The FBI and Texas Department of Public Safety are assisting a hostage situation at a synagogue in Texas, where authorities say the suspect may be motivated by the desire to free a Pakistani scientist who was convicted of attempting to kill US officers in Afghanistan.
A law enforcement official familiar with the investigation told CNN there were believed to be four hostages, including a rabbi, at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, just outside Fort Worth. Several hours into the standoff, Colleyville Police Sgt. Dara Nelson said one hostage had been released.
There are no injuries at this time, Nelson said.
“The FBI negotiators are the ones who have contact with the person in the building,” Nelson said. There is “no threat to the general public” at this time, Nelson added.
The synagogue was live-streaming their Sabbath morning service on Facebook when the hostage situation began. The live stream appeared to capture part of the incident before it was removed. Law enforcement officials said they reviewed the stream and are using it to gather clues on the incident and the individuals involved.
Two law enforcement officials said that investigators believe the hostage-taker may have been motivated by a desire to release Aafia Sidiqqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence at a facility in Texas. She was convicted in 2010 on seven charges, including attempted murder and armed assault on US officers in Afghanistan.
That assessment is based on both discussions with the suspect and audio heard on the synagogue’s live stream, the officials said.
The attorney who represents Siddiqui said Saturday “she has absolutely no involvement with” the taking of hostages at the synagogue.
“She does not want any violence perpetrated against any human being, especially in her name,” Marwa Elbially reported by phone. “It obviously has nothing to do with Dr. Siddiqui or her family.”
At the request of the hostage-taker, the rabbi of the congregation who is being held hostage called a well-known rabbi in New York City, according to two officials briefed on the investigation.
The FBI interviewed the New York City-based rabbi who spoke to the hostage-taker earlier Saturday. The hostage-taker, who has no connection with the rabbi, told her that Siddiqi was framed and he wants her released, the officials said.
Congregation member Stacey Silverman described watching the live stream for more than an hour, listening to the suspect ranting, sometimes switching between saying “I’m not a criminal” to being apologetic about the situation. The suspect was vacillating between different languages and “screaming hysterically,” she said.
“At any moment, I thought there was going to be a gunshot,” Silverman said, adding that the suspect claimed to have a bomb.
Congregation Beth Israel is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, whose website indicates the congregation serves 157 membership families.
The synagogue, established in 1999 with 25 membership families, was the first Jewish congregation in Northeast Tarrant County, according to CBI’s website. The CBI community officially opened its doors to its own new building in 2005.
CBI holds Sabbath morning services every Saturday, and members and non-members alike are welcome to watch along from home on the live stream, a practice many synagogues have adopted in the wake of the pandemic.
Who is Aafia Sidiqqui?
In 2010, Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years in prison by a New York federal judge following a 14-day trial. A jury found her guilty of the attempted murder of US nationals and government employees, as well as an assault against US officers and employees.
Siddiqui — a Pakistani scientist who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and obtained a doctorate from Brandeis University — was taken into custody for questioning by the Afghan National Police in 2008, who said they found handwritten notes referring to potential targets of a “mass casualty attack,” according to a federal indictment.
When a group of Americans attempted to speak to her, prosecutors said she was able to grab a US soldier’s rifle and open fire on the interrogation team, although no one was hit by the gunfire.
At sentencing, the judge found that a terrorism enhancement applied to her crimes, citing statements she had made that the judge concluded demonstrated her actions and intent to retaliate against the US government, including “I hate Americans” and “Death to America.”
Siddiqui’s defense argued she was incompetent to stand trial. But Siddiqui clashed repeatedly with her lawyers, telling the judge at sentencing, “If anybody thinks that it is my paranoia or whatever, I’m not paranoid. I’m not mentally sick. I do not agree with that.” She also stated her belief that Israel “masterminded 9/11.”
Her conviction has been the subject of regular protests in the US and overseas. Frequent demonstrations have been organized by the Aafia Foundation, a group named for her. That group has claimed that she was assaulted in prison last year.
Her family has said in interviews with CNN that she is not a terrorist.
During a deadly hostage crisis in Algeria in 2013, a spokesperson for a militant group offered to release hostages if Aafia Siddiqui was released from US prison, along with Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, who has since died in prison.
Siddiqui is being held in a medical facility that’s part of a federal prison in Fort Worth, with a release date set for 60 years from now.