Two gunman shot dead by police after opening fire on ‘anti-Islam’ art exhibition organised by American Freedom Defence Initiative.
A bomb squad and FBI agents are now combing the scene of an officer-involved fatal shooting outside the Garland events center where a controversial Prophet Muhammad art event took place over the weekend.
The FBI has yet officially identified the deceased gunmen, but according to online reports one was an Arizona man named Elton Simpson and the other was his roommate. Search warrants have reportedly been executed for their Phoenix apartment.
About 20 minutes before the attack, there was a posting on a radical jihadist Twitter account indicating that two people were going to sacrifice themselves and that posting including #TexasAttack.
The shooting happened Sunday night outside the Curtis Culwell Center, just as the Draw the Prophet event was coming to an end. Garland police said the two men drove up and opened fire on a security officer. Several officers returned fire, killing the men.
“I don’t know anything so far as the conversation that took place. The only things that we know right now are that they drove up, got out and opened fire on a security officer,” said Garland PD spokesman Joe Harn.
One witness talked to FOX 4 News about the chaos.
“We’re almost to the parking lot, and we start hearing officers blowing their whistles, yelling. We have no idea what all the commotion is and we start looking around there’s gun drawn and we have no idea what’s going on. Finally there’s been reports of gun shots and two suspects have been shot dead,” said Nathan Basetto.
One security officer was wounded in the attack. He was identified as 8 year veteran Bruce Joiner, who works for the Garland Independent School District. He was treated and released from the hospital.
Suspects’ Vehicle Searched
Early Monday morning authorities began searching the gunmen’s vehicle for explosives.
“Because of the situation of what was going on today and the history of what we’ve been told has happened at other events like this, we are considering their car (is) possibly containing a bomb,” Harn said at a news conference late Sunday.
Video from SKY 4 showed a robot approach the car. Police have not confirmed an explosion, but the area around the car is now charred and it has explosive damage.
Harn said the bodies of the gunmen were not immediately taken from the scene because they were too close to the car. They are expected to be removed once the scene is clear.
Event Center Evacuated
The Curtis Culwell Center, the public events space that hosted the event and is owned by the school district, was evacuated after the shooting, as were some surrounding businesses.
Authorities escorted about 75 contest attendees to another room in the conference center, where a woman held up an American flag, and the crowd sang “God Bless America.”
The group was then taken to a separate location, where they were held for about two hours where they were questioned by FBI agents then released.
The evacuation was lifted several hours later but a large area around the center remained cordoned off late into the night.
Garland ISD said Advanced Placement testing scheduled at the center for Monday would be held at the local high schools instead. There will be extra security on all campuses, but students should expect a normal schedule, the district said.
Harn said the district hires security for events at its facilities, but noted that additional security was hired for Sunday’s event. The sponsoring group has said it paid $10,000 for off-duty police officers and other private security.
Harn said the city had not received any credible threats before the shooting.
Art Exhibit Controversy
Harn said it was not immediately clear that the shooting was connected to the contest hosted by the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative. During the event $10,000 was awarded for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad — even a respectful one — is considered blasphemous. Drawings similar to those featured at the Texas event have sparked violence around the world.
In January, 12 people were killed by gunmen in an attack against the Paris office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had lampooned Islam and other religions and used depictions of Muhammad. Another deadly shooting occurred the following month at a free speech event in Copenhagen featuring an artist who had caricatured the prophet.
Tens of thousands of people rallied around the world to honor the victims and defend the freedom of expression following those shootings.
The Garland event featured speeches by American Freedom Defense Initiative president Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker known for his outspoken criticism of Islam. Wilders received several standing ovations from the crowd and left immediately after his speech.
Wilders, who has advocated closing Dutch doors to migrants from the Islamic world for a decade, has lived under round-the-clock police protection since 2004.
Geller told the AP before Sunday’s event that she planned the contest to make a stand for free speech in response to outcries and violence over drawings of Muhammad. She said in a statement issued after the shooting that it showed how “needed our event really was.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement about what he called a “senseless attack.”
“Texas officials are actively investigating to determine the cause and scope of the senseless attack in Garland, Texas. This is a crime that was quickly ended thanks to the swift action by Garland law enforcement. Our thoughts and prayers remain with all those affected tonight,” Abbott said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.