monograph, “Gateway to Jihad: Tablighi Jama'at”, Tablighi Jama’at (TJ) is a global Islamic proselytizing organization with millions of followers in at least 80 countries. Although TJ is jihadist, it is not known to commit terrorism per se, but rather sends its missionaries to preach in mosques and Islamic Centers to strengthen the commitment of Muslim faithful to the essential doctrine and law (shariah) of Islam. Such dawah efforts, however, in many cases, serve as a conveyer belt or gateway to kinetic jihad, as was the case with Akram.
Akram himself, born in the United Kingdom (UK) of a family that hailed from the Jhelum district in the Pakistani Punjab, reportedly had traveled abroad on just such missions. According to reporting from the Hindustan Times, in the Blackburn, Lancashire area of England where Akram grew up, he “served as the head of the Rondell Street Islamic Centre in the London area, also known as Reza Masjid, where largely Muslims of Pakistani origin prayed. He also prayed at the Eldorado Masjid that was frequented by Gujarati Muslims in the region.” Two teenagers, possibly Akram’s sons, were arrested by UK Counterterrorism police in South Manchester on Sunday 16 Jan 22 and held for questioning.
As we can see, the connections to Pakistan are many. Nevertheless, it must be said that any possible connections to the Pakistani government or to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency are premature at this point. It is instructive, though, to recall the many Islamic terror attacks in which ISI has been involved. We may begin with the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India, in which, according to the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) drawing on classified Indian government documents, the ISI was “heavily involved”. The following year, on 30 December 2009, according to declassified U.S. government documents, a Jordanian doctor reportedly recruited and dispatched by the ISI, detonated a suicide vest at the CIA’s Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven and injuring an additional six. Then, on 2 December 2015, U.S.-born Syed Rizwan Farook and his Pakistani wife, Tashfeen Malik carried out a deadly shooting attack at Farook’s office Christmas party in San Bernardino, CA. The couple had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State online and expressed support openly for Islamic jihad. Malik had attended college and the Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation women’s Islamic seminary in the Punjab before marrying Farook through an online arranged wedding that took place in Saudi Arabia in 2014.
Once again, while direct ISI involvement in this attack has not been publicly documented, the area of the Punjab where Malik studied is known as a stronghold of Deobandi jihadist groups, such as Lashkar-e Jangvi and Lashkar-e Taiba, both closely affiliated with the ISI. Then, in June 2016, Omar Mateen, who identified himself as “an Islamic soldier” in talks with a crisis negotiator, opened fire inside the Orlando, FL Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people and leaving 53 wounded. Mateen, age 29, was a U.S. citizen, born in Queens, NYC to Afghan immigrant parents. At some point, Mateen had attended the Islamic Center of Ft. Pierce, whose imam, Syed Shafeeq Rahman, quickly after the shooting, named Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, a local leader of the Hamas-related Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as the mosque’s new spokesman. Rahman, also a General Practitioner medical doctor, obtained his medical degree from the Ayub Medical College in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Finally, a brief mention must be made about the 2018 cybersecurity breach involving multiple Members of Congress. The Pakistani Awan brothers, who were given access to highly sensitive government information without a background check, were permitted to work remotely – from Pakistan – up to several months at a time, according to investigative reporter Luke Rosiak.
In summary, then, there are far too many Pakistani connections to jihadist attacks and operations, spanning many years, to ignore. Nevertheless, those connections would appear to be rarely noted and only perfunctorily investigated. Certainly, in this most recent attack on the Texas synagogue, there must have been an extensive support network that conducted the pre-attack casing and surveillance, recruited and prepared Akram, and arranged for his travel to and within the U.S., his lodging, and provision of the funding and knowledge for how to purchase a gun on the street. Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood/CAIR network in and around the Dallas-Ft. Worth area has been vocal in campaigns to get the Pakistan-born convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui released from prison. Siddiqui not only tried to kill U.S. personnel in Afghanistan in 2008, leading to her conviction on terrorism charges in a 2010 Manhattan trial, but had been married to a nephew of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who remarked on her “obsession” with jihad. Educated at MIT, Siddiqui earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Brandeis University in 2001, before returning to southwest Asia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. She is serving her sentence at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, Ft. Worth, located some 24 miles from the Congregation Beth Israel. Note: This does not automatically mean that CAIR was involved in the synagogue attack, but rather that it shares Akram’s antisemitic animus and purpose in obtaining Siddiqui’s release from prison.
This analysis is offered in the interests of encouraging the situational awareness of faith communities, law enforcement, and national-level security agencies alike. Comments such as that made by FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno at a press conference following the end of the hostage crisis attest to the critical need for such education. Although roundly criticized later, that evening, DeSarno said that the “hostage taker was specifically focused on an issue not directly connected to the Jewish community” and added that there was “no immediate indication that the man had was part of any broader plan”.
The fact that UK police and counterterrorism officials are assisting their U.S. counterparts in the investigation does indicate that the overall investigation extends internationally. At the same time, comments such as made by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Sunday 16 Jan 22, who said that it was “too soon to tell” if the Texas synagogue hostage situation was part of a “broader extremist threat” and that they were looking into "what this person's motives were and whether or not there are any further connections” demonstrate just how far we yet have to go.
Clare M. Lopez is the Founder/President of Lopez Liberty LLC and serves as a senior advisory board member for the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement (NEC-SE).