FBI has investigated accused Texas gunman for years

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Since 2006, the FBI had been investigating Elton Simpson -- one of the men suspected in the Texas shootings outside a contest featuring cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Agents recorded the young man from Phoenix talking about fighting nonbelievers for Allah. About plans to travel to South Africa and link up with "brothers" in Somalia. About using school as a cover story for traveling overseas.

MORE: Police: No explosives found in car used in Texas attack

Simpson was arrested in 2010, one day before authorities say he planned to leave for South Africa. But despite more than 1,500 hours of recorded conversations, the government prosecuted him on only one minor charge - lying to a federal agent. Years spent investigating Simpson for terrorism ties resulted in three years of probation and $600 in fines and court fees.

Then, on Sunday, two men whom authorities identified as Simpson and Nadir Soofi opened fire in a Dallas suburb on an unarmed security officer stationed outside the contest. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation by name.

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FBI has investigated accused Texas gunman for years
This undated law enforcement booking photo from the Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff's Department shows Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem. Kareem, 43, also known as Decarus Thomas, has been charged with helping plan an attack on a provocative Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas that ended with two men being killed in a shootout with police. An indictment filed in federal court in Phoenix alleges that Kareem hosted the gunmen in his home beginning in January and provided the guns they used in the May 3 shooting in Garland, Texas.(Maricopa County Sheriff's Department via AP)
FILE - In this May 4, 2015 file photo, FBI crime scene investigators document evidence outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. A Phoenix-area man has been charged with helping plan the attack on a provocative Texas cartoon contest featuring depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that ended with the two shooters’ deaths last month. An indictment filed in federal court in Phoenix alleges that Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem hosted the gunmen in his home beginning in January and provided the guns they used in the May 3 shooting. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade,File)
FILE - In this May 4, 2015 file photo, investigators box up an assault weapon while collecting evidence outside the Curtis Culwell Center, in Garland, Texas. A Phoenix-area man has been charged with helping plan the attack on a provocative Texas cartoon contest featuring depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that ended with the two shooters’ deaths last month. An indictment filed in federal court in Phoenix alleges that Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem hosted the gunmen in his home beginning in January and provided the guns they used in the May 3 shooting. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)
This April 2003 photo provided by the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office shows Nadir Soofi. Authorities say Soofi, a man identified as one of two attackers in a shooting at a Texas cartoon contest featuring images of the Prophet Muhammad, was a former University of Utah student. Utah court records show Soofi had several brushes with police during his time in the state. (Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Joseph Offutt, right, and Conner McCasland hold a U.S. flag across the street from the Curtis Culwell Center, Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A man whose social media presence was being scrutinized by federal authorities was one of two suspects in the Sunday shooting at this location that hosted a cartoon contest featuring images of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Pakistani residents offer funeral prayers in Peshawar on May 5, 2015, for attackers who were killed when they attempted to storm an anti-Muslim cartoon exhibition in Garland, Texas. The two gunmen shot dead when they attempted to storm an anti-Muslim cartoon exhibition have been identified as roommates from Arizona, one of them a suspected jihadist, reports. Several US media identified the shooters -- killed by police in Garland, Texas outside the event -- as 31-year-old Elton Simpson and 34-year-old Nadir Soofi. AFP PHOTO/ HASHAM AHMED (Photo credit should read HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani residents shout slogans as they march behind a banner during a protest in Peshawar on May 5, 2015, against the anti-Muslim cartoon exhibition in Garland, Texas. The two gunmen shot dead when they attempted to storm an anti-Muslim cartoon exhibition have been identified as roommates from Arizona, one of them a suspected jihadist, reports. Several US media identified the shooters -- killed by police in Garland, Texas outside the event -- as 31-year-old Elton Simpson and 34-year-old Nadir Soofi. AFP PHOTO/ HASHAM AHMED (Photo credit should read HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Joseph Offutt, 20, holds a U.S. flag across the street from the Curtis Culwell Center, Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A man whose social media presence was being scrutinized by federal authorities was one of two suspects in the Sunday shooting at this location that hosted a cartoon contest featuring images of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Garland Police spokesperson Joe Harn addresses the media during a news conference at the Garland Police Department, Monday, May 4, 2015, in Garland, Texas. Police shot and killed two men after they opened fire on a security officer outside the Curtis Caldwell Center in Garland, which was hosting provocative contest for Prophet Muhammad cartoons Sunday night, authorities said. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
