US federal agents had for years monitored Elton Simpson, one of the two gunmen shot dead after opening fire with assault rifles at a heavily guarded Texas exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.
Two anonymous government sources said the gunmen were roommates Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi of Phoenix. Court documents indicate that Simpson had been under surveillance since 2006 and convicted in 2011 of lying to FBI agents over plans of joining the violent jihad in Somalia.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack, marking the first time the group has carried out an attack on US soil.
FBI agents and police searched the gunmen’s home at the Autumn Ridge Apartments in north-central Phoenix on Monday, closing off the complex and evacuating residents for several hours in the early morning.
The incident which took place in the Dallas suburb of Garland highlighted the possibility of attacks and threats in other Western countries against images depicting the Prophet Mohammad. The shooting unfolded when a car drove up behind a Garland indoor arena, where 200 people were attending an event showcasing caricatures of Islam’s key prophet, portrayals of whom are considered offensive by Muslims. Two men jumped out and shot at a police car standing guard, causing a police officer to return fire, killing both the assailants.
An unarmed security guard was injured as a result of the crossfire.
Watched by the FBI
Investigations have uncovered details about the shooters. According to the information gathered, Simpson was quiet and devout and had been watched by law enforcement because of his presence in social media; nevertheless, a federal official involved in the investigation said there was no indication that he was plotting an attack. Details remain elusive regarding Soofi, who according to a search by the federal court had no previous criminal record.
Simpson had previously worshiped at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix for about a decade but stopped coming over the past three months, said the president of the mosque to the Associated Press. He was convicted in 2011 after lying to FBI officials over discussions he had with an informant about his desire to travel to Somalia to participate in the violent jihad there.
Court records recount that Simpson waived his right to a jury trial and was tried before US District Judge Mary Murguia, who found him guilty of making a false statement. Despite this, she said there was insufficient evidence connecting the false statement to international terrorism. He was sentenced to probation for three years and fined $600 in penalties.
Court documents state that federal authorities began watching Simpson after it became known that he was associated with an individual the FBI believed was attempting to set up a terrorist cell in Arizona. The FBI failed to put Simpson on a US government no-fly list, according to the documents.
“Always a good kid”
Simpson’s father told ABC News that his son was “always a good kid” but claimed they had “some very serious differences.”
“We are Americans and we believe in America,” Dunston Simpson said. “What my son did reflects very badly on my family.”
Simpson was a convert to Islam and began attracting the FBI’s attention as a result of his ties to Hassan Abu Jihaad, an ex-US navy officer who had been arrested in Phoenix and ultimately convicted of terrorism. Jihaad was indicted for leaking information about his ship’s movements to operators of a website in London that openly declared jihad against the US.
Kristina Sitton, Simpson’s attorney, told the Associated Press: “I have to say that I felt like these charges were completely trumped up, that they were just trying to cover up what had been a very long and expensive investigation and they just couldn’t leave without some sort of charges.”
She went on to describe Simpson as so devout that he would refuse to shake her hand and at times interrupt their legal meetings so that he could pray. She also said Simpson displayed no indication that he was capable of violence and assumed he just “snapped”.
On the other hand, record searches have shown that Soofi had never been prosecuted in federal court. His mother, Sharon Soofi, who lives in a small town off of Houston, told the Dallas Morning News she never thought he would be compelled to violence. She champions that her son was “raised in a normal American fashion” and “was very politically involved with the Middle East.”
Echoing Sitton, she added: “I don’t know if something snapped.”
“He put his son above everything, I thought,” she said to the newspaper. “The hard thing is to comprehend is why he would do this and leave an eight-year-old son behind.”
When police searched the apartment the two men shared, Bob Kieckhafer, 54, who lives one floor above and across from the apartment, said they were “just like your next-door-neighbor type of guys.”
Islamic State responsible
In a statement on its radio station on Tuesday, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, saying “two of the soldiers of the caliphate executed an attack on an art exhibit in Garland, Texas, and this exhibit was portraying negative pictures of the Prophet Mohammad.”
“We tell America that what is coming will be even bigger and more bitter and that you will see the soldiers of the Islamic State do terrible things,” the militant group added.
In January, 12 people were killed by gunmen in the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in what was said to be revenge for its cartoons.