The US authorities were facing difficult questions on Monday night after it emerged that the British jihadist who carried out a terror attack at the weekend had been granted entry to the country despite having a string of criminal convictions.
Blackburn-born Malik Faisal Akram, who was once banned from his local magistrates’ court for ranting about the 9/11 attacks, flew to New York at the end of December.
Intelligence sources refused to confirm a report on Monday night that he had been on a terror watchlist.
Despite a series of “red flag warnings” about his behaviour, Akram was granted a tourist visa and was able to travel from New York to Texas where he bought a firearm and took three men hostage at a local synagogue.
Following a tense standoff at the weekend, his prisoners managed to escape when the rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker threw a chair at Akram and sprinted to safety, allowing the FBI to storm the building and shoot the terrorist dead.
On Monday night, Mr Cytron-Walker described how Akram had become increasingly agitated as his demands to release a female al-Qaeda terrorist from a Texan jail were not met.
He said: “The last hour or so of the standoff, he wasn’t getting what he wanted. We were very … we were terrified. The exit wasn’t too far away. I told them to go, I threw a chair at the gunman and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”
While the Rabbi and the other hostages were praised for their bravery, US officials have been accused of “dropping the ball” after missing a series of warning signs about the 44-year-old Islamist.
Convicted criminals are usually denied entry to the United States, but Akram – who has served three prison sentences – was granted a tourist visa after simply lying on his application.
The Telegraph can reveal that his long criminal history dates back to 1996, when he was jailed for violent disorder following a baseball attack on a member of his extended family.
He was given a six month custodial sentence but was jailed again the following year after being found guilty of destroying property.
In 1999, he was again behind bars following a conviction for harassment and after being let out on licence he breached the terms of his release and was returned to prison.
His most recent spell in prison came in 2012 when he was remanded in custody after being accused of stealing a phone and almost £5,000 from a man in Chorley.
However, he was subsequently released on bail and the case against him did not proceed.
But while being held at HMP Liverpool, he was reported by the prison Imam for “concerning and disruptive behaviour” at Friday prayers.
As well as having a lengthy criminal record, Akram was a regular visitor to Pakistan and was understood to be a member of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic organisation banned by Saudi Arabia.
It is believed he was radicalised in Blackburn in the last five years and according to locals would regularly take part in anti-Israel demonstrations and marches for the release of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Texas Synagogue hostage locator map (The Congregation Beth Israel synagogue)
Akram’s brother, Gulbar, said he had suffered from mental health problems and questioned how he had been allowed into the United States.
He said: “He’s known to police. Got a criminal record. How was he allowed to get a visa and acquire a gun?”
One US senator who has been briefed on the case by the Department for Homeland Security and a former Pentagon official, told The Telegraph, “certainly someone let the ball drop”.
A former neighbour of Akram said his behaviour had become increasingly bizarre.
He said: “What surprised me was not so much what he did, but how America let him in. The guy has got a huge criminal record.
“Something changed in his behaviour recently though and he started wearing more religious clothing. It was quite a shocking change.
“He had a severe car accident in 2017/18 and he broke his back. I don’t know if that affected his head or what but he was not right.
“He used to go running at 2am in the morning, rain or shine he used to go running to Preston.”
After arriving at JFK Airport between Christmas and New Year, Akram informed US immigration that he would be staying at a hotel in Queen’s Boulevard.
No record of him checking in to a hotel in the area has been found and it is thought the address may have even been a reference to 1988 comedy film, Coming To America, which is set in Queen’s Boulevard.
Akram then travelled from New York to Texas by coach, checking in to a homeless shelter in Dallas on arrival.
He spent around two weeks at the centre during which time it is understood he illegally purchased a firearm from someone off the street.
Akram approached the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville and knocked on the door pretending he was looking for shelter.
The synagogue is the nearest to where Aafia Siddiqui – the Pakistani neuroscientist nicknamed Lady al-Qaeda is being held.
Aafia Siddiqui shortly after her graduation from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995 Credit: AP Photo
After threatening to shoot his hostages and blow himself up, Akram demanded the release of Siddiqui.
