The lead gunman in the shooting in Garland, Texas, was inspired by foreign jihadist groups but the FBI and other federal investigators do "not at this point" believe he was specifically directed to attack people attending the Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest there, two top federal law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
The sources, speaking confidentially because the investigation is continuing, said preliminary evidence shows that Elton Simpson was deeply engaged in social media chats with jihadi fighters in Syria and Somalia. But, they cautioned, investigators have not nailed down a direct link between what the groups were telling him and what happened when he and an accomplice tried to shoot their way into the cartoon convention on Sunday.
"Not at this point," said one investigator, adding that Simpson appears to have been acting independently of the groups. "At this point he’s a lone wolf."
The officials said claims from the Islamic State terror organization, also known as ISIS, that it sent Simpson to Garland are not holding up. “It’s more rhetoric,” the second official said.
Wearing body armor and wielding assault weapons, Simpson and Nadir Soofi were shot dead by a police officer in Garland as they attempted to storm the cartoon convention.
Simpson was well known to federal agents. He was prosecuted in 2010 for making false statements about why he wanted to visit Somalia. The FBI and other law enforcement organizations remained aware of him, the sources said.
But, said one of the officials, "he was not a top priority," noting that there are a thousand more like Simpson whom investigators believe are communicating online with Islamic State and other foreign terror networks. Many of them have become the target of terror investigations and have been prosecuted for either tying to join the fight abroad or plotting attacks in this country.
In Simpson's case, he was convicted of lying to the FBI. But a federal judge in Arizona ruled that the government had not proved his misstatements were connected to international terrorism. He was given three years' probation, fined $600 and placed on a no-fly list.
Now investigators are intrigued by recent Twitter chats between Simpson and an individual known as Mujahid Miski, whose real name is Muhammed Hassan. Miski has been a fugitive for several years, after leaving Minnesota for Africa to hook up with terror groups there
According to authorities, Miski last month tossed out a tweet asking when someone in this country would follow what happened in the deadly terror attacks in France four months ago that started with the Paris headquarters of the satirical amagazine Charlie Hebdo.
"The brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack did their part," Miski tweeted. "It's time for brothers in the US to do their part."
The sources said Simpson replied, "When will they ever learn? They are planning on selecting the best picture drawn of Rasulullah [the Prophet Muhammad] in Texas."
The sources said investigators also found another tweet from Simpson, in which he aligned himself with Islamic State and wrote, "May Allah accept us as Mujahideen."
Simpson also complained about the persecution of Muslims, and Miski tweeted back, "One individual is able to put a whole nation onto it's knees."
The Garland attack occurred a week later. But authorities cautioned that despite the Islamic State claim, it does not mean Simpson was trying to carry it out on their orders.
That claim came on Tuesday, when Islamic State said on a radio station they operate in Syria: "We say to the America, the defender of the cross, what's coming will be even worse."