(CNN) — A cartoon contest featuring controversial images of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed turned deadly Sunday night when two men pulled up in a car and opened fire. Police returned fire, killing both men after one wounded a security guard.
None of the approximately 200 people attending the event were hurt.
A federal law enforcement source told CNN’s Susan Candiotti that one of the two men was a Phoenix resident who was convicted in 2011 of a terror-related charge. Elton Simpson is thought to have sent a tweet before the attack that read, in part, “May Allah accept us as mujahideen,” the source said. It bore the hashtag, #texasattack.”
The attack bears similarities to the attacks this year on events in France and Denmark featuring images of Mohammed, which some Muslims believe is blasphemous.
The keynote speaker at the event in Garland was right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who was placed on an al Qaeda hit list. It was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative — considered an anti-Muslim group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
“The Islamic jihadis are determined to suppress our freedom of speech violently.” Pamela Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, told CNN. “They struck in Paris and Copenhagen recently, and now in Texas.”
While authorities have yet to release more details about the men, including their religion or motive, the federal law enforcement source said one was Simpson.
Simpson was convicted in 2011 of making a false statement involving international and domestic terrorism and sentenced to three years of probation, court records show. Prosecutors said he told FBI agents that he had not discussed traveling to Somalia to engage in “violent jihad” when, in fact, he had, according to an indictment reviewed by CNN.
FBI agents were searching the Phoenix apartment where the suspects lived, said John Iannarelli, assistant special agent in charge of the agency’s Phoenix office.
They haven’t found anyone else at the apartment and are working to collect evidence, he said.
Exchange lasted seconds
The men drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, got out of their car and began shooting just as the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” inside was ending around 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET), according to police.
An unarmed security guard, Bruce Joiner, was shot in the ankle. He was later treated at a hospital and released, Garland police spokesman Joe Harn told reporters.
Garland police, who were helping with security, fired back, killing both gunmen. The exchange lasted about 15 seconds, police said.
“The first suspect was shot immediately,” Garland Mayor Douglas Athas told CNN. “The second suspect was wounded and reached for his backpack. He was shot again.”
“We have no other indication that anyone else was involved,” Athas said.
Early Monday morning, FBI and local officials were checking the gunmen’s vehicle for explosives, and the area around the center was blocked off.
Surrounding businesses were evacuated, as were attendees from the Curtis Culwell Center.
An officer first told audience members to stay where they were. Seconds later, there was an announcement on the PA system by a SWAT team officer. He said, “Hey, there has been a shooting outside the venue. We need to escort you out of the room.”
A man in military fatigues herded the attendees into an auditorium.
“There was an incident outside,” the officer said. “Two suspects have been shot. Possibly have explosives on ’em, OK? I just need everybody to remain calm, become orderly, and we’re going to take you into the auditorium a little further away from the front of this building. All right?”
Someone asked, “Were the suspects Muslim?”
“I have no idea right now,” he responded.
There is no immediate threat to the area, police said; the check for explosives was a precaution.
“It’s a very slow, tedious operation that goes on,” Harn said.
Heavy security for event
The American Freedom Defense Initiative said it specifically picked the venue, a school district-owned facility, because it hosted an event denouncing Islamophobia in January.
The Sunday night event invited cartoonists to send in caricatures of Mohammed. The group said it received more than 350 submissions. The winning entry would get $10,000.
There were about 200 people at the event, police said.
“Most of the people who were there were from out of state,” Athas said.
Security was tight. The school district brought in extra officers, and the group itself hired several more. Security costs, the group said, were upwards of $30,000.
Only those who purchased tickets ahead of time were admitted. They had to go through metal detectors.
“We were prepared for something like this,” Harn said.
Depiction considered blasphemy
Many Muslims consider depictions of Mohammed blasphemous.
The prohibition against illustrating the prophet began as an attempt to ward off idol worship, which was widespread in Islam’s Arabian birthplace. But in recent years, it has taken a deadly toll.
In January, gunmen attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine that has a controversial history of depicting Mohammed, and killed 12 people.
The next month, a gunman attacked a free speech forum in Copenhagen, Denmark, featuring cartoonist Lars Vilks, who infuriated al Qaeda with his depictions of Mohammed.
In the United States, cartoonist Molly Norris is still in hiding, four years after she depicted the likeness of Mohammed on several items and was deemed a “prime target” for execution by Islamic extremists.
Shortly after the Sunday night shooting, a prominent Muslim leader in Dallas tweeted about it.
“The community stayed away from event,” Imam Zia Sheikh wrote. “Seems like a lone wolf type of attack. Just what we didn’t want.”
‘Freedom of speech is under violent assault’
Wilders, the Dutch politician who was the keynote speaker at the Garland event, is controversial for his anti-Islam views. He was placed on an al Qaeda hit list for his film “Fitna.”
The film, which Wilders released online in March 2008 to international outcry, features disturbing images of terrorist acts superimposed over verses from the Quran in an apparent attempt to paint Islam as a threat to Western society.
In 2011, Wilders was cleared of charges of inciting discrimination and hatred with the movie.
“The day we give away humor and freedom of speech is the day that we cease to exist as a free and independent people,” he told the attendees at the Garland event Sunday night.
Likewise, the American Freedom Defense Initiative is known for its anti-Muslim stance.
Geller, its president, is “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” the SPLC says.
“Who designated the SPLC as a legitimate authority? They are a radical leftist group who targets patriots, vets and even GOP presidential candidates,” she told CNN. “They have never named a jihadi group as a hate group.”
A conservative blogger, she first gained national attention with her group, “Stop the Islamization of America,” and its vocal opposition to an Islamic community center planned near the site of New York’s ground zero, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by Islamist hijackers on September 11, 2001.
She said Sunday night that she wasn’t expecting such an attack but wasn’t surprised that it happened.
“This incident shows how much needed our event really was. The freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation. The question now before us: Will we stand and defend it or bow to violence, thuggery and savagery?”
The relevance of the venue
Because of the Sunday night shooting, the Garland Independent School District canceled Advanced Placement testing at the Curtis Culwell Center.
The center is owned by the school district and rented out for sporting events, concerts and other gatherings.
In January, it rented the facility for an event titled “Stand with the Prophet,” which was meant to counter Islamophobia after the Charlie Hebdo attack. It drew several hundred attendees and about 200 protesters, and went off without incident.
Culwell Center Director John Wilborn told The Dallas Morning News that the venue has yet to turn down an event because of content.
As for Geller, she said she plans on holding similar events.
“I will not abridge my freedoms so as not to offend savages,” she said.
By Saeed Ahmed, Ed Lavandera and Joe Sutton, CNN
CNN’s Ed Lavandera reported from Garland and Joe Sutton from Atlanta, and Saeed Ahmed reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Kevin Conlon, Kristina Sgueglia, Joe Sutton, Vivian Kuo, Janet DiGiacomo, Chris Lett and Holly Yan contributed to this report.
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