ALBANY, New York: A man who fired a shotgun into the air outside a synagogue in New York’s capital city is an Iraqi-born US citizen who told investigators he felt affected by events in the Middle East, a federal agent said in a court filing.
No one was injured by the gunfire Thursday afternoon outside Albany’s Temple Israel, but children attending preschool had to shelter in place while police searched the area.
Mufid Fawaz Alkhader, 28, was arrested a short distance away from the temple after laying down the shotgun, police said. He said “Free Palestine” when officers arrested him, according to Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins.
Federal prosecutors charged Alkhader with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person — a charge authorities said was related to his admitted use of marijuana. He could also face state charges. Hawkins said the episode was being investigated as a possible hate crime.
The episode happened on the first night of Hanukkah amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza. Threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the US during the war, which entered its third month on Friday.
Speaking from the synagogue on Friday during Shabbat services, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul condemned the shooting episode, saying her top priority is to ensure everyone has the ability to practice their religion safely.
“I wanted to come here tonight and recognize that the tranquility of this wonderful community has been upended,” she told worshippers. “All hate crimes must be condemned and not tolerated here.”
Alkhader, who lives in Schenectady, which is near Albany, waived his right to remain silent and spoke with law enforcement officers after his arrest, a task force officer with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said in a court filing.
The officer’s affidavit didn’t detail what Alkhader said about his motivation, but the officer wrote that he offered that “the events in the Middle East have impacted him.”
A person who answered the door at Alkhader’s address in Schenectady and identified himself as his father declined to be interviewed, but said his son was mentally ill.
After a brief appearance in federal court Friday morning, Alkhader was sent back to detention. He entered the court shackled and wearing a green jacket over his orange jail uniform. At times, he seemed to have difficulty following instructions from the judge.
“My English is limited,” he told the judge softly. He said he speaks Arabic.
Federal prosecutors and Alkhader’s public defender, Timothy Austin, declined to comment after the appearance. There was no date set for a preliminary hearing or a possible detention hearing.
FBI spokesperson Sarah Ruane praised the “swift coordination” between federal, state and local law enforcement.
Hank Greenberg, a member of Albany’s Temple Israel and spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, decried what he called the “heartbreaking reality” that Jewish houses of worship need police protection.
“Even with this grieving and suffering and fear we’re experiencing,” he said, “at the same time we know we will endure and prevail as we have in the past.”