Two gunmen, including a man once suspected of seeking to join Islamist militants in Somalia, waited only seconds to open fire on police blocking their way to a cartoon exhibit and contest depicting the prophet Muhammad, authorities said Monday during a widening probe into a suburban shootout near Dallas that left both attackers dead and raised possible links to a homegrown terror plot.
The motive for the late Sunday attack was not immediately clear, but one of the event’s keynote speakers — Dutch parliament member Geert Wilders — has been denounced by Islamist militant groups such as al-Qaeda for his outspoken criticism of the Muslim presence in Europe.
The event’s organizer, too, has been criticized for its anti-Muslim rhetoric by rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The firepower of the suspected attackers — assault weapons and some type of body armor — also suggested that the Dallas suburb of Garland could be the latest point of violence linked to tensions between Western-style open expression and drawings considered highly provocative by many Muslims.
“Obviously they were there to shoot people,” Garland police spokesman Joe Harn told reporters. But he stopped short of describing the shooting as a terrorist attack. He said, however, that investigators have not ruled out possible terrorist connections.
Nearly 900 miles to the west, meanwhile, investigators searched the Phoenix apartment of the suspects. A U.S. law enforcement official told The Washington Post that the attackers have been identified as Elton Simpson, 30 — who had previously been the target of a terror-linked probe — and his roommate, Nadir Soofi, as officials tried to piece together the planning behind the late Sunday attack that wounded one guard.
Some Twitter posts, including several claiming affiliation with the Islamic State, had appeared in recent days decrying the cartoon event organized by a group widely viewed as anti-Muslim. But investigators had made no public connections between the social media traffic and Sunday’s attack.
Simpson was convicted in 2011 of lying to federal agents about plans to travel to Africa in an apparent attempt to join a terrorist group in Somalia. The judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to link Simpson to “international terrorism” and placed him on three years of probation.
At the Phoenix apartment complex, agents wearing FBI jackets combed the first-floor apartment and a white Chevy minivan.
Harn said the bloodshed happened quickly.
Shortly before 7 p.m. Sunday, a vehicle approached the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, about 20 miles northeast of Dallas, but was stopped on the perimeter of the complex by two officers — part of an extensive security detachment guarding the event.
The gunmen then opened fire with assault weapons. One officer, armed with a pistol, fired back and killed both attackers, said Harn.
An unarmed security guard was wounded, but the injuries were not life-threatening.
“[The officer] did what he was trained to do,” said Harn, “and probably saved lives.”
More than 12 hours after the shooting, the gunmen’s bodies were still lying on the street, as bomb squads searched their car and surrounding areas.
Nearby businesses and a hotel were locked down or evacuated. Some “suspicious” items were destroyed as a precaution, Harn said. Extra ammunition was uncovered, but no explosives were found. The vehicle, however, contained luggage, suggesting the attackers may have driven directly to the conference center.
Security was extremely tight for the event: A contest hosted by the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative, which promised to award $10,000 for the best cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad. The group’s president, Pamela Geller, told the AP she had planned the contest to make a stand for free speech following violence over Muhammad drawings.
Geller’s group has led opposition to Islamic-linked projects in the United States, including a campaign against building an Islamic center near the former World Trade Center site. Current plans call for an Islamic museum and prayer space at the Lower Manhattan building.
Participants at the event had to have tickets in advance, and IDs were checked to match with a guest list. Off-duty police officers and private security were hired amid concerns over a possible backlash.
Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, told CNN that Simpson had drifted away from the group’s mosque and other activities since 2011, but never appeared to display “extremist views” in earlier years.
“It is totally out of character of the person I knew,” said Shami when asked about the Texas attack.
Wilders, who has spoken out against radical Islam, has advocated hard-line views including closing the Netherlands to future Muslim immigration. He has lived under round-the-clock police protection since 2004 when he joined others pushing anti-Islamic positions following the slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan assailant.
Wilders and Geller presented a check to the contest winner, Bosch Fawstin.
One of Fawstin’s cartoons depicts a sword-swinging caricature of Muhammad saying: “You can’t draw me!” The artist replies: “That’s why I draw you.”
“And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword,” Wilders said during his speech at the event — whose poster was inspired by Norman Rockwell’s famous “Triple Self Portrait,” but with Muhammad taking the place of Rockwell.
“The Muhammad art event was organized and brought here by people from outside of the Garland community,” the city of Garland said in a statement. “They rented convention center space at the Curtis Culwell Center.”
The police similarly said that many attendees, including people who had to abandon their cars inside an active crime scene, were not from the city.
“A lot of these people don’t even live in Garland,” said the police spokesman Harn. “In fact, this event doesn’t even have much to do with Garland, other than they rented a site here in Garland.”
There have been a number of attacks associated with depictions of the prophet Muhammad — the most deadly being an assault in January on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead, including Charlie Hebdo’s editor and cartoonists. Two attackers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, were killed by police after a manhunt following the shooting.
“This new event will stand for free speech and show that Americans will not be cowed by violent Islamist intimidation,” according to the group’s Web site. “That is a crucial stand to take as Islamist assaults on the freedom of speech, our most fundamental freedom, are growing more insistent.”
But Sunday’s competition had been a point of contention in the community since Garland Independent School District agreed to rent out its event center to the group, which is considered an anti-Muslim “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ahead of the event, Islamic groups said it was an attack against their faith, according to the Dallas Morning News.
After the shooting, Geller took to Twitter.
“This incident was obviously related to our event, as evidenced by the ISIS supporters on Twitter taking credit for and praising the gunmen,” she told The Post in an e-mail, referring to the Islamic State, a radical al-Qaeda offshoot also known as ISIS or ISIL. “The Islamic jihadis are determined to suppress our freedom of speech violently. They struck in Paris and Copenhagen recently, and now in Texas.
“This incident shows how much needed our event really was. The freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation. The question now before is — will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery and savagery?”
But Harn said it was still unclear whether the shooting was related.
After the shooting, some of the contest attendees were escorted to a room deeper in the conference center. Some stood and sang “God Bless America.”
Garland police said in a statement:
As today’s Muhammad Art Exhibit event at the Curtis Culwell Center was coming to an end, two males drove up to the front of the building in a car. Both males were armed and began shooting at a Garland ISD security officer. The GISD security officer’s injuries are not life-threatening. Garland Police officers engaged the gunmen, who were both shot and killed.
Police suspect the vehicle may contain an incendiary device and the bomb squad is on the scene. The surrounding businesses including Academy Sports, Walmart and Sam’s are being evacuated. Event participants are also being evacuated from the Curtis Culwell Center for their safety.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based advocacy group, condemned the attack but said the organizers also displayed intolerance.
“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,” CAIR said in a statement. “Bigoted speech can never be an excuse for violence.”
Nearly a decade ago, tensions over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad spread around the world after a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, carried a series of drawings. In November 2005, several European newspapers republished the images, triggering more protests around the Muslim world.
In February — a month after the Paris attacks — a 22-year-old man in Copenhagen went on a 12-hour spree of violence that began with an attack on a gathering attended by a Swedish artist, Lars Vilks, who had received threats for his cartoons of Muhammad.
Adam Goldman and Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.