GARLAND, TX - MAY 4: A member of the FBI Evidence Response Team investigates the media area near the crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before, on May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,' on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and Nadir Soofi opened fire, wounding a security guard. Police officers shot and killed Simpson at the scene. The provocative cartoon event was billed by organizers as a free speech event while critics deemed it to be anti-Islamic. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images)
GARLAND, TX - MAY 4: A member of the FBI Evidence Response Team investigate the crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before, on May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,' on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and Nadir Soofi opened fire, wounding a security guard. Police officers shot and killed Simpson at the scene. The provocative cartoon event was billed by organizers as a free speech event while critics deemed it to be anti-Islamic. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images)
GARLAND, TX - MAY 4: A Garland Police car is parked outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,' an anti-Islam event, on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and another man opend fire, wounding a security guard . Police officers shot and killed Simpson at teh scene. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images)
Police tape surrounds a vehicle searched by authorities, Monday, May 4, 2015, in Phoenix, believed to belong to one of two gunmen who were shot and killed the night before outside a venue hosting an exhibit about the Prophet Muhammad in suburban Dallas. Garland, Texas, police officer Joe Harn says the men had opened fire with assault rifles, and that one officer had fatally shot both gunmen. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
GARLAND, TX - MAY 4: Investigators remove a body as they work a crime scene outside the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,' an anti-Islam event, on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and another man opend fire, wounding a security guard . Police officers shot and killed Simpson at teh scene. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images)
GARLAND, TX - MAY 4: Members of the FBI Evidence Response Team investigate the crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before, on May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,' on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and Nadir Soofi opened fire, wounding a security guard. Police officers shot and killed Simpson at the scene. The provocative cartoon event was billed by organizers as a free speech event while critics deemed it to be anti-Islamic. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images)
GARLAND, TX - MAY 4: A member of the FBI Evidence Response Team investigates the crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before, on May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,' on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and Nadir Soofi opened fire, wounding a security guard. Police officers shot and killed Simpson at the scene. The provocative cartoon event was billed by organizers as a free speech event while critics deemed it to be anti-Islamic. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images)
Authorities continue their investigation of an apartment at the Autumn Ridge apartment complex Monday, May 4, 2015, in Phoenix, believed to be the home of one of two gunmen who were shot and killed the night before outside a venue hosting an exhibit about the Prophet Muhammad in suburban Dallas. Garland, Texas, police officer Joe Harn says the men had opened fire with assault rifles, and that one officer had fatally shot both gunmen. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
FBI crime scene investigators document the area around two deceased gunmen and their vehicle outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, Monday, May 4, 2015. Police shot and killed the men after they opened fire on a security officer outside the suburban Dallas venue, which was hosting provocative contest for Prophet Muhammad cartoons Sunday night. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
FBI crime scene investigators document the area around two deceased gunmen and their vehicle outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, Monday, May 4, 2015. Police shot and killed the men after they opened fire on a security officer outside the suburban Dallas venue, which was hosting provocative contest for Prophet Muhammad cartoons Sunday night, authorities said. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
An FBI crime scene investigator documents the area around two deceased gunmen and their vehicle outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, Monday, May 4, 2015. Police shot and killed the men after they opened fire on a security officer outside the suburban Dallas venue, which was hosting provocative contest for Prophet Muhammad cartoons Sunday night, authorities said. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
FBI crime scene investigators document the area around two deceased gunmen and their vehicle outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, Monday, May 4, 2015. Police shot and killed the men after they opened fire on a security officer outside the suburban Dallas venue, which was hosting provocative contest for Prophet Muhammad cartoons Sunday night. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
