GARLAND, Texas (REUTERS) - Texas police shot dead two gunmen who opened fire on Sunday outside an exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that was organised by a group described as anti-Islamic and billed as a free-speech event.
Citing a senior FBI 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 that the second man lived in the same apartment complex as Simpson, the Autumn Ridge Apartments. He was not identified, and the second man’s apartment was searched, the station said, quoting an FBI agent.
FBI spokeswoman Katherine Chaumont in Dallas said she had no information about the suspects. An FBI evidence team began to go over the scene at 4.15 am local time (5.15 pm Singapore) and was still working, she said in an email.
The shooting in a Dallas suburb 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 attack on Sunday took place at about 7 pm local time in a parking lot of the Curtis Culwell Center, an indoor arena in Garland, northeast of Dallas.
President Barack Obama was briefed on Sunday night about the situation in Texas, a White House official said.
Geert Wilders, a polarising Dutch politician and anti-Islamic campaigner who is on an Al Qaeda hit list, was among the speakers at the event. Garland police and the FBI had no immediate comment on the report. 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. 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.
SITE identified the writer as “Abu Hussain AlBritani,” a name used by British Islamic state fighter Junaid Hussain.
Shortly before midnight, police alerted media that a strong electronic pulse would be activated near the scene, presumably as part of the bomb squad’s work, and a loud boom was heard moments later, though police did not comment further.
The exhibit was organised by Pamela Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI). Her organisation, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, has sponsored anti-Islamic advertising campaigns in transit systems across the country.
Organisers of the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” said the event was to promote freedom of expression. They offered a US$10,000 prize for the best artwork or cartoon depicting the Prophet, as well as a US$2,500 “People’s Choice Award.”
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.
Security guard hurt
In Sunday’s incident, the two suspects drove up to the building as the event was ending, and opened fire with automatic rifles at an unarmed security officer, striking him in the leg, police and city officials said.
Garland police officers who were assisting with security returned fire, killing both suspects, a police spokesman said. One of the suspects, after being initially wounded by police gunfire, was seen reaching for a backpack and was shot again and killed, Garland Mayor Douglas Athas told CNN.
The security officer was treated at a local hospital and later released, Harn said.
No one else was injured.
Most of the 200 people attending the event were still inside the arena when the violence unfolded and unaware of what had happened until police came into the building and told everyone to stay inside because of a shooting.
The mayor said the city had permitted the event even though officials knew its inflammatory theme could provoke an attack.
“There was concern, which is why we had heightened security in the area, but we all swear to uphold the Constitution, free speech, free assembly and in this case perhaps, free religion,”Athas said. “So in this case they were free to use the building.”
He said the school district that owns the building had posted extra security officers, and the city of Garland had a number of security and SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams in the area.
'Surrender to monsters?'
The AFDI issued a statement on Facebook after the shooting saying, “This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?”
In his speech at the event, shown in a video clip posted on the AFDI’s website, Wilders, the Dutch politician, 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,” Wilders said.