Texas shootings: Was Islamic State the instigator, or just a cheerleader?

'Two soldiers of the caliphate' attacked the Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas, Islamic State said. But officials say the IS role more likely was inspirational.

Brandon Wade/AP
FBI crime scene investigators document evidence outside the Curtis Culwell Center, on Monday in Garland, Texas. Two men opened fire with assault weapons on police Sunday night who were guarding a contest for Muslim prophet Muhammad cartoons. A police officer returned fire killing both men.

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While the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the weekend attack by two gunmen on a Texas cartoon contest depicting the prophet Muhammad, officials are questioning the militant group’s direct involvement. It was the first time the terrorist group is believed to have claimed an attack on US soil.

“Two soldiers of the caliphate” carried out the attack at a public event space near Dallas, IS said in its official online radio news program May 5. The exhibit was targeted for “portraying negative pictures of the Prophet Muhammad,” IS claimed.

IS recently encouraged sympathizers in the US, Europe, and Australia who aren't able to travel to fight in Syria and Iraq – where the group operates – to carry out attacks where they live, the Associated Press reports.

An estimated 3,000 Westerners have traveled to Syria since 2011 to join IS in its fight, including possibly “hundreds” of people from the US, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

This attack wasn’t the first jihadist operation to take place on US soil, but “if Islamic State is able to prove that it planned and direct it – rather than just staking a claim after the event – then that would be a significant development,” writes the BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner.

One of the two shooting suspects, Elton Simpson, had been under FBI surveillance since 2006 and was convicted in 2010 of lying to federal authorities about plans to travel to Somalia to fight in religious wars, reports AP.

The men tweeted about the attack moments before opening fire, using the hashtag #texasattack and writing, "May Allah accept us as mujahideen," or Jihadi fighters.

But Islamic State may have played more of an inspirational role, observers say.

The shooters may have been active online, reading posts by IS or other terrorist groups, but the militant organization itself may have played no role in actually directing the attack on the event in Texas, organized by well-known anti-Islam activist Pam Geller.

The evidence does not indicate the attack was directed by the Islamic State group, "but rather inspired by them," Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said this week. "This is the textbook case of what we're most concerned about."

The Christian Science Monitor reports that this case shows “it is becoming increasingly clear that the Islamic State’s greatest threat to the US is in its online messaging.”

This is terrorism on the cheap. The Islamic State doesn’t have to try to send operatives to the US. It can simply prod disgruntled Americans and claim the credit.

For the Islamic State, “trying to get guys from Syria or Iraq into the United States [to fight] would be stupid and fruitless, because it would take time and money, it would take guys away from the fight, and why would you even do it when you have a great force multiplier in the Internet, where you can get people to pop up anywhere, making you seem omnipotent and universal?” asks Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent.

On one hand, Sunday’s attack gave that impression. But it also suggested the limitations of outsourcing terrorism operations. America’s legal dockets are strewn with the stories of homegrown terrorists who were rumbled by the FBI or simply failed. CNN notes that the attackers had body armor and semiautomatic weapons and yet were killed by a traffic officer with a pistol.

The events showed that the attackers were “wannabes who have never really done anything legitimate, and who hope this act will give them acceptance,” Mr. Clemente says.

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