Terrorist 'wannabe' among suspects in Texas attack

Nomaan Merchant and Jamie Stengle
Associated Press

Garland, Texas — Officials here and in Arizona stepped up their investigation into a terrorist "wannabe" who along with another man opened fire with assault rifles and were shot dead by a hero police officer before they could invade a controversial Muhammad cartoon contest.

Authorities on Monday did not call the shooting a terrorist attack but were looking at any connection between the assailants and the satirical portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad. Such cartoons are anathema to many Muslims, and some radicals have staged similar assaults elsewhere, including the recent attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

"Obviously they were there to shoot people," Garland police spokesman Joe Harn said of the attackers. "We will continue to investigate, but this will not be a real fast investigation."

A source identified one of the assailants as Elton Simpson, who was prosecuted in 2010 in federal court in Phoenix for making false statements to FBI agents about going to Somalia to engage in jihad. He was found guilty, but the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the crime was directly involved with "international terrorism." Simpson was placed on three years' probation and fined $600.

The second gunman was identified as Nadir Soofi, Simpson's roommate in North Phoenix, the law enforcement source said.

A security guard was wounded in the attack Sunday night outside the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest, led by prominent conservatives who are critical of Islam.

Garland police said at a Monday news conference that the two men drove up to the facility in a dark-colored vehicle, jumped out with assault rifles and started firing.

Simpson and Soofi were wearing body armor, and one shot the guard in the leg. A police officer returned fire and struck both men, who eventually died as SWAT team members also started firing at them. The guard was treated for his injury at a hospital and released.

Harn did not call the shooting a terrorist attack but added that officials were investigating the evidence, including social media.

Simpson, described as quiet and devout, had been on the radar of law enforcement because of his social media presence, but authorities did not have an indication that he was plotting an attack, said one federal official familiar with the investigation. Less was known about Soofi who appeared to have never been prosecuted in federal court, according to a search of court records.

Harn said investigators searched the vehicle at the exhibit and detonated several suspicious items, but no bombs were found. Investigators did find additional ammunition and luggage. Harn said he did not know what was in the suitcases.

Harn praised the unnamed officer who had shot the attackers.

"He did what he was trained to do and did a very good job. He probably saved lives."

The attackers' "strategy was to get into the center, but they were not able to get through our security."

A school security officer, Bruce Joiner, who was apparently helping protect the building, was injured, city officials said.

"He was shot in the leg, transported to the hospital and he'll be fine," Garland Mayor Douglas Athas said.

The shooting in Garland, a suburb of Dallas, was preceded by messages from two social media accounts that expressed radical Islamic viewpoints.

One tweet, sent at 6:35 p.m., used the hashtag #texasattack. The user wrote, "May Allah accept us as mujahideen." Attendees at the contest didn't get word about the shooting until about 6:50 p.m.

In the earlier Phoenix case involving Simpson, an FBI informant, Dabla Deng, wore a wire and recorded conversations with him, which were played in court, according to court documents.

"I'm telling you, man," Simpson said. "We can make it to the battlefield. It's time to roll." Simpson also was heard saying, "Bye bye, America!"

During meetings between Simpson and Deng, "a frequent topic was jihad and the obligation to fight jihad overseas," according to the government's trial memorandum in the Phoenix prosecution.

On July 31, 2007, in a recorded conversation, Simpson spoke about fighting the "kaffir" (non-believers) for Allah, while "going out" from America, "because the brothers in, like, Palestine, and stuff they need help."

Simpson noted that "just the whole thing is how you get there, though." He also spoke of Afghanistan and Iraq and specifically criticized those people who "don't believe that they should be over there fighting."

On the subject of fighting, when Deng stated that "I know we can do it, man. But you got to find the right people," Simpson responded: "Gotta have connections."

Harn said the department had not been aware of any credible threats against the Sunday cartoon event, which was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

The group is led by Pamela Geller, a well-known conservative political personality who has been harshly critical of Islam.

Classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group, the AFDI was behind controversial ad campaigns last year. Its ads on buses in San Francisco cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a "war between the civilized man and the savage."

Geller is perhaps best known for her opposition to what critics called the "ground zero mosque," a cultural and prayer center that was to be built in New York about two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

In 2010, she led thousands of people in a march protesting the project, which has since been scrapped.

After the shooting, Geller posted an outraged statement on her blog. "This is a war," she wrote. "This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?"

On Air Force One en route to New York, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Barack Obama was informed of the shooting Sunday night.

"There is no act of expression, even if it's offensive, that justifies an act of violence," Earnest told reporters.

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"We have seen extremists try to use expressions that they considered to be offensive as a way to justify violence not only in this country but around the world, and in the mind of the president, there is no form of expression that would justify an act of violence," Earnest said.

