Federal investigators learned several hours before a provocative cartoon contest in Texas that a man under investigation for extremist activities might show up and alerted local police, but had no indication that he planned to attack the event, FBI Director James Comey said Thursday.
The information about Elton Simpson was developed about three hours before the contest, which the FBI had identified as a potential target for Islamic militant violence because it involved cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Simpson and his roommate, Nadir Soofi, both from Phoenix, opened fire outside the Garland, Texas, event center and wounded a security guard before they were shot dead.
Simpson, previously convicted in a terrorism-related investigation, had come under new federal scrutiny in recent months related to online posts expressing interest in Islamic "holy war." When the FBI learned that he could be heading to the Texas event, the agency sent an intelligence bulletin to police in Garland, including a picture and other information, “even though we didn't have reason to believe that he was going to attack the event. In fact, we didn't have reason to believe that he had left Phoenix,” Comey said.
The FBI had been monitoring the event, even establishing a command post at its Dallas field office, based on concerns about the potential for violence. Drawings such as the ones featured at the contest are deemed insulting to many followers of Islam and have sparked violence around the world. Mainstream Islamic tradition holds that any physical depiction of Muhammad, even a respectful one, is blasphemous.
Comey, making his first public comments on the Sunday shooting, did not disclose steps he said the FBI could have taken to prevent the attack and said those questions were still being evaluated.
But, “what I've seen so far looks like we did it the way we were supposed to do it,” Comey said.
The FBI director said the attack highlights the difficulties the agency faces, at a time when social media has helped facilitate communication between potential home-grown extremists, in differentiating between those who merely make inflammatory comments online and those prepared to act on them. The Islamic State militant group has thousands of English-language followers around the world on Twitter, including many in the United States, he said.
Simpson himself was apparently an active Twitter user. An account linked to him included a tweet posted shortly before the shooting that said, “May Allah accept us as mujahideen,” or holy warriors.
“I know there are other Elton Simpsons out there,” Comey said.