Last weekend’s hostage standoff at a Colleyville synagogue was a wake-up call for national security and efforts to protect from hate crimes, federal officials say.
At a White House briefing Friday, FBI, Homeland Security and Department of Justice leaders acknowledged investigators can’t yet provide answers to how a troubled British citizen who had raised red flags at home had managed to travel to Texas, get a gun and hold four people hostage for 11 hours.
“Here, on the national security team, we continue to pursue what happened. How did this hostage taker get into the United States? What were his connections to others and especially anyone else who might still pose a threat?” said Liz Sherwood Randall, the assistant to the president for homeland security. “That includes working closely with our British allies with whom we have a long history of extensive counter terrorism cooperation.”
Randall pointed out recent administration action, including President Joe Biden’s hate crime legislation last May, the administration’s first national strategy to counter domestic terrorism in June and additional funding for religious organizations “to ensure they have the resources to protect their facilities and their members.”
“We were clear from the start, and the president was clear from the start, that this was an act of terrorism,” Randall said. “Like many of you, my ancestors escaped antisemitism overseas to come to this promised land so they could practice their faith in a safe and secure place. So, seeing something like this, this threat to our fundamental freedoms as a democracy, is terrifying. At the same time, we can take action to stop it.”
Jill Sanborn, executive assistant director for the National Security Branch of the FBI, emphasized the importance of local and federal partnerships. The Colleyville investigation remains all hands on deck, she said.
“The FBI lab is processing evidence. Our Operational Technology Division is analyzing and reviewing phones and other electronic media and devices. Our International Operations Division continues to work with our international partners to gain insight into the hostage takers activities before coming to the U.S.,” Sanborn said.
“We recognize that the Jewish community faces very real threats from across the hate spectrum, whether homegrown violent extremists radicalized by violent Jihadist movements online … or domestic extremists, all of which have expressed an intent to harm the Jewish community both here and abroad.”
Sanborn said the public should report any suspicious activity to law enforcement or FBI offices.
“We are committed to working with you, leaning on your unique perspectives as members of the community, to mitigate this threat together,” Sanborn said, adding that the bureau has developed annual Mobilization Indicator Booklets, which although intended for law enforcement, will now be shared with the public to help educate the community on “observable behaviors that may indicate an individual is actually preparing to mobilize to violence.”
Samantha Vinograd, the Homeland Security acting assistant secretary for counter terrorism and threat prevention, said these efforts are a framework to keeping the country safe.
“We want each and every community member to understand how to seek help if they see an individual going down a path of violence. Every voice matters when it comes to prevention,” Vinograd said. “We have regional prevention coordinators all around the country who are available to work with all of you to provide localized resources and to serve as a point of contact.”
Vanita Gupta, the associate attorney general, said several grant programs exist to prevent and address hate crimes, including for places of worship.
“The department has conducted regular outreach, listening sessions to build trust with community groups and religious organizations, many of which are represented on this call, to ensure community-centered approaches, and to provide services for communities that have been victimized,” Gupta said. “We’re working to increase hate crime reporting, which we know we still have a lot to do on that front, and we’re working with local law enforcement partners on training for prevention, investigation and prosecution of these crimes.”
Additional efforts include a virtual conference hosted by the Civil Rights Division in October, “that brought together hundreds of community partners and representatives of faith organizations about the ways in which we can all play a role in combating hate,” Gupta said.