After spending 11 hours as the hostage of a gunman spouting antisemitic hate, Jeffrey Cohen has one message for the country — the hatred must stop.
At Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Cohen was imprisoned within his own house of worship alongside two fellow congregants and Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. Throughout the day, the FBI and other law enforcement negotiated with the hostage-taker, but it was the hostages themselves who forged their escape at the end of a standoff that captured the world’s attention.
Cohen, Cytron-Walker and two other congregants were running Saturday’s service as other members watched via livestream or Zoom. When Cohen arrived that morning, Cytron-Walker asked him something about the stranger who had knocked on the synagogue’s glass door that morning and who appeared to be seeking shelter from the 20-degree windchill. Cytron-Walker had welcomed the man inside and gave him a cup of tea.
Cohen introduced himself to the man, who seemed relaxed and jovial. None of the red flags that Cohen had been taught to look for in multiple security trainings were evident. The man was on the phone, but said hello and thanked him for the tea.
“There are certain tings you look at to size someone up,” Cohen told the Star-Telegram. “We got this from the active shooter course and the things to look at are their eyes darting around, are they sweating profusely, are their hands a little shaky. But he made eye contact, he was smiling, he was jovial, he said hello.”
The Amidah — the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy — began and the four men inside the synagogue faced east and recited the prayer. Their backs were toward the man, who was identified on Sunday as Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen.
At first, Cohen thought he must be mistaken that he heard the sound of a weapon inside his house of worship. But he noticed Cytron-Walker was looking at Akram, too. Cohen turned and faced Akram, who was pointing a loaded pistol at them.
“Very soon after that, he must have jumped up and started screaming,” Cohen said. “To be honest, I don’t know what he was screaming.”
‘He’s come here to get her out’
Discreetly, Cohen dialed 911 on his phone, which he kept beside him during services. He turned the screen against the seat and hoped the police would gather what was going on from the audio.
They must have understood, because within minutes, a Colleyville police officer was at the door, Cohen said. Akram screamed at the officer and pointed his gun at him. The officer pulled back; Cohen said he could only see the officer’s arm through the front window.
Within 15 to 30 seconds, they heard sirens coming toward them. Quiet fell outside the synagogue. Inside, Akram started to yell. He screamed that he wanted to free his sister from prison and went on a tirade against Jewish people. Cohen said he yelled, “Jews control the world, Jews control the media, Jews control the banks.”
Cohen asked when Akram last spoke to his sister, who Akram claimed was Aafia Siddiqui. Siddiqui was convicted of shooting at U.S. military and is suspected of having ties to al-Quaeda. Akram replied that he had never spoken to her, which is when Cohen realized he meant his sister in Islam, not his actual sister.
“He’s come here to get her out,” Cohen said that Akram yelled. “And we can call President Biden and he will do it. We can call President Trump and he will do it because Jews control everything.”
Akram claimed he had a bomb, and Cohen believed him. At first, Akram said he was only interested in Siddiqui being released and he didn’t want to hurt them. But the situation did not look good.
Again discreetly using his phone, he posted on Facebook.
“At CBI with a gunman,” said the post, which was made private on Monday. “If I don’t get out remember me. Fight hate.”
Akram let them call their loved ones. Quickly, he dialed his wife, son and daughter.
“I basically said, ‘I’m here at the synagogue, there is a gunman. He claims to have a bomb, this may not end well, I love you. Remember me,’” he said. “It was a very, very short conversation because I wanted to make sure I got to talk to everybody.”
Cohen immediately started to form an escape plan. He positioned himself not at the back of the room, as Akram demanded, but instead in a pew in line with the exit. Months ago, he and others at the synagogue were trained by Secure Community Network. In a testament to the state of antisemitism in the U.S., they were taught how to deal with a potential attack on their synagogue. It was that training that saved their lives, Cohen said.
The options in a hostage or shooting situation are to run, hide or fight. Hiding was not an option, and none of the congregants were armed. Even if they had been, Cohen said, the likelihood of safely using a gun against Akram was slim. Throughout the day, Cohen subtly told or urged the others to move into the same space. While rubbing the shoulders of one of the men, he whispered in his ear to move toward the exit door. When pizza was delivered to the synagogue, he told Cytron-Walker to bring the food to same pew instead of the table.
At one point, one of the hostages was released by Akram when he was having medical problems. The three other men remained.
Everything was relatively calm, Cohen said, except for the last half of hour when the situation started to devolve.
“He was screaming, ‘I am going to put a bullet on each one of you,’” Cohen said. “At that point, he was looking toward me. I looked him right in the eyes. I stared at him. I made my face very strict. And I think I shook my head, or I mouthed ‘no.’”
Akram backed down and went to pour himself a soda. He might have set the gun down. Suddenly, Cytron-Walker threw a chair at Akram and yelled for them to run. Cohen sprinted for the door, practically picking up the other hostage as he ran because he was worried the man wouldn’t make it quickly enough. Cohen burst through the exit door, Cytron-Walker right behind him.
As he ran, Cohen stumbled and hit the ground. He climbed into the hedges nearby as he heard Akram at the door behind him. Akram went back inside and, less than a minute later, the hostage team entered the synagogue. Gunshots rang out, followed by an explosive bang. Akram was dead.
“We escaped. We did it on our own,” Cohen said. “Because we knew, we had gone through this course so we knew what to do and how to turn the odds just a little bit into our favor.”
Hate must stop
The stereotypes and hate that Jewish people face played a direct role in Beth Israel being targeted, Cohen said. That prejudice must end, he said, and everyone has to play a role in stopping it.
“This guy was not the typical guy who comes in and just wants to kill Jews and comes in guns blazing and kills everybody,” he said. “He did what he did because of the tropes — they are ancient, they go on, they continue.”
Cohen went to school in Pittsburgh, where he walked past Tree of Life regularly. The shooting in 2018 that killed 11 people inside the synagogue shook him.
“And so it is important that we stop some of this blind hatred,” he said. “We see it at the alt-right rallies and things like that. Those tropes are things that need to be challenged. The vast majority of people don’t believe those things. It’s common to just let these things go and let them pass you by. We cant do that. We have got to challenge, we have got to say no, these things re not acceptable. Because otherwise it becomes acceptable for everyone to say it and it becomes acceptable for people who are less than stable to use this as an excuse to do what they want to do. “
That applies to all forms of hatred, he said. Hate speech against all minorities propagates and becomes violent. What is most important to Cohen now is why this happened and how it can be avoided.