FBI investigated gunman for terror prior to Texas attack
Police killed two gunmen who opened fire on a security officer outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Texas on Sunday night
By Jamie Stengle
GARLAND, Texas — One of two gunmen who opened fire with assault rifles at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas has been identified by a law enforcement official as a man who was on the FBI's radar four years ago during a terrorism investigation. Authorities credited an off-duty officer working security at the event with saving lives by killing the gunmen.
At an apartment complex in Phoenix where the FBI says one of the gunmen lived, federal agents spent hours Monday examining a white minivan. They later began inspecting a second vehicle, a silver sedan, and took photographs of papers taken from the trunk.
FBI agents canvassed the Autumn Ridge Apartments complex to speak with residents as members of the Phoenix police bomb squad, wearing protective armor and helmets, assisted in the search.
Authorities believe the apartment belonged to a man a federal law enforcement official identified as Elton Simpson. The official, who was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, said investigators were searching Simpson's property in connection with the case.
A second law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason, confirmed that Simpson was the same man named in court documents as convicted in 2011 in federal court in Phoenix of making a false statement by lying to an FBI agent about whether he had discussed traveling to Somalia. According to the documents, Simpson had discussed with an FBI informant a desire to travel to Somalia, but denied to an FBI agent that he'd had any such discussions.
According to trial testimony, Simpson is an American Muslim who became the subject of a criminal investigation in 2006 because of his association "with an individual whom the FBI believed was attempting to set up a terrorist cell in Arizona," U.S. District Judge Mary H. Murgia said in her order convicting Simpson.
"I'm telling you, man, we can make it to the battlefield," Simpson said in May 2009, according to a recording of him and an FBI informant disclosed during Simpson's trial. "It's time to roll." The FBI said Simpson had reserved a flight to South Africa for Jan. 15, 2010. He was arrested the day before the flight.
Prosecutors alleged that the false statement involved terrorism, but Murgia's order said prosecutors hadn't proved that part of the allegation. Another federal judge later sentenced Simpson to three years of probation.
Authorities in Texas, meanwhile, described a dramatic confrontation Sunday evening outside the Curtis Culwell Center in the Dallas suburb of Garland.
Police spokesman Joe Harn said Monday that two men stopped at a parking lot entrance blocked by a police vehicle. They came out of their car armed with assault weapons and began firing on an off-duty Garland officer and an unarmed security guard who also were getting out of their vehicle to question the men, Harn said.
The gunmen were wearing body armor, he said, and one shot the guard in the leg. The officer returned fire and struck both men, killing them. The guard was treated for his injury at a hospital and released.
Harn said investigators searched the men's car and detonated several suspicious items, but no bombs were found in the vehicle. Additional ammunition was found inside.
"We were able to stop those men before they were able to penetrate the area and shoot anyone else," Harn said.
The unidentified officer, who was not hurt, "did a very good job and probably saved lives," he added.
Harn did not directly answer questions Monday as to whether the gunmen were acting in response to Sunday's event, but said, "obviously they were there to shoot people."
A resident of the Phoenix apartment complex said two men who lived in the apartment being searched largely kept to themselves but that one was friendly on occasion.
Bob Kieckhaver, who was among the residents who were evacuated for about nine hours from units near the apartment, said one of the men had a beard and wore an Islamic version of a prayer cap. He was quiet but the second man was more open and would greet others at the mailboxes. Both men were seen feeding stray cats, he said.
According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad — even a respectful one — is considered blasphemous. Drawings similar to those featured at the Texas event have sparked violence around the world.
The contest Sunday, hosted by the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative, was awarding $10,000 for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The event featured speeches by American Freedom Defense Initiative president Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker known for his outspoken criticism of Islam. Wilders received several standing ovations from the crowd and left immediately after his speech.
Wilders, who has advocated closing Dutch doors to migrants from the Islamic world for a decade, has lived under round-the-clock police protection since 2004.
In January, 12 people were killed by gunmen in an attack against the Paris office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had lampooned Islam and other religions and used depictions of Muhammad. Another deadly shooting occurred the following month at a free speech event in Copenhagen featuring an artist who had caricatured the prophet. Tens of thousands of people rallied around the world to honor the victims and defend the freedom of expression following those shootings.
Geller, whose group is known for a campaign against the building of an Islamic center blocks from the World Trade Center site, told the AP before Sunday's event she planned the contest to make a stand for free speech in response to outcries and violence over drawings of Muhammad. She said in a statement after the shooting that it showed how "needed our event really was."
Harn said the city had not received any credible threats before the shooting and a security plan for the event had been worked out over several months. He said additional security was hired for Sunday's event. The sponsoring group has said it paid $10,000 for off-duty police officers and other private security.
The wounded security officer was shot in the lower leg, Harn said. He was treated and released from a hospital.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama was informed about the shooting. He said the president believes there is no form of expression that would justify an act of violence.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement condemning the attack, saying "Violence in response to anti-Islam programs like the one in Garland is more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory."
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press