“At one point, our attacker instructed us to get on our knees. I reared up in my chair, stared at him sternly… and mouthed ‘no’.”
It’s easy to read Jeffrey Cohen’s account of being held hostage in a Texan synagogue at the weekend as an uplifting tale of bravery and accomplishment: it tells of a terrifying stand-off with a deranged, gun-wielding attacker, brought to an end after nearly 11 hours when a rabbi threw a chair at the assailant and managed to escape with two other hostages (another had been released earlier in the day).
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Thankfully, the only person killed that day was the terrorist, 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram. Rabbi Charlie Cytron Walker had nothing but praise for the recent security training provided to the synagogue by the FBI and Colleyville Police Department. It had prepared them for the situation and saved their lives. Other residents spoke of how the community came together. The attack’s conclusion was deemed a triumph of humanity; it was, in effect, something to be celebrated.
And yet the truth couldn’t be more different. Yes, there is still much about the Akram that remains unclear: a debate is still raging over his motivations, and whether he was inspired by Islamist ideology or whether the state of his “mental health” is to blame.
But two conclusions can already be drawn — and both are deeply concerning. The first is that the attack should never have been allowed to happen; the second is that such acts of violence are likely to become more frequent.
During the Obama years, terrorist attacks seemed almost routine. But for much of the past several years, we’ve seen their frequency decrease in the United States, largely thanks to the defeat of Muslim terror groups and the disillusionment of many young Muslims with radical Islam.
In that period, as Akram’s attack demonstrates, we have let our guard down. And the Islamists have noticed. They’ve taken this quiet time to regroup, raise money, recruit extensively, and grow stronger. It is classic Islamist dawa strategy.
Law enforcement is tight-lipped when it comes to confirming whether Akram fits into this narrative. But that should not prevent us from questioning how America became so complacent. How else could a suspected Islamist from the UK with connections to Tablighi Jammat enter the US without anyone blinking an eye?
Convicted criminals are usually denied entry to the US, but Akram was granted a tourist visa simply by lying on his application. With the stroke of pen, he erased his long criminal history, which included serving prison time, on three separate occasions, for harassment, theft and attacking a family member with a baseball bat. By ticking a box, he managed to expunge from history the fact that he had been under investigation by MI5 as a possible Islamist terrorist threat as recently as 2020. He was welcomed into America where he could travel freely and somehow allowed to purchase a gun.
Yet this is more than a failure of mere complacency; it is the clearest sign yet that the structures and institutions we had in place following 9/11 to counter Islamism have all but eroded.
This is largely down to a failure of leadership. To the world, the United States has spent the past decade nurturing an image of weakness and chaos. Common among jihadis is the idea that the American spirit is waning and Islam is ascending. Nothing could have bolstered this argument better than the Trump administration’s decision to make peace with the Taliban, and the Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Elsewhere, America’s political elite responded by further hamstringing their country: overseeing the politicisation of the very institutions responsible for counter-terrorism. Instead of directing our talent and resources towards justified threats, our agencies prefer to chase “domestic terrorists”, including those supposedly hiding out in school board meetings, and “white supremacists”, claiming that they represent “the most lethal threat to the homeland today”. The Obama administration even shifted away from the term counter-terrorism, instead preferring the vaguer term “countering violent extremism”. How can we expect anti-terror officials to do their job when “terrorism” itself has become a taboo word?
What makes this doubly concerning is that this problem is no longer confined to America. Rather, what we confront is a general crisis within Anglo-American societies, particularly within our respective intelligence communities. The attack may have unfolded in Tarrant County, Texas, but its seeds were sown in Blackburn.
There, British security services concluded that Akram did not pose a threat to society. There, the local community failed to speak up when he started to display multiple signs of radicalisation: he became estranged from his family, suddenly turned very religious, embraced Wahhabism, and travelled to Pakistan twice in the same year. For all their differences, the UK and the US have one thing in common: woefully and willingly unprepared anti-terror organisations.
With the chaos unfolding in Westminster right now, it seems unlikely that substantive change in Britain is on the horizon. But in the US, with midterm elections looming, and with a Congress more focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism, rebuilding the infrastructure needed to prevent terrorist attacks is within the realm of possibility. And given the bar is now so low that someone like Akram can enter the country, buy a gun and storm a synagogue, any change is likely to be an improvement.
So yes, we should absolutely celebrate the fact that the rabbi and his congregants survived last weekend’s attack. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that Malik Faisal Akram was a one-off. Nor should we pay heed to those who over the weekend were so ready to downplay the role of anti-Semitism in Islamist ideology, as if Akram had picked a synagogue for his attack on a whim.
There are, I fear, many more like him out there. Both the US and the UK need to be more prepared. Next time, we might not be so lucky.