The FBI warned local authorities in Texas about a 30-year-old Phoenix man just hours before he and an accomplice were slain as the two attacked a controversial anti-Muslim exhibition this week.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey told reporters Thursday agents were concerned that Elton Simpson might be interested in going to the May 4 event in Garland, Texas, but had no evidence that an attack was in the works.
Simpson and his 34-year-old roommate, Nadi Soofi, both of Phoenix, were wearing body armor and had assault rifles when they waged a gun-battle with police outside a convention center in Garland where a group was holding an exhibition of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Simpson and Soofi were killed, and a security guard was wounded in the shootout.
Comey, who hailed the officers involved as heroes, said that Simpson had been under investigation by the FBI since March after agents noticed he had indicated an interest in jihad on social media. It was the second time since 2006 that Simpson was the subject of an FBI investigation into the Muslim convert’s interest in terrorism.
Comey said the investigation into Simpson had been in its early stages, and he didn’t know whether the officer who shot him had seen the FBI intelligence warning. He said an FBI bulletin about Simpson was sent just hours before the incident.
The case highlights the difficulty in stopping homegrown extremists who are inspired by jihadist rhetoric, Comey said. It also signals a sea change in how terror groups operate and push their message, he said.
“Al-Qaeda core would never give somebody an assignment to kill on its behalf until he had been vetted,” Comey said, referring to the terror group that orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
The director added that the Islamic State extremist group, which has taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, “is testing people’s bona fides to go kill people.”
“‘Kill in our name, kill someone in uniform, all the better in military or law enforcement,’” Comey said. “The old paradigm of being inspired or directed, it all breaks down.”
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the U.S. who follow Islamic State supporters on social media, Comey said.
In the past, those interested in such rhetoric found kindred souls in chat rooms that were not always easy to uncover or navigate. Today, Comey said, the Islamic State’s “siren song, it sits in the pockets, on the mobile phones of the people who are followers on Twitter.”
“It’s almost as if there is a devil sitting on the shoulder saying ‘kill, kill, kill,’ all day long,” he said.
Comey added that tracking such extremists was difficult because after engaging with Islamic State members on Twitter, local supporters are often told to communicate using secure networks. The FBI can obtain those communications, Comey said, but the information is typically “gobbledygook” because it’s encrypted.
“We can see, if we are in the right place, a connection, but then it disappears,” Comey said, drawing an analogy to finding a needle in a haystack, in which the haystack is the U.S. and the needles are scores of “troubled souls” with interest in waging violent acts.
The problem, he said, is that “increasingly the needles are invisible to us. All we can see is a connection that is made that someone is a follower on Twitter and then they go off Twitter and they are going dark to us.”
Comey declined to provide specifics about Simpson’s communications or online activities, nor would he comment further about the bureau’s renewed interest in him.
Simpson first come under FBI scrutiny in 2006, and an investigation led to his 2010 indictment on charges of lying to agents about his intent to travel to Somalia to fight for a terror group. A federal judge found Simpson guilty of lying to agents about seeking to travel to Somalia but ruled that the Justice Department failed to prove it was for waging jihad. He was sentenced to probation, and the FBI closed its investigation into him last year, Comey said.
Comey said he was fairly confident that the bureau had done all it could since re-launching its probe of Simpson in March. Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said Simpson and Soofi were most likely inspired to act by jihadist rhetoric but not directed by terror groups to specifically attack the exhibition, which had drawn the attention of extremists online.
The Islamic State claimed in a radio broadcast that it was responsible for Simpson’s attack on the exhibition of Prophet Muhammad cartoons hosted by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New York-based group whose leader has spoken out against what she calls the “Islamization” of the U.S.
Such depictions of Muhammad are considered an insult by Muslims. Comey said the FBI viewed the event as “a potential draw for violence” and had even established a command post in the Dallas field office to keep tabs on it.
This is not the first time Comey or other top law enforcement officials have called attention to the threat posed by homegrown extremists. Former Attorney General Eric Holder said in February that such inspired attacks represented a dangerous “new era” in terrorism.
U.S. officials point to various recent attacks as evidence of their concerns: a deadly rampage in Paris in January that involved, in part, an attack on a satirical magazine that published images of Muhammad; a December siege at a Sydney cafe in which two hostages were slain; and an October shooting spree and separate car attack in Ottawa that killed two.