British national Malik Faisal Akram, entered the United States in accordance with fast-track visa waiver travel requirements between Great Britain and 40 countries and the United States, which allow tens of millions of travelers per year to visit for up to 90 days without a visa.
After registering through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization system (ESTA), which requires that travelers pass a background check and “establish their eligibility”, Akram flew to New York City on December 29, 2021, and then on to Dallas, Texas, two days later. U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City let him pass through. The system, administered by CBP, did not catch prior criminal history and terrorism-related intelligence information held by the British, which is closely allied with the United States on intelligence-sharing matters.
As a result, once in Texas, Akram was free to buy a handgun, stay in homeless shelters for a week plotting, and then to attack a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue during Shabbat services.
At gunpoint and claiming he had explosives, Akram took the rabbi and three congregants hostage for 11 hours, threatening to kill them on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization to secure the release of convicted terrorist and MIT neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, known in counterterrorism circles as “Lady al Qaeda”, who had been serving an 86-year sentence at Carswell Air Force Base prison near Fort Worth. She was in prison on a 2010 conviction of assaulting and attempting to murder U.S. soldiers sent to interrogate her in 2008 in Pakistan. During the standoff, Akram ranted on a Facebook livestream about her imprisonment in Texas.
Akram let some hostages go, but the rabbi attacked him with a chair, allowing FBI agents to shoot him to death. President Joe Biden dubbed the attack an act of terrorism.
Akram’s brother disclosed that Akram, 44 at the time, had been known to the UK’s MI5 domestic intelligence agency in the second half of 2020 for possible involvement in Islamist terrorism. British officials had placed Akram on a watch list in 2020, but later decided he no longer posed a threat and removed him. He also had a criminal history for drugs and violent behavior dating to when he was 19 on to later convictions on theft and harassment charges.
The ESTA system checks for criminal history records strictly by paper and database, using biographical information provided by travelers, who could lie on the electronic forms.
But his criminal convictions and jail sentence crimes involving drugs and, once, a “violent disorder” when Akram was 19, never flagged U.S. authorities during the quick online visa waiver application process between the two nations, NBC News reported. Neither did intelligence information about his predilection for Islamist violence. He served one spell behind bars when an imam reported him for “concerning behavior” and disrupting Friday night prayer services. He was once banned from a British court in 2001 for praising the 9/11 attacks and was a frequent visitor to Pakistan, with connections to the controversial Islamic sect Tablighi Jamaat. After a 2012 conviction for theft, Akram reportedly conducted himself in an “extreme” manner when attending the jail’s mosque, and one observer noted he was “obsessed with Islam”, a Fox News report found.
According to The Spectator, he was twice referred to the Counter Terrorism Prevent program, as recently as 2019, which screens people thought to be at risk of being drawn into ideological violence, the newspaper reported.
“That’s one hell of a breadcrumb trail,” the media outlet concluded. “It seems incredible that with this number of concerns, Akram could simply step on a plane, presumably lie on his entry forms, and set off for the U.S. completely unimpeded. Two sets of borders were breached and the result was a terrifying ten-hour ordeal for innocent worshippers before his deranged antics were terminated with extreme prejudice.”
One reason the terrorism information may not have been shared in a lasting or permeable way with American agencies is because the British removed
Akram from their watch list, so he may never have been on any U.S. government watch list. Not long after the 2021 incident, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security opened a probe into how Akram defeated the visa waiver security vetting systems. The results of the probe were not publicly available as of March 2023, however. It is possible that improvements were since implemented that remain publicly unknown.