GARLAND, TX - MAY 4: An investigator works a crime scene before the removal a two bodies outside of the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting occurred the day before May 04, 2015 in Garland, Texas. During the 'Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,' an anti-Islam event, on May 03, Elton Simpson of Phoenix, Arizonia and another man opend fire, wounding a security guard . Police officers shot and killed Simpson at teh scene. (Photo by Ben Torres/Getty Images)
This photo shows the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, Monday, May 4, 2015, in Phoenix. Elton Simpson, one of the two gunmen who were shot and killed by authorities outside a suburban Dallas venue, which was hosting a contest for Muslim Prophet Muhammad cartoons, was a Phoenix resident that attended the same Phoenix mosque for a period of about 10 years. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Usama Shami, the president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, speaks at the mosque Monday, May 4, 2015, in Phoenix. Elton Simpson was one of the two gunmen who was shot and killed by authorities outside a suburban Dallas venue, which was hosting a contest for Muslim Prophet Muhammad cartoons, and Shami confirmed that Simpson attended the Phoenix mosque over a period of 10 years. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
An armed police officer stands guard at a parking lot near the Curtis Culwell Center where a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was held Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. The contest was put on lockdown Sunday night and attendees were being evacuated after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
An armed police officer stands guard on a road near the Curtis Culwell Center where a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was held Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. The contest was put on lockdown Sunday night and attendees were being evacuated after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Police officers stands guard at a parking lot near the Curtis Culwell Center where a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was held Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. The contest was put on lockdown Sunday night and attendees were being evacuated after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Garland Police spokesperson Joe Harn pauses as he addresses media about the shooting at the Curtis Culwell Center where a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was held Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. The contest was put on lockdown Sunday night and attendees were being evacuated after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
A Texas state trooper stands guard at a parking lot near the Curtis Culwell Center where a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was held Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. The contest was put on lockdown Sunday night and attendees were being evacuated after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
People are sequestered by members of the Garland Police Department inside the Curtis Culwell Center, Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A contest for cartoons depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the Dallas suburb is on lockdown Sunday after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo/Nomaan Merchant)
Members of the Garland Police Department are stand inside the Curtis Culwell Center, Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A contest for cartoons depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the Dallas suburb is on lockdown Sunday after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo Nomaan Merchant)
Members of the Garland Police Department are stand inside the Curtis Culwell Center on Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A contest for cartoons depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the Dallas suburb is on lockdown Sunday after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo Nomaan Merchant)
Members of the Garland Police Department stand inside the Curtis Culwell Center, Sunday, May 3, 2015, in Garland, Texas. A contest for cartoons depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the Dallas suburb is on lockdown Sunday after authorities reported a shooting outside the building. (AP Photo Nomaan Merchant)
FBI crime scene investigators document the area around two deceased gunmen and their vehicle outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, Monday, May 4, 2015. Police shot and killed the men after they opened fire on a security officer outside the suburban Dallas venue, which was hosting provocative contest for Prophet Muhammad cartoons Sunday night, authorities said. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Heavy police presence all along North Garland @dallasnews #GarlandShooting http://t.co/kVIolnBjCb
UPDATE: Two men opened fire on Culwell Center, Garland PD shot and killed both men http://t.co/PaWaw5ESyL
Update from the scene of shooting outside an event - the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, TX @NBCDFW http://t.co/35Wb0e5Z8M
Situation in #Garland currently unfolding, business evacuated, streets closed: http://t.co/q5ra0YVuSk http://t.co/6HkVMB6iyH
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The deliberately provocative contest had been expected to draw outrage from the Muslim community. According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad - even a respectful one - is considered blasphemous, and drawings similar to those featured at the Texas event have sparked violence around the world.