His family in Blackburn were brought in to try to negotiate with him by phone but said there was nothing they could do to persuade him to end the standoff peacefully.
Faisal Akram: From juvenile delinquent to jihadi terrorist
By Robert Mendick, Will Bolton, Bill Gardner and Ben Farmer in Islamabad
The day after the 9/11 terror attacks, Malik Fisal Akram walked into Blackburn magistrates’ court and launched a tirade of abuse against one of the ushers.
Akram, all too familiar to the court staff, was agitated, if not a little unhinged. “You should have been on the ******* plane,” Akram screamed at the usher, in reference to the passenger jets that the day before had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York.
The outburst prompted the court to issue Akram with an exclusion order that prevented him from going anywhere near the court premises. Four months earlier, he had received a warning letter for another incident inside the court. Akram was a regular trouble maker “even when he isn’t due before the bench”, the local newspaper noted wryly. The deputy justice clerk described him as a “menace” and in a letter, copied to Akram’s lawyers and police, said, in outlining the ban, that “once again you were threatening and abusive towards court staff”.
In his hometown of Blackburn – Akram was born in June 1977 – he was known as a petty criminal, a “wrong ‘un”, prone to occasional violence. FBI on the other side of the Atlantic, working with MI5 and counter-terrorism police, will now try to piece together how a 44-year-old father went from being a local nuisance and occasional thug to jihadi terrorist who had flown to the US, walked into a synagogue in Texas and held hostage four members of the congregation, including the rabbi, before dying in a hail of bullets.
‘He had serious issues’
His journey to terrorism from petty criminality is not an uncommon one. One former neighbour who had been at school with Akram recalled him being expelled, describing him as a “bit of a troublemaker”. Another said: “He was a very violent guy. When you first see him you don’t think that, but he was. He had serious issues. He wasn’t scared of anybody. At school people three times his size he would fight with and get battered and bruised, but he wouldn’t care.”
Akram had first come to the notice of police in his teens when he was rumoured to be a local drug dealer and also involved in counterfeit currency. “Faisal would regularly get involved in scraps in the street,” said the neighbour.
His criminal record, pieced together by The Telegraph, shows a stint in a young offenders’ institution while a juvenile and then a conviction at the age of 19 for violent disorder in 1996, resulting in him being sent to Lancaster Farms Prison. Akram had, according to reports, wielded a baseball bat in a family feud with cousins. A year later Akram was back inside the same jail for the destruction of property and then, in 1999, back in jail again – this time HMP Preston – on a harassment conviction. Akram’s last known stretch in prison was in 2012, remanded in custody in Liverpool for stealing cash and phones.
By then, Akram was thought to have married and had at least two children. It is unclear how he became radicalised but there were trips to and from Pakistan, from where his parents orginated, and which will inevitably form part of the investigation into his path to terror.
At some point he had been a follower of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim grassroots missionary movement that is non-violent.
‘Obsessive, absolutely obsessive’
By 2017, Akram had become devout. A former friend and neighbour recalls seeing him in the street at about that time. He had been in a car accident and had suffered a serious back injury. The former friend wondered if it had “affected his head”.
He said: “I didn’t see him again until 2017 and suddenly he was dressed like a full-on religious scholar. He used to apparently sell drugs but there were rumours that he had suddenly stopped and something had changed.
“That change [to wearing religious clothing] was shocking. None of my other friends from school have changed like that and suddenly he looks like he is extremely religious. I thought ‘what has happened to you’?”
Akram, said the neighbour, had become, at some point, “radicalised and became obsessive, absolutely obsessive”.
Akram was one of six siblings. One brother, Gulzameer Akram, a forger jailed for three years in 2008 for running a counterfeit money operation using a printing press in his front room, had died last year from Covid-19.
Akram’s father has now lost a second son in a short space of time. On Monday, Mohammed Malik Akram, the terrorist’s father and a former president of a local mosque, was distraught. “I am very sad,” he said.