Texas gunman was target of terror investigation

Armed suspects drove up to building and shot at security officer in Garland

Texas police have shot dead two gunmen who opened fire outside an exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that was organised by an anti-Islamic group and billed as a free-speech event in a suburb of Dallas. Video: REUTERS


Police and FBI have searched the Arizona apartment of one of two gunmen shot dead on Sunday after they allegedly opened fire outside a Texas exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.

Citing a senior Federal Bureau of Investigation official, ABC News identified one of the gunmen as Elton Simpson, an Arizona man who was the target of a terror investigation. FBI agents and a bomb squad were searching Simpson’s Phoenix home, ABC said.

Phoenix’s KPHO TV reported an unidentified second man lived in the same complex as Simpson, the Autumn Ridge Apartments. It was not immediately clear whether the two men lived in the same apartment.

The attack on Sunday took place at about 7pm local time in a parking lot of the Curtis Culwell Center, an indoor arena in Garland, northeast of Dallas.

The shooting was an echo of past attacks or threats in other Western countries against art depicting the Prophet Mohammad. In January, gunmen killed 12 people in the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in what it said was revenge for its cartoons.

The event in Garland, Texas, organised by American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), was called “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” and offered a $10,000 prize for the best artwork or cartoon depicting the Prophet.

The event featured speakers including Geert Wilders, a polarising Dutch politician and anti-Islamic campaigner who is on an al-Qaeda hit list.

Police said on Monday they planned security for months before the event.

The two men carrying assault rifles began shooting at a police car at the event in Garland, Texas, on Sunday. They were shot dead by an off-duty traffic officer with a pistol, Garland Police spokesman Joe Harn said at a news conference. Event officials paid $10,000 for security at the event, Mr Harn said.

Most of the 200 people attending the event were still inside the arena when the violence unfolded and unaware of what had happened until later.

The AFDI, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, has among other activities sponsored anti-Islamic advertising campaigns in transit systems across the country.

ABC News said officials believed Simpson sent out tweets ahead of the attack, with the last one using the hashtag #texasattack. It said, “My bro and myself have given bay’ah to Amirul Mu’mineen. May Allah accept us as mujahideen. Make dua.”

“Bay’ah” means “oath of allegiance” in Arabic, and “Amirul Mu’mineen” is “commander of the faithful,” a title of caliphs and other Muslim rulers. “Dua” means “supplication.” The tweet was pulled from Twitter after the attack.

Phoenix TV station KTVK reported that neighbours at Autumn Ridge said a man and his brother lived in the apartment that was being searched.

“They were really into the Muslim thing,” neighbour Craig Gibbons told the TV station. “They would talk to you for a couple hours about (the religion). But they were nice.”

A fighter for Islamic State, a militant group which has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria, said in a tweet that “2 of our brothers just opened fire at the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) art exhibition in Texas,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a US-based monitoring group.

Depictions of the Prophet Mohammad are viewed as offensive in Islam, and Western art that portrays the Prophet has angered Muslims and provoked threats and attacks from radicals.

President Barack Obama was briefed on Sunday night about the shooting, a White House official said, speaking on background.

Pamela Geller, president of the AFDI, defended the exhibit on Monday. “In a pluralistic society you have offensive speech, you have ideas, you have an exchange of ideas, you don’t shut down a discussion because ‘I’m offended.’” she said in an interview on CNN.

At the scene in Garland on Monday, a police helicopter flew overhead and the area was cordoned off by police. Three crime scene investigators were in the street near the shooting.

In his speech at the event, shown in a video clip posted on AFDI’s website, Dutch politician Geert Wilders offered his rationale for supporting the cartoon contest, saying depicting the Prophet and violating one of Islam’s greatest taboos was a liberating act.

“Our message today is very simple: we will never allow barbarism, never allow Islam, to rob us of our freedom of speech,” said Wilders.

The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris was followed by another attack in Europe this year.

In February, a masked gunman sprayed bullets into a Copenhagen meeting attended by a Swedish artist who had been threatened with death for his cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. A civilian was killed and three police officers were injured in the attack, aimed at artist Lars Vilks, who stirred controversy in 2007 with published drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammad as a dog.

Denmark itself became a target 10 years ago after the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad.