GARLAND — 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 today 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 armour 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 travelling 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 had 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”, US 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 January 15, 2010. He was arrested the day before the flight. Prosecutors alleged 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 yesterday evening outside the Curtis Culwell Centre in the Dallas suburb of Garland.
Police spokesman Joe Harn said today 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 armour, 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 today as to whether the gunmen were acting in response to yesterday’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 yesterday, hosted by the New York-based American Freedom Defence Initiative, was awarding $10,000 for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The event featured speeches by American Freedom Defence Initiative president Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker known for his outspoken criticism of Islam.