As unidentified individuals online strengthen their claims that the Islamic State had a hand in organizing a failed attack on a Draw Muhammad art contest in Garland, Texas, experts have told various media outlets that, while the group may have inspired the attack, little evidence suggests that ISIS operatives actually funded or planned the attack and are now trying to take credit for work they did not do.
The attack, committed by Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi on Sunday night, left only the gunmen dead. It is believed that Simpson, using an account boasting the picture of Al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, tweeted about the plan before he and Soofi drove to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland. Almost immediately following the event, jihadist supporters online praised the men, and a crowd of hundreds convened in Pakistan to honor them. Many of those praising the shooters have also publicly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, and an audio recording from ISIS’s official radio station claimed that the group was, indeed, involved in the attack.
Despite the assertions to the contrary, a number of experts have told various media outlets that authorities appear to have no indication that Simpson and Soofi received money, plans, or other support from ISIS. There appears to be no communication between the two gunmen and ISIS leadership other than tweets collected by law enforcement, which are public and do not consist of specific plans.
Speaking to CBS News, Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, claimed that the “more likely” scenario is that “these individuals were self-radicalized”– meaning, they found jihadist material online and consumed it without being introduced to it by an outside actor. “There’s no evidence that ISIS directed the attack, no evidence that they were in communication with these two individuals,” he added. He noted that Al Qaeda recruiters could have been just as effective in attracting them to jihad as ISIS recruiters online. Morell also described the assertion of fault by ISIS as “a sign of weakness,” given that the attack was “not successful” and “there was no open devotion by these individual to ISIS.”
Former FBI agent Tim Clemente made similar remarks to CNN, calling the ISIS claims “opportunistic.” “They may have had email communication or read communications from ISIS, but I don’t think they were directed by ISIS,” Clemente noted, suggesting even that it “was the other way around: they were kind of applying for membership into ISIS.” The attack itself, he argues, was a way to bring attention to themselves from the group, which suggests they did not previously have such support.
Speaking to Time, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, echoed these sentiments. “What proof has ISIS offered,” he asked, adding that authorities would “have been able to confirm ‘fairly easily’ whether the gunmen had received orders from ISIS by checking their phones and computers.” The Mayor of Garland, Douglas Athas, claimed to media this week that his police had found “no evidence” of Islamic State involvement in their investigation so far, aside from the claims of involvement from the group itself.
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that he believed the most likely scenario was that the terrorists were “inspired” but not directly supported by ISIS. As one law enforcement official told CNN, this is among the most dangerous scenarios, as these terrorists lack the direct ties to the group necessary for law enforcement to conduct deeper investigations, and more easily fly under the radar.
This appears to be the case with Soofi, of whom little is known other than his return as a teenager to Utah from Pakistan and a series of small violations that had him arrested at least three times while living there, but never convicted of any crime.
Simpson, however, was a known quantity to law enforcement, having been convicted of lying to the FBI about his support of jihadist terror groups. Simpson had unknowingly told an FBI informant that he was interested in waging jihad, but had claimed that he was saving his money to “bounce” to Somalia, home of the jihadist terror group Al-Shabaab (ISIS was still a subsidiary of Al Qaeda at the time). There is little evidence to suggest that Simpson’s allegiances were to any terror group other than Al Shabaab, as he even maintained contact with an American jihadi currently fighting in Somalia on Twitter, believed to be the first to call for an attack on the free speech event in Garland.
Perhaps partly in response to the parade of experts discrediting their claim to the attack, Islamic State officials released a new statement today online, once again taking credit and asserting that they will “slaughter” Pamela Geller, the event’s organizer. The statement claims that the “Islamic State in America” organization has 71 trained members who have been given instructions to attack, and that the swift defeat of the two killed in Texas was intended to show “how easy we give our lives for the Sake of Allah.”