behind the scenes

Inside the White House during the Colleyville standoff

How the president and senior West Wing officials navigated the ‘careful calibration’ of informing and comforting the public amid an armed hostage situation

ANDY JACOBSOHN/AFP via Getty Images

A police car sits in front of the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.

When Malik Faisal Akram took three worshippers and their rabbi hostage during Congregation Beth Israel’s Saturday morning Shabbat prayer service, the Facebook livestream of the service jumped from a couple dozen viewers to several thousand. Among them were state, federal and local law enforcement officials as well as senior members of President Joe Biden’s national security team. 

In a conversation with Jewish Insider on Monday night, a senior administration official who worked closely on the national response to the Colleyville, Texas, incident detailed the complicated calculus of an administration that wanted to reassure frightened Americans while not further agitating the hostage-taker. 

The White House had to think through, “as the situation evolves, what should and should not be said publicly, because getting that right is its own careful calibration,” said the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing law enforcement matters.  

“There’s a balance between reassuring the American people that White House leadership is all over things like this and following them closely and prepared to offer support as needed — and ensuring that we’re making clear that those who have operational capacity and operational expertise are the ones making those types of operational decisions,” the official said. 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted a few hours into the incident that Biden had been briefed, and the president released a statement following the hostages’ escape commending law enforcement officials and promising to “stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.” 

On Saturday and the days that followed, the White House dispatched Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Jewish Liaison Chanan Weissman and White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Director Melissa Rogers to make calls to nearly two dozen Jewish organizations in Texas and around the country. By the end of the weekend, the White House had connected with leaders of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, as well as leaders at the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Dallas, and at national organizations including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and The Jewish Federations of North America. 

Early Saturday afternoon, several hours after Akram entered the synagogue, senior national security officials at the White House were notified of the situation by both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. 

“Thankfully, active hostage-takings on U.S. soil are themselves relatively rare, so that alone would have made it something that I think they wanted to make sure we were aware of,” the official told JI. 

Given the location of the incident — at a synagogue — and Akram’s demand that a federal prisoner charged with terrorism be freed, it became clear that the president and top aides outside the national security space needed to be notified about the federal response. “Senior leadership wants to understand something as important as this became to the country,” said the official. 

After he was briefed on the situation, the president was not involved in any decisions that had to do with the ongoing negotiations. Several dozen FBI officials, along with a hostage-rescue team, flew to Texas as the situation unfolded, and drew upon their own expertise and training to work through the situation.

The role of the president, said the White House official, was to allow those law enforcement officials to do their jobs. “I think the president has really wanted to acknowledge those who rose to the occasion, and kind of used the moment to signal how much he wants his administration to address these types of threats to houses of worship going forward,” the official explained. 

While law enforcement works to learn more about Akram, a British national who demanded the release of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui before he was killed, the White House now confronts “lessons learned,” said the official. That involves taking stock of the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which offers security grants to nonprofits and places of worship — including Congregation Beth Israel, which received a grant in the past. 

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was held hostage along with three congregants, told reporters that he drew upon training he received from the FBI, local police officers, the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network to bring him and his congregants to safety. 

“I’m obviously encouraged to hear that, that he felt support and education he had received proved useful, but I think we all want to learn more about that, so that we can continue to refine and enhance and augment those sorts of programs,” said the official. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Sunday that the Biden administration wants to work with Congress to increase funding for the security grant program. 

“There’s a desire, I think, to learn from this and learn from exactly the ways in which it appears to have proved useful, and then incorporate that into how we allocate resources for this type of programming going forward,” said the White House official. 

Since taking office last year, Biden has emphasized the importance of understanding and combating domestic terrorism along with foreign terrorism. The Colleyville incident was a reminder that terrorism can eclipse national boundaries and any simple explanation, according to the senior official. 

“The big picture, whether it’s domestic terrorism or international terrorism, what’s unacceptable is taking one’s political, social, ideological grievances, whatever they might be — right, left, center, off the political spectrum, domestic, foreign — and turning violent with them,” said the official. “That is just unacceptable and antithetical to democratic society. And so I think it’s going to be our continued emphasis on doing what’s necessary to prevent that from happening, deter that from happening, disrupt it when it appears to be happening, and certainly bring to justice those who attempt it.”

On Monday, FBI deputy director Paul Abbate and John D. Cohen, the top intelligence official at DHS, wrote a letter to faith-based organizations warning that “faith based communities have and will likely continue to be targets of violence by both domestic violent extremists and those inspired by foreign terrorists,” suggesting that the White House is concerned about the rise in violence against religious communities.  

More than half of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. target Jews, according to FBI data from recent years. An FBI official called the standoff a “terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted,” and told The Washington Post, “We never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial, and ethnic groups.” 

Such attacks are “something that President Biden obviously emphasizes is just unacceptable,” the senior White House official said, “not just as a public safety threat, not just as a national security threat — but something that just is contrary to the founding principles of this country.”