A tense standoff in Texas leads to an emotional phone call between brothers

BLACKBURN, England – The conversation was urgent and moving as Gulbar Akram huddled with police in Manchester, England, on Saturday and spoke with his brother, who was holding four people hostage at a synagogue nearly 5,000 miles away in Texas.

He urged his brother, Malik Faisal Akram, to free the hostages and surrender, as a standoff with police and law enforcement dragged on into the early hours of Sunday in Britain.

“When I phoned him during the siege, I tried to talk, to calm him down,” Gulbar Akram said in a phone interview on Monday. He offered to drive to his parents’ house and put one of them on the phone. “And he said no, he refused.”

Mr Akram said he was monitoring the episode alongside the police surveillance wire in the Manchester station, trying to calm his brother, who he said was called Faisal. Their phone conversation lasted about 10 minutes, Mr. Akram said.

“I was in the incident room with the counterterrorism police, with the negotiators, liaising with the FBI, who were in contact with Washington,” he said.

Eventually the hostages got out safe and sound and an elite FBI rescue team entered the building. After a barrage of gunfire, police said Faisal Akram had been killed.

“I don’t know what was going through his mind,” said Gulbar Akram, when asked what could have motivated his brother. But he described his brother as a deeply troubled man who had become estranged from family members in recent years.

The last time he saw his brother was three months ago, Mr Akram said, at the funeral of another of their brothers, who died of complications from the coronavirus. Since then, his brother’s mental state has further deteriorated, he said.

He said his brother, who was 44, probably wouldn’t have made it to America at all.

“It’s well known, everyone in the city knows, he has mental health issues,” Mr Akram said. He did not provide further details.

Mr Akram said their parents arrived in Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s and raised their six sons here in Blackburn, a northern industrial town that has attracted Pakistani and Indian migrants since the 1950s, initially to jobs in the region’s once-thriving textile industry.

He said Faisal Akram was previously married with six children and lived with them in Manchester for several years.

Mr Akram said his brother was known to UK counter-terrorism police, but did not provide details, and this could not be independently confirmed.

“How did he come to America? said Mr. Akram. “Why was he granted a visa? How did he land at JFK airport and not get stopped for a second? »

The Greater Manchester Police Department said: “An investigation is ongoing and for operational reasons we will not comment further at this time.” Britain’s counter-terrorism division also declined to comment.

Gulbar Akram, a local businessman who lives in a street of red-brick houses on a hill overlooking Blackburn, said his elderly parents were “devastated” by the death of their son. “We lost two brothers in four months,” he said.

In the bustling Whalley Range shopping district, the heart of Blackburn’s Asian community, many were shocked to hear the news from their former neighbour. The street is an assortment of brightly lit jewelry stores, clothing stores and restaurants where people thronged on Monday evenings as the call to prayer sounded from a local mosque.

“Why does it have to be a guy from Blackburn?” asked Khalid Amin, 59, who owns a jewelry store with his family. Like the Akram family, they are British Muslims of Pakistani descent, whose parents moved here in the 1950s in search of economic opportunity, and he fears this will negatively impact the wider community.

“It’s so sad,” Mr Amin said. “You just don’t do this sort of thing, we’re all shocked.”

He said that although he didn’t know Faisal Akram well, he had known him and his family for years in the community and he often waved as he passed.

Ikhlaq Hussain, 35, owner of Prince Barbershop, grew up in the area and said the Akram family were well known in Blackburn. He described the community as a close-knit community where people from multiple religious backgrounds “coexist peacefully.”

“The real purpose of what Islam is is a peace-loving religion,” he said.

According to his brother, Faisal Akram was arrested in the 1990s when he was 19 and sent to an institute for young offenders, and was later sentenced to six months in prison for violent disorder for handling a baseball bat during of a family quarrel with his cousins. These details could not be independently verified.

The hostage situation took place at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, near Fort Worth, and unfolded about 11 a.m. as police and the FBI set up a command center outside. Parts of the standoff could be heard live on a Saturday morning services Facebook feed.

It is unclear why Faisal Akram chose the Colleyville Synagogue. Gulbar Akram said he does not believe his brother has had any prior ties to the area of ​​Texas where he is.

Mr Akram said he did not believe his brother held anti-Semitic or racist beliefs. He shared a recording containing a short segment of his conversation with his brother, in which Faisal said he was “surrounded”.

“I’m in a synagogue, I have four handsome guys, four Jews with me,” Faisal Akram can be heard saying on the recording.

The FBI said Sunday that during the hostage negotiations, Faisal Akram referred to Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist, who was convicted in 2010 in federal court in New York and sentenced to 86 years in prison for attempting to kill US military officers while detained in Afghanistan.

After her arrest, her case galvanized activists who protested the way she was detained and transported to the United States.

At one point during the live stream segment, Faisal Akram appears to say the name “Aafia”.

Mr Akram said he knew nothing about his brother referring to the matter during the siege and did not want to speculate.

Late on Sunday, England’s Greater Manchester Police Department announced it had detained two teenagers for questioning as part of the investigation. He did not provide any update on this situation on Monday.

Gulbar Akram said his family shared a short private statement among community members over the weekend, which detailed their cooperation with the police. It was then posted on a Facebook page without their permission, he said.

In it, they shared their sadness as a family and said they “sincerely want to apologize wholeheartedly to all of the victims.”

On Monday, the Muslim Council of Britain condemned the hostage-taking and expressed its solidarity with the Jewish community in a statement by Zara Mohammed, the council’s general secretary.

“The act is all the more reprehensible as it was perpetrated in a place of worship where Jews were targeted,” the statement said, adding, “We are grateful that the hostages are unharmed. While some may seek to exploit such incidents for divisive purposes, we must redouble our resolve to stand united against such hatred. »

Stephen’s Castle contributed reporting from London, and Eileen Sullivan from Washington.

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