LM Otero / AP Photo

Two killed outside anti-Islam group's Muhammad cartoon event in Texas

The American Freedom Defense Initiative was hosting a contest for best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad

Texas police shot dead two gunmen who opened fire on Sunday outside an exhibit of caricatures of Muhammad that was organized by an anti-Muslim group and billed as a free-speech event.

Sunday's attack took place shortly before 7 p.m. in a parking lot of the Curtis Culwell Center, an indoor arena in the suburb of Garland, northeast of Dallas. A bomb squad was called to the scene to search the vehicle belonging to the dead gunmen.

Citing a senior FBI official, ABC News identified one of the gunmen as Elton Simpson, an Arizona man who was the target of a terror investigation. FBI agents and a bomb squad were searching Simpson's Phoenix home, ABC said.

Phoenix's KPHO TV reported that the second gunman lived in the same apartment complex as Simpson, and that his home was being searched as well.

Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician known for his anti-Muslim views, was among the speakers at Sunday’s event, organized by Pamela Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI). The group, which is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, has sponsored anti-Muslim advertising campaigns in transit systems across the country.

Organizers of the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” said the event was to promote freedom of expression. They offered a $10,000 prize for the best artwork or cartoon depicting the Prophet, as well as a $2,500 “People's Choice Award.”

Depictions of Muhammad are viewed as offensive in Islam, and Western art that portrays him has sometimes angered Muslims and provoked threats. Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine attacked in January, had printed cartoons depictions of the religious figure.

Garland police said they had not immediately determined the identity of the two gunmen or whether they were linked to critics of the event who branded it anti-Muslim.

“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,” Officer Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland Police Department, said at a news conference.

“I have no idea who they area, other than they’re dead and in the street,” Harn said earlier in the evening about the two slain gunmen.

Harn said it was not immediately clear whether the shooting was connected to the event inside. Police aren't aware of any ongoing threat and had not received any credible threats before the event, he said.

The area was evacuated after the shooting, as were some surrounding businesses. The evacuation order was lifted several hours later but a large area around the center remained blocked off late into the night.

Police helicopters circled overhead as bomb squads worked on the car.

In Sunday's incident, the two suspects drove up to the building as the event was coming to an end, and opened fire with automatic rifles at an unarmed security officer, striking him in the leg, police and city officials said.

Garland police officers that were on the scene assisting with security returned fire, killing both suspects, Harn said. He told reporters the shooting incident lasted seconds. The wounded security officer worked for the Garland Independent School District, and was treated and released from a local hospital, Harn said.

Most of the 200 or so people attending the event were still inside the arena when the violence unfolded and were unaware of what had happened until police came into the building and advised everyone to remain indoors because of a shooting. 

After the shooting, 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 until being briefly questioned by FBI agents before being released.

“The first suspect was shot immediately,” Garland Mayor Douglas Athas told CNN. “The second suspect was shot and wounded — reached for his backpack. Of course officers not knowing what was in the backpack, shot him again. He was killed.” 

The mayor said the city permitted the event even though officials knew its inflammatory theme could provoke an attack.

“There was concern, which is why we had heightened security in the area, but we all swear to uphold the Constitution: free speech, free assembly and in this case perhaps, free religion,“ Athas said. “So in this case they were free to use the building.”

Harn said the Garland Independent School District hires security for events at its facilities, but noted additional security also was in place for Sunday's event. The sponsoring group said it paid $10,000 for off-duty police officers and other private security.

Johnny Roby of Oklahoma City, who was attending the conference, told The Associated Press he was outside the building when he heard about 20 shots that appeared to be coming from the direction of a passing car.

Roby said he then heard two single shots. He said he heard officers yell that they had the car before he was sent inside the building.

Geller, president of the AFDI, said that she planned the Sunday event to make a stand for free speech in response to the outcries and violence over drawings of Muhammad. 

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 published offensive depictions of Muhammad.

In February, a masked gunman sprayed bullets into a Copenhagen meeting attended by a Swedish artist who had been threatened with death for his cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. A civilian was killed and three police officers were injured in the attack, aimed at artist Lars Vilks, who stirred controversy in 2007 with published drawings depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog.

Denmark became a target 10 years ago after the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. The images led to sometimes fatal protests in Muslim-majority countries.

Though it remained unclear several hours after the shooting whether it was related to the event, Geller said Sunday night that the shooting showed how “needed our event really was.”

Wilders received several standing ovations as he quoted former President Ronald Reagan and Texas founding father Sam Houston.

“Today, here in Garland, we fight Muhammad and his followers with the pen. And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword,” Wilders said during his speech.

The Dallas Morning News reported that critics of the art exhibit had condemned the event as an attack on Islam, but that organizers had said they were merely exercising their right of free expression.

According to the Morning News, Garland hosted dueling protests in January. When a Chicago-based nonprofit held a January fundraiser in Garland designed to help Muslims combat negative depictions of their faith, Geller led about 1,000 picketers at the event.

Al Jazeera with wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter