Courts & Crime

Islamic State embrace of Texas attack is first claim of action in U.S.

A delivery truck is parked in front of the Curtis Culwell Center parking lot Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A man whose social media presence was being scrutinized by federal authorities was one of two suspects in the Sunday shooting at this location that hosted a cartoon contest featuring images of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack.
A delivery truck is parked in front of the Curtis Culwell Center parking lot Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A man whose social media presence was being scrutinized by federal authorities was one of two suspects in the Sunday shooting at this location that hosted a cartoon contest featuring images of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack. AP

Islamic State radio stations in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday claimed that two gunmen slain by police in Texas were “brothers of the caliphate” but did not include any details about the failed attack in Garland that would show a direct link between the group and the two men.

The broadcast first aired on a station in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, and later was rebroadcast in Mosul, the city that the Islamic State captured 11 months ago as it began its march across northern and central Iraq.

The embrace of the two shooters in the Texas attack, which targeted a gathering held by a well-known anti-Islam organization, is the first time the Islamic State has sought to link itself to an attack in the United States. But it was uncertain that the group was aware of the shooters’ plans in advance.

Both the FBI and the CIA declined to comment. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said it was too early to say whether the shooters were connected to the Islamic State.

“This is still under investigation by the FBI and other members of the intelligence community to determine any ties or affiliations that these two individuals may have had with ISIL or other terrorist organizations around the world,” Earnest said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.

Non-government analysts disagreed on the likelihood of a direct Islamic State link, noting that one of the dead men, Elton Simpson, had declared himself a follower of the Islamic State on social media before the attack, but that whether he was in contact with the Islamic State prior to Sunday’s incident was still unknown. The Islamic State frequently has called upon its supporters to take independent action against Western targets.

J.M. Berger, a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center, said exchanges between Simpson and Islamic State accounts on Twitter suggest he had an ongoing relationship with the group.

“The evidence as it stands strongly suggests these guys were wired into a formal ISIS support network, and one which specifically suggested targeting this event,” Berger said. He said Simpson’s announcement of the attack on his Twitter account before it took place suggests “a possibility that some coordination took place.”

But another analyst, Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer who specialized in counterterrorism, said the evidence is at best vague.

“If you consider ISIS a message of hate and everyone who acts on that message is therefore ISIS, then sure it is,” he said. “But ISIS probably found out about these people on the news and proclaimed after the fact that they acted in their name.”

In the end, Skinner said, it may not really matter, because the attack serves the group’s purposes even without its direct involvement. “To ISIS, this is a win-win,” said Skinner, who was a case officer stationed in the Middle East after 9/11. “They got exactly what they wanted. They probably put zero effort into this and then they get credit.”

Meanwhile, the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office said it had completed autopsies on the two men and had confirmed the identity of the second man, Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34, through fingerprints.

Still to be determined was how many times each man had been shot when they confronted a Garland police officer and a Garland school district security guard outside the Curtis Culwell Center, where the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Islam group, was holding a contest to see who could draw the best caricature of the Prophet Muhammad – a competition certain to draw the ire of some Muslims.

Garland police spokesman Joe Harn said police were still trying to determine the precise sequence of events that unfolded after the would-be attackers drove up and opened fire on the city officer, who has not been identified, and the school security officer, Bruce Joiner, who was unarmed. The two officers were either in or standing beside a Garland police car blocking access to the facility, he said.

But there was little doubt, Harn said, that it was the Garland officer, returning fire with his department-issued Glock pistol, who killed both assailants, though SWAT team members who arrived on the scene also fired on the two men.

“The officer with the pistol shot both men before the SWAT team arrived,” Harn said. He said subsequent gunfire from the SWAT team was because “they still feared danger.”

Video of the incident may have been captured by the facility’s surveillance cameras, though a 2013 assessment found the system “appears to be insufficient” to cover all exterior parking lots.

Simpson was well known to U.S. authorities after a conviction for lying to investigators, who believed he was about to attempt to leave the United States for Somalia to join the al Qaida-linked Shabab militant group.

Simpson, an Illinois native, converted to Islam “at a young age,” according to a defense statement filed in 2010 when he faced the federal charges. FBI agents reported having tape-recorded Simpson making statements in support of violent jihad, and he was charged with falsely claiming he had not had discussions about traveling to Somalia.

“I’m telling you man, we can make it to the battlefield,” Simpson told another man in 2009, an FBI agent recounted in a Jan. 19, 2010, hearing, a transcript shows. “It’s time to roll.”

Simpson then added, “Bye, bye, America,” a prosecutor said in the 2010 hearing.

But Simpson’s assistant federal public defender in the 2010 case, Kristina Sitton, stressed “that nothing in his past” would suggest Simpson would be a dangerous flight risk. At the time of his 2010 arrest, Sitton said, Simpson was preparing to travel to South Africa to study.

“It doesn’t even look like there are any traffic offenses, criminal traffic offenses in his past,” Sitton said, a transcript shows.

The judge sentenced Simpson to probation on the offense.

The Islamic State was not in existence at the time, and it would not be unusual for an al Qaida sympathizer to have transferred his loyalty to the group after the capture of Mosul last June. The Islamic State and al Qaida share virtually the same ideology and goals of establishing a state built on Islamic law in Muslim lands.

Soofi was not known to U.S. authorities. Both men had moved to Phoenix and lived in the same apartment complex.

The Garland attack bore similarities, at least in intent, to the January attack in Paris on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which also featured caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, something many Muslims find offensive.

The perpetrators of that attack, Chérif and Said Kouachi, who were brothers, claimed they belonged to al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaida branch based in Yemen, a claim the group later confirmed.

But a third person, their close friend and apparent accomplice in planning the operation, Amedy Coulibaly, who shot a police officer and then killed four people at a kosher grocery store after the Charlie Hebdo attack, claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.

AQAP, in claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack, recognized Coulibaly as a fellow holy warrior but did not take responsibility for his actions.

No direct link to the Islamic State was established, but it was later determined that Coulibaly’s wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, had fled to Islamic State-ruled territory in Syria.

Michael Doyle, Anita Kumar and Marisa Taylor in Washington and a McClatchy special correspondent in Mosul, Iraq, whose identity is being withheld because of security concerns, contributed to this report.

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