Simpson and Soofi were wearing body armor, and one shot the security officer in the leg. Garland police spokesman Joe Harn said Monday that a single Garland police officer subdued the two gunmen but that after his initial shots, SWAT officers nearby also fired at the two men. Harn said police don't know who fired the lethal shots.

The security officer was treated for his injury at a hospital and released.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement Monday that law enforcement authorities are investigating the men's motives and all circumstances surrounding the attack.

"While all the facts are not in yet, last night's attack serves as a reminder that free and protected speech, no matter how offensive to some, never justifies violence of any sort," Johnson said.

Simpson, described as quiet and devout, had been on the radar of law enforcement because of his social media presence, but authorities did not have an indication that he was plotting an attack, said one federal official familiar with the investigation.

In a statement released late Monday by Phoenix law firm Osborn Maledon, Simpson's family said it is "struggling to understand" how the incident happened.

"We are sure many people in this country are curious to know if we had any idea of Elton's plans," the statement says. "To that we say, without question, we did not."

The statement, which does not identify the relatives, also says the family is "heartbroken and in a state of deep shock" and sends prayers to everyone affected by this "act of senseless violence," especially the security guard who was injured.

Simpson had worshipped at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix for about a decade, but he quit showing up over the past two or three months, the president of the mosque told The Associated Press.

A convert to Islam, Simpson first attracted the FBI's attention in 2006 because of his ties to Hassan Abu Jihaad, a former U.S. Navy sailor who had been arrested in Phoenix and was ultimately convicted of terrorism-related charges, according to court records. Jihaad was accused of leaking details about his ship's movements to operators of a website in London that openly espoused violent jihad against the U.S.

In the fall of that year, the FBI asked one of its informants, Dabla Deng, a Sudanese immigrant, to befriend Simpson and ask for advice about Islam. Deng had been working as an FBI informant since 2005 and was instructed to tell Simpson he was a recent convert to the religion.

Over the next few years, Deng would tape his conversations with Simpson with a hidden recording device accumulating more than 1,500 hours of conversations, according to court records.

"I'm telling you, man, we can make it to the battlefield," Simpson is recorded saying on May 29, 2009. "It's time to roll."

In court, prosecutors presented only 17 minutes and 31 seconds during Simpson's trial, according to court documents.

"I have to say that I felt like these charges were completely trumped up, that they were just trying to cover up what had been a very long and expensive investigation and they just couldn't leave without some sort of charges," Simpson's attorney, Kristina Sitton, said.

Sitton described Simpson as so devout that he would not even shake her hand and would sometimes interrupt their legal meetings so he could pray. She said she had no indication that he was capable of violence and assumed he just "snapped."

Less was known about Soofi, who appeared to have never been prosecuted in federal court, according to a search of court records.

Sharon Soofi, his mother, who now lives in a small town southwest of Houston, told The Dallas Morning News that she had no idea that he would turn to violence.

She said her son was "raised in a normal American fashion" and "was very politically involved with the Middle East. Just aware of what's going on."

"I don't know if something snapped," she said.

She said the last time she had communicated with her son was last month, sending a text to wish her grandson a happy birthday.

"He put his son above everything, I thought," she told the newspaper. "The hard thing is to comprehend is why he would do this and leave an eight-year-old son behind."

A message left on Sharon Soofi's voicemail by The Associated Press was not returned Monday.

On Monday, federal agents spent hours at a Phoenix apartment complex where the men apparently lived. Bob Kieckhaver, one of a number of residents who were evacuated for about nine hours from units near the men's apartment, said one of them had a beard and wore an Islamic version of a prayer cap. He was quiet but the second man was more open and would greet others at the mailboxes. Both men were seen feeding stray cats, he said.

Simpson was quiet, never angry and a regular on the basketball court playing with young members of the mosque, said Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix where Simpson worshipped for years. He asked questions about prayer and marriage, Shami said. And he was rattled by the FBI investigation into him years earlier. Shami said most people at the mosque knew Deng was an informant because he showed such little interest in learning about Islam.

"I've never seen him angry," Shami said of Simpson. "That's the honest truth. He was always having a grin."

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