One of the suspected gunmen who opened fire outside a Texas art contest featuring cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed was known to the FBI since 2006, but despite more than 1,500 hours of surveillance, he was prosecuted only once, it has emerged.
Agents recorded Elton Simpson talking about fighting non-believers for Allah, plans to travel to South Africa and link up with “brothers” in Somalia and using school as a cover story for travelling overseas.
Simpson was arrested in 2010, a day before authorities say he planned to leave for South Africa. But the US government prosecuted him on only one minor charge - lying to a federal agent.
Years spent investigating Simpson for terrorism ties resulted in just three years of probation and $600 in fines and court fees.
On Sunday, two men whom authorities identified as Simpson and Nadir Soofi opened fire in the Dallas suburb of Garland on an unarmed security officer stationed outside the contest.
The deliberately provocative contest had been expected to draw outrage from the Muslim community. According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of Mohammed is considered blasphemous and drawings similar to those featured at the Texas event have sparked violence around the world.
Simpson, 30, of Phoenix, Arizona, and Soofi were wearing body armour, and one shot the security officer in the leg. Garland police spokesman Joe Harn said a single police officer subdued the gunmen, but after his initial shots, SWAT officers nearby also fired at the two men. Mr Harn said police did not know who fired the lethal shots.
Homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson said yesterday authorities were investigating the men’s motives and all circumstances surrounding the attack.
“While all the facts are not in yet, last night’s attack serves as a reminder that free and protected speech, no matter how offensive to some, never justifies violence of any sort,” he said.
Simpson, described as quiet and devout, had been on the radar of law enforcement because of his social media presence, but authorities did not have an indication that he was plotting an attack, said an official familiar with the investigation.
Less was known about Soofi, who appeared to have never been prosecuted in federal court, according to a search of records.
His mother Sharon, who now lives in a small town south west of Houston, told The Dallas Morning News she had no idea that he would turn to violence.
She said her son was “raised in a normal American fashion” and “was very politically involved with the Middle East. Just aware of what’s going on”.
“I don’t know if something snapped,” she said.
She said the last time she communicated with her son was last month, sending a text to wish her grandson a happy birthday.
“He put his son above everything, I thought,” she told the newspaper. “The hard thing is to comprehend is why he would do this and leave an eight-year-old son behind.”
Federal agents spent hours yesterday searching a Phoenix apartment complex where the men apparently lived.
In a statement by Phoenix law firm Osborn Maledon, Simpson’s family said it was “struggling to understand” how the incident happened.
“We are sure many people in this country are curious to know if we had any idea of Elton’s plans,” the statement said. “To that we say, without question, we did not.”
The statement, which does not identify the relatives, also said the family was “heartbroken and in a state of deep shock” and sent prayers to everyone affected by this “act of senseless violence”, especially the security guard who was injured.
Simpson had worshipped at the Islamic Community Centre of Phoenix for about a decade, but he stopped attending over the past two or three months, Usama Shami, president of the mosque, said.
A convert to Islam, Simpson first attracted the FBI’s attention in 2006 because of his ties to Hassan Abu Jihaad, a former US Navy sailor who had been arrested in Phoenix and was ultimately convicted of terrorism-related charges, according to court records.
Jihaad was accused of leaking details about his ship’s movements to operators of a website in London that openly espoused violent jihad against the US.
In the autumn of that year, the FBI asked one of its informants, Dabla Deng, a Sudanese immigrant, to befriend Simpson and ask for advice about Islam. Mr Deng had been working as an FBI informant since 2005 and was instructed to tell Simpson he was a recent convert to the religion.
Over the next few years, Mr Deng would tape his conversations with Simpson with a hidden recording device accumulating more than 1,500 hours of conversations, according to court records.
In court, prosecutors presented only 17 minutes and 31 seconds during Simpson’s trial, according to documents.
“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,” Simpson’s lawyer, Kristina Sitton, said.
Ms Sitton described Simpson as so devout that he would not even shake her hand and would sometimes interrupt their legal meetings so he could pray. She said she had no indication that he was capable of violence and assumed he just “snapped”.