Multiple law enforcement agencies responded Saturday to a hostage situation at a Texas synagogue that began during a morning service and continued into the night.
Local law enforcement and FBI crisis negotiators responded to Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Saturday morning. Negotiators were “in communication with the subject,” who initially took four hostages, though one man was later released uninjured, according to the Colleyville Police Department. No injuries have been reported in the incident.
The hostage-taker is calling for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who was sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in prison for the attempted murder and assault of U.S. nationals and U.S. officers and employees in Afghanistan, a law enforcement official said. Siddiqui is in federal prison in Forth Worth, Texas.
The relationship between the hostage-taker and the prisoner is unclear, said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly. A rabbi and three others were among the hostages.
The Colleyville Police department said the situation remained “ongoing” as of 10 p.m. Eastern Saturday.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Eastern, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted President Joe Biden was briefed about the “developing hostage situation in the Dallas area.”
“He will continue to receive updates from his senior team as the situation develops,” Psaki tweeted. “Senior members of the national security team are also in touch with federal law enforcement leadership.”
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker leads Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. Cytron-Walker is the type of rabbi who is “well respected across the father communities in the area,” according to Rabbi Rick Saranson, who taught Cytron-Walker at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati from 2002 until 2006.
Saranson said Saturday’s threat at Congregation Beth Israel made him recall other threats made against Jewish houses of worship in recent years.
“Communities of faith — synagogues, churches, mosques — are places of coexistence and understanding and so on and so forth and Rabbi Charlie has always been a prime exemplar of that and I just hope that everybody comes out of this safely,” Saranson told USA TODAY.
For a time the situation was livestreamed on the synagogue’s Facebook page. The livestream cut out around 2:50 p.m. Eastern and was unavailable after it was stopped.
It is unclear if the person inside the synagogue is armed.
The Texas Department of Public Safety’s highway patrol and criminal investigations division are also at the scene, Texas DPS Sgt. Josue De La Cerda told USA TODAY.
FBI Dallas spokeswoman Katie Chaumont told the Associated Press an FBI SWAT team was also at the scene. She declined to describe what the person had said to authorities, citing operational sensitivity.
“It’s an evolving situation, and we have a lot of law enforcement personnel on scene,” Chaumont told the outlet.
The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tweeted they were “assisting” Dallas FBI and local authorities.
Saturday morning’s service was livestreamed on Facebook prior to the hostage situation. The livestream captured audio of a voice yelling inside the synagogue. Video captured by the livestream didn’t appear to show what was going on off-camera.
“We removed the video from the synagogue’s page, and will also remove content praising or supporting this incident,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement to USA TODAY. “We are in contact with law enforcement as the situation continues to evolve.”
The Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said they condemned Saturday’s incident.
“This antisemitic attack against a house of worship is unacceptable. We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community, and we pray that law enforcement authorities are able to swiftly free the hostages and bring them to safety,” the group’s statement said.
The Colleyville Police Department tweeted residents in the immediate area were evacuated. People are asked to avoid the area. Colleyville, a community of about 26,000 people, is about 15 miles northeast of Fort Worth and 25 miles northwest of Dallas.
The Anti-Defamation League tweeted Saturday afternoon that it “is aware of the ongoing situation in Colleyville, TX and is engaged with local and federal authorities and the community’s leaders.”
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson is “deploying additional patrols” to synagogues and other sites “as a precaution,” he tweeted Saturday afternoon. In San Antonio, Texas, police said they will “monitor for any possible local threats.” Beverly Hills, California, police said out of an abundance of caution, they “will be increasing patrols around our Jewish houses of worship.”
According to an indictment filed in Manhattan federal court, Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist, was detained in 2008 by Afghan authorities, who found a number of items in her possession, including handwritten notes that referred to a “mass casualty attack” and that listed various locations in the United States, including the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Other notes in Siddiqui’s possession referred to the construction of “dirty bombs,” and discussed various ways to attack “enemies,” including by destroying reconnaissance drones, using underwater bombs, and deploying gliders, according to federal prosecutors.
When U.S. officials attempted to interview Siddiqui in Ghazni, Afghanistan, she grabbed a U.S. Army officer’s M-4 rifle and fired it at another U.S. Army officer and other members of the U.S. interview team. During the shooting, Siddiqui exclaimed her intent and desire to kill Americans.
Siddiqui’s lawyer told USA TODAY on Saturday that her client was not involved in any way with the hostage situation, and that her only brother, an architect who lives in Houston, has confirmed that he has nothing to do with it either.
“She has nothing to do with this. She’s had nothing to do with any forms of violence that are done in her name. And she maintains her innocence,” said Marwa Elbially, Siddiqui’s Texas-based lawyer.
Elbially said she had not been given the name of the suspect or other details about him by authorities. Elbially said she heard about news reports of the incident where the hostage-taker referred to Siddiqui as his “sister.”
“I have no idea who this individual is or how they even came up with linking him to her family directly like that,” Elbially said. “I knew, obviously and immediately, when they initially said that it was her brother that it was completely false.”
Elbially, who has represented Siddiqui for the past year, added: “What I can say is that we really pray that nobody is harmed or injured and that the police are able to handle the situation and take him into custody.”
UDSA TODAY / The Associated Press.