He also praised the bravery of first responders who helped limit the number of casualties.

"We condemn yesterday's attack on an anti-Islam event in Garland, Texas, without reservation," said the Council on American Islamic Relations, a civil rights group.

"We also reiterate our view that violence in response to anti-Islam programs like the one in Garland is more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory. Bigoted speech can never be an excuse for violence," the group said Monday.

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Phoenix attorney Kristina Sitton, who represented Simpson, then 19, in the 2010 case, said she first met him after his conversion to Islam in high school.

After converting, Simpson gave up drinking and sex, Sitton said. "He was on a really good path," Sitton said.

Simpson's mosque put up the $100,000 bail while he was being held on the false-statement charge.

"I represented some of the worst of the worst, and I never would have thought he would do this," Sitton said.

Simpson was a proselytizer, Sitton said, constantly pushing his religion on other people in prison and even Sitton herself.

"He was kind of a talker, but he seemed harmless," Sitton said.

Sitton said Simpson was raised in Florida and moved to Arizona for high school. In 2011, he tried to fly to Ohio for his grandmother's funeral. At the airport, Sitton said Simpson was told he could not fly unless he went to a side room and talked to the FBI.

Simpson then called Sitton.

"They were trying to get him to be an informant," Sitton said. "They said, 'If you want to come in, cooperate.'"

From the beginning, the cartoon contest drew controversy to Garland. A cartoon on the AFDI's website promoting the contest features a wild-eyed man in a turban wielding a sword, apparently the Prophet Muhammad, and saying, "You can't draw me!" The hand of an unseen artist replies, "That's why I draw you."

The Garland cartoon event was intended as a defiant gesture supporting free speech after the Jan. 7 terrorist attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Two gunmen opened fire, killing 12 members of the staff and wounding 11 others.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was prompted by the magazine's caricature of Muhammad. In Islam, depicting the prophet is considered a sacrilege.

French police identified two brothers with al-Qaida connections, Cherif and Said Kouachi, as the shooters. Both were later killed in a shootout with commandos.

The Garland contest reportedly received about 350 drawings of Muhammad and offered a top prize of $10,000, according to AFDI's website.

It also advertised a $2,500 prize for the most popular cartoon, as voted by readers of Breitbart.com, a conservative website.

The keynote speaker was Geert Wilders, a right-wing member of the Dutch parliament. After seeking to ban the Quran, comparing the text to "Mein Kampf," and calling Islam a totalitarian ideology, the controversial lawmaker faced charges of inciting hatred in the Netherlands, but he was acquitted in 2011.

Athas, Garland's mayor, said the city was not associated with the politics of the event. "It really doesn't have anything to do with Garland or Texas," he said. "It just happened to be in our city. We provided security to make sure everybody would be safe."

About 200 people attended, said Randy Potts, a contributing editor for the Daily Beast who was covering the event.

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The center where the contest took place had been heavily guarded before the shooting, Potts said. "The security, as you can imagine, is pretty extensive," he said. "Even before we came ... maybe 50 to 100 feet away from the building, all around, was all blocked off."

He was about to leave the center when "guys rushed up to us yelling, 'Get back to the conference room!' " he said.

A live-stream of the event captured a police official in tactical gear telling the calm crowd that two suspects and a policeman had been shot.

"Were the suspects Muslim?" an audience member asked.

"I have no idea right now," the police official said, and attendees were ushered back into an auditorium as police attended to the scene outside.

Potts said he didn't hear any gunfire, but that others inside had heard one to three gunshots.

"It's pretty calm in here; people are telling jokes," Potts said from inside the auditorium where the audience was taken. "We all know that security was so extensive we were not actually worried someone would actually get inside the building."

Two social media accounts tweeted messages about the attack apparently before it happened.

A Twitter account titled "Shariah Is Light" — bearing the image of extremist Islamic propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen in 2011 — posted an allusion to the attack just minutes before it happened.

Before the shooting, the "Shariah is Light" account also tweeted a command to follow another account, titled "AbuHussainAlBritani," which also tweeted before and after the attack.

"The knives have been sharpened, soon we will come to your streets with death and slaughter!" tweeted the "AbuHussainAlBritani" account before the attack.

After the attack, the "AbuHussainAlBritani" account began tweeting praise of the Texas shooting, and linked the attack to the militant group Islamic State.

The accounts have since been suspended.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott condemned what he called the senseless attack in Garland and praised the police response. "This is a crime that was quickly ended thanks to the swift action by Garland law enforcement," he said in a statement.

The FBI is providing investigative and bomb technician assistance, a spokeswoman said.