Had federal prosecutors been able to make a 2011 terrorism charge against Elton Simpson stick, he could have been sentenced to as many as eight years in prison and still be behind bars alive rather than killed in an attack on a Texas Muhammad-cartoon contest.
Instead, he received three months’ probation and a $500 fine for making a false statement to the FBI. A federal judge threw out a related terrorism charge as unproven despite Simpson’s taped statements in praise of jihad and his desire to “fight you to the death” in the name of Allah.
American forces are “trying to bring democracy over there man, they’re trying to make them live by man-made laws, not by Allah’s laws,” Simpson told an FBI informant in a taped conversation, according to a court brief. “That’s why they get fought. You try to make us become slaves to man? No, we slave to Allah, we going to fight you to the death.”
Court documents posted on Scribd show that Simpson, one of two Muslim gunmen killed Sunday after attacking a Muhammad art exhibit and wounding a security officer at the Curtis Culwell Civic Center in the Dallas suburb of Garland, was on the FBI’s radar for years.
Simpson, 30, and the second gunman, identified as his roommate Nadir Soofi, 34, were shot and killed by a traffic officer, whose name has not been released, as they charged the entrance with assault rifles. A second officer, Bruce Joiner of the Garland school district, was shot in the ankle and received medical treatment.
Garland Police Officer Joe Harn said Monday that the gunmen intended to kill the 200 people at the art exhibit, which featured a contest to draw Muhammad, a free-speech event sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Many Muslims object to visual depictions of Muhammad, who the religion teaches is God’s final and definitive prophet.
Officer Harn said the officer who shot the gunmen “did what he was trained to do. Under the fire that he was put under, he did a very good job and probably saved lives.”
“We think their strategy was to get to the event center, into the event center, and they were not able to get past that outer perimeter,” Officer Harn said at a press conference on Dallas TV station WFAA.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest praised the officers’ “notable display of bravery” in remarks to reporters on Air Force One. “There is no act of expression, even if it’s offensive, that justifies an act of violence,” he said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott defended the art contest. “We live in a country where the First Amendment is one of the paramount promises of this nation,” he said.
“That provides people the ability to speak out to say what they want,” Mr. Abbott said. “Just as people draw cartoons mocking the governor, people may draw cartoons mocking others.”
Pamela Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, said organizers paid an additional $10,000 for enhanced police protection and brought in their own private security. In January, Muslim extremists killed 12 people in the Charlie Hebdo attack in France over cartoons of Muhammad, and that was not the first fatal attack against Westerners perceived as having committed blasphemy against Islam.
Simpson was living in the Phoenix area and attending the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix until two or three months ago, then stopped showing up, Usama Shami, president of the center, told The Associated Press.
The FBI in Phoenix began investigating Simpson in 2006 as a result of his association with a man who agents believed had been trying to set up a terrorist cell. An FBI informant recorded hundreds of conversations with Simpson in which he said wanted to travel to South Africa and then to Somalia to join Muslim fighters.
“It’s time to go to Somalia, brother. … We know plenty of brothers from Somalia,” Simpson told the informant, Daba Deng of Kenya. “It’s time. I’m telling you, man. We going to make it to the battlefield. … It’s time to roll.”
Simpson also told Mr. Deng, “If you get shot, or you get killed, it’s [heaven] straight away,” adding, “[heaven] that’s what we here for … so why not take that route?”
When questioned by agents in January 2010 about whether he had discussed traveling to Somalia, Simpson said no. The nation is in the grip of a civil war involving the al-Shabab jihadi group that has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda. FBI agents, worried that he did plan to go to Somalia to “engage in violent jihad,” tried to disrupt his travel plans.
“The FBI tried, unsuccessfully, to place Mr. Simpson on the no-fly list,” the court order said.
Simpson was found guilty of lying to federal investigators, but U.S. District Court Judge Mary Murguia threw out a separate charge of lying in relation to terrorism, which would have resulted in an enhanced sentence of up to an additional eight years.
“The possibility that the Defendant did in fact intend to go to Somalia to engage in violent jihad exists, as the Defendant never presented any alternative reason for going there,” she said in her order dated March 14, 2011.
“However, that is not the Defendant’s burden and as stated, the Government has not established beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant had such intentions,” the order said. “As it is, the Government only established that Mr. Simpson discussed traveling to Somalia and later lied about discussing traveling to Somalia.
“However obnoxious, troubling or repugnant these beliefs and statements may be, this Court cannot find that sufficient evidence exists to enhance the Defendant’s sentence,” she said.
Simpson’s attorney, Kristina Sitton, said Monday that she felt the charges were “completely trumped up” to justify the costly investigation, the AP reported.
Dunston Simpson, Elton’s father, told ABC News that his son “made a bad choice.”
“We are Americans, and we believe in America,” he said. “What my son did reflects very badly on my family.”