Islamic State radio stations in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday claimed that two gunmen slain by police in Texas were “brothers of the caliphate” but did not include any details about the failed attack in North Texas that would show a direct link between the group and the two men.
The broadcast first aired on a station in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, and later was rebroadcast in Mosul, the city that the Islamic State captured 11 months ago as it began its march across northern and central Iraq.
The embrace of the two shooters in the Texas attack, which targeted a gathering in Garland held by a well-known anti-Islam organization, is the first time the Islamic State has sought to link itself to an attack in the United States. But it was uncertain that the group was aware of the shooters’ plans in advance.
The FBI and the CIA declined to comment. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said it was too early to say whether the shooters were connected to the Islamic State.
“This is still under investigation by the FBI and other members of the intelligence community to determine any ties or affiliations that these two individuals may have had with ISIL or other terrorist organizations around the world,” Earnest said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.
CNN late Tuesday reported that an unnamed U.S. official had said the shooting was “certainly more than just inspiration” by the Islamic State, but added that does not mean it’s been determined that the terror group gave specific instructions to the gunmen, who drove to North Texas from Arizona.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said a Twitter account linked to Simpson included images of Anwar Awlaki, a radical cleric killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen.
Among the hashtags used by the account was “(hash)texasattack.” And one of the final tweets was: “May Allah accept us as mujahideen,” or holy warriors.
“Was he on the radar? Sure he was,” McCaul said from Turkey, where he was leading a congressional delegation. “The FBI has got a pretty good program to monitor public social media.”
But McCaul said he is not ready to say law enforcement missed any red flags.
The evidence does not indicate the attack was directed by the Islamic State group, “but rather inspired by them,” said McCaul, who was briefed on the investigation by federal law enforcement officials. “This is the textbook case of what we’re most concerned about.”
Nongovernment analysts disagreed on the likelihood of a direct Islamic State link, noting that one of the dead men, Elton Simpson, had declared himself a follower of the Islamic State on social media before the attack, but that whether he was in contact with the Islamic State before Sunday’s incident was still unknown. The Islamic State frequently has called upon its supporters to take independent action against Western targets.
J.M. Berger, a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center, said exchanges between Simpson and Islamic State accounts on Twitter suggest he had an ongoing relationship with the group.
“The evidence as it stands strongly suggests these guys were wired into a formal ISIS support network, and one which specifically suggested targeting this event,” Berger said. He said Simpson’s announcement of the attack on his Twitter account before it took place suggests “a possibility that some coordination took place.”
But another analyst, Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer who specialized in counterterrorism, said the evidence is at best vague.
“If you consider ISIS a message of hate and everyone who acts on that message is therefore ISIS, then sure it is,” he said. “But ISIS probably found out about these people on the news and proclaimed after the fact that they acted in their name.”
In the end, Skinner said, it may not really matter, because the attack serves the group’s purposes even without its direct involvement. “To ISIS, this is a win-win,” said Skinner, who was a case officer stationed in the Middle East after 9-11. “They got exactly what they wanted. They probably put zero effort into this and then they get credit.”
Meanwhile, the Dallas County medical examiner’s office said it had completed autopsies on the two men and had confirmed the identity of the second man, Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34, through fingerprints.
Still to be determined was how many times each man had been shot when they confronted a Garland police officer and a Garland school district security guard outside the Curtis Culwell Center, where the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Islam group, was holding a contest to see who could draw the best caricature of the Prophet Muhammad — a competition certain to draw the ire of some Muslims.
Garland police spokesman Joe Harn said police were still trying to determine the precise sequence of events that unfolded after the would-be attackers drove up and opened fire on the city officer, who has not been identified, and the school security officer, Bruce Joiner, who was unarmed. The two officers were either in or standing beside a Garland police car blocking access to the facility, he said.
But there was little doubt, Harn said, that it was the Garland officer, returning fire with his department-issued Glock pistol, who killed both assailants, though SWAT team members who arrived on the scene also fired on the two men.
“The officer with the pistol shot both men before the SWAT team arrived,” Harn said. He said subsequent gunfire from the SWAT team was because “they still feared danger.”
Video of the incident may have been captured by the facility’s surveillance cameras, though a 2013 assessment found the system “appears to be insufficient” to cover all exterior parking lots.
Well-known by feds
Simpson was well known to U.S. authorities after a conviction for lying to investigators, who believed he was about to attempt to leave the United States for Somalia to join the al Qaeda-linked Shabab militant group.
Simpson, an Illinois native, converted to Islam “at a young age,” according to a defense statement filed in 2010 when he faced the federal charges. FBI agents reported having tape-recorded Simpson making statements in support of violent jihad, and he was charged with falsely claiming he had not had discussions about traveling to Somalia.
But Simpson’s assistant federal public defender in the 2010 case, Kristina Sitton, stressed “that nothing in his past” would suggest Simpson would be a dangerous flight risk.
The judge sentenced Simpson to probation on the offense.
The Islamic State was not in existence at the time, and it would not be unusual for an al Qaeda sympathizer to have transferred his loyalty to the group after the capture of Mosul last June.
Soofi was not known to U.S. authorities. Both men had moved to Phoenix and lived in the same apartment complex.
Star-Telegram Washington bureau reporters Maria Recio, Marisa Taylor, Michael Doyle and Anita Kumar contributed to this report, which contains material from McClatchy Foreign Desk reporter Mitchell Prothero and The Associated Press.