Rabbi threw chair at Texas synagogue gunman before escaping; FBI casts standoff as terrorism

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A rabbi who endured a tense, 10-hour standoff at a Texas synagogue said Monday that he and the other hostages fled after he threw a chair at the assailant.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker spoke to "CBS Mornings" hours after the FBI released a statement calling the standoff a "terrorism-related matter in which the Jewish community was targeted."

Cytron-Walker said that in the last hour of Saturday's standoff, it appeared the assailant, British national Malik Faisal Akram, "wasn't getting what he wanted."

"It didn't look good, it didn't sound good," Cytron-Walker said. "We were terrified."

He said he saw an opportunity and made sure the other two hostages were ready. The exit was not far away, he said.

"I told them to go," he said. "I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired."

Akram, 44, was killed after an FBI SWAT team swept into the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. Akram, who was armed, was shot by the FBI team during the raid, a law enforcement official said Monday.

The trans-Atlantic probe intensified with the arrest of two teenagers in Britain late Sunday. Both teens are Akram's children, said the law enforcement official who is not authorized to comment publicly. It was not immediately clear whether the teens were being considered anything more than possible witnesses in the ongoing investigation. The FBI said the Joint Terrorism Task Force was handling the case – and preventing terrorism is the agency's "No. 1 priority."

"We never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial and ethnic groups," the statement said. "We have had a close and enduring relationship with the Jewish community for many years."

The FBI's statement differed from remarks immediately after the standoff when the bureau's Dallas chief said the assailant's demands were "specifically focused on issues not connected to the Jewish community." Investigators said Akram expressed support for Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist serving 86 years in a Texas prison for attempting to murder U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday it was "disturbing" to hear the FBI downplay the link to antisemitism.

"I hope the FBI will reconsider the statement because it is well known that at her trial Siddiqui, also known as 'Lady al-Qaeda,' was a raging anti-Semite who demanded that jurors be genetically tested for Jewish blood," Graham tweeted. "This statement by the FBI seems ill-conceived and ill-timed."

TEENS ARRESTED: British police arrest 2 teens in relation to Texas hostage standoff; FBI identifies assailant

The Anti-Defamation League applauded the FBI's efforts but asked that the connection to antisemitism be fully investigated.

"There is no doubt, given what we know so far, that the hostage-taker chose his target carefully," the league said in a statement. "We urge law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate the role antisemitism may have played in motivating the suspect."

Police respond to a hostage situation at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16 in Colleyville, Texas.
Police respond to a hostage situation at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16 in Colleyville, Texas.

In its latest statement, the FBI referred to its protracted negotiations with Akram who "spoke repeatedly" about Siddiqui. She was detained in 2008 by Afghan authorities who found notes referring to a "mass casualty attack" possibly targeting New York. When U.S. officials attempted to interview Siddiqui in Ghazni, Afghanistan, she seized an Army officer's weapon and shot at an officer and other members of the interview team.

She was brought to New York for trial. Siddiqui told the judge she wanted the jurors to undergo genetic testing.

“If they have a Zionist or Israeli background … they are all mad at me,” Siddiqui told the judge. “They should be excluded if you want to be fair."

STANDOFF ENDS: Texas synagogue hostages safe after hourslong standoff

Siddiqui is incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center-Carswell prison in Fort Worth, less than 25 miles from the synagogue.

None of the four hostages in Saturday's attack was injured. Akram's brother, Gulbar, released a statement to Sky News saying family members spent hours talking to his brother during the siege. Although the assailant was "suffering from mental health issues we were confident that he would not harm the hostages," Gulbar Akram said.

Cytron-Walker expressed gratitude Sunday to law enforcement for their efforts at ending the standoff.

"I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support, all of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all of the security training that helped save us," he wrote in a Facebook post. "I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas synagogue: Rabbi threw chair at Malik Faisal Akram before escape