WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal investigators learned several hours before a provocative cartoon contest in Garland, Texas that a man under investigation for extremist activities might show up and alerted local authorities, 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 already identified as a potential target for violence because it involved cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Simpson and his roommate, both from Phoenix, opened fire outside the Garland event center but were shot dead before they were able to kill anyone.
Simpson, previously convicted in a terrorism-related investigation, had come under new federal scrutiny in recent months related to online posts expressing interest in jihad. When the FBI learned that he could be heading toward the 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 event are deemed insulting to many followers of Islam and have sparked violence around the world. Mainstream Islamic tradition holds that any physical depiction of the Prophet 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 attempted attack highlights the difficulties the FBI faces, at a time when social media has helped facilitate communication between potential homegrown extremists, in differentiating between those who merely make inflammatory comments online and those prepared to act on them. The Islamic State has many thousand 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,” he said.
The shooting is part of what authorities have long considered an alarming trend involving would-be recruits for whom technology makes it easier to be exposed to Islamic State propaganda. Beyond the communications that occur in the open, the Islamic State group increasingly makes contact with followers and steers them into forums that allow for encrypted communications that can be harder for law enforcement officials to access.
The terror group has been encouraging its followers to travel to Syria to join the self-created caliphate there, but if they can’t do that, to “kill where you are,” Comey said.
“The siren song sits in the pockets, on the mobile phones, of the people who are followers on Twitter,” Comey said. “It’s almost as if there’s a devil sitting on the shoulder, saying ‘Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!’ all day long.”
Simpson came under FBI investigation in 2006 and was convicted five years later following a terrorism-related investigation stemming from what prosecutors said were his plans to travel to Somalia to fight alongside militants there. He was sentenced to three years of probation for making false statements to a federal agent.
The FBI continued to track him for several years after that, but closed the investigation last year. In March authorities opened a new investigation into his activities after suspecting a “renewed interest in jihad” in connection with the Islamic State group, Comey said.
He said that investigation was “open, but far from complete” at the time of the shooting.
Ahead of the Texas cartoon contest, the FBI was flagging for local authorities individuals who it thought were interested in the event and might potentially go, including Simpson. The FBI routinely supplies local law enforcement with bulletins when there is important security information it wants to convey.
Garland police department spokesman Joe Harn would not confirm that the department received an intelligence bulletin about Simpson. Messages left with the Texas Department of Public Safety were not immediately returned.