One of the shooting suspects at Sunday's "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest" event in Garland, Texas said he planned to travel to Somalia to wage violent jihad, according to federal court documents [pdf below]. Elton Simpson had been under FBI surveillance since 2006, and in 2010 he was placed on three years' probation for lying to federal investigators about his intention to go to East Africa.
Investigators continue to search the Glendale, Arizona apartment complex where Simpson, 30, and his accomplice, 34-year-old Nadir Soofi, lived. But according to Simpson's former public defender, the FBI already has about 1,500 hours of secretly taped conversations involving Simpson.
"Akee, it's time to go to Somalia, brother," Simpson said to a man named Dabla Deng in May of 2009.
"Insha'Allah," replied Deng, a Sudanese immigrant who worked at a Phoenix-area PetSmart.
"Eh, we know plenty of brothers from Somalia, akee," Simpson said. "It's time. I'm telling you, man. We gonna make it to the battlefield, akee, it's time to roll."
He told Deng that he should sell his car for cash.
"That's a plane ticket right there," Simpson said. "Bye-bye America."
Simpson did not know that the discussion, detailed in court documents related to his 2010 trial, was being recorded by Deng. Like Simpson, Deng attended services at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix (ICCP). But Deng had been working as a confidential informant for the FBI since they asked him to pose as a recent convert to Islam and befriend Simpson in 2006.
In June 2009, Simpson said he sent a link to another man about the "permissibility of doing the martyrdom operations" and "how they gonna use the car with bombs on it." That November, he said madrassas are "just a front" for jihadists. And when he was asked what he would tell authorities if they started questioning him about his plans, Simpson knew what his answer would be.
"'I'm just trying, trying to travel, trying to see the world,'" he told Deng and another man. Simpson would never make it to Somalia.
Usama Shami, the president of ICCP, first met Simpson about 10 years ago. He described him to VICE News as a "nice, friendly guy" who was extremely devout. Shami also said that Deng immediately raised eyebrows when he arrived at ICCP.
"When this guy first showed up at the mosque, everybody suspected that he was an informant," Shami said. "He was not interested in learning anything, he was more interested in trying to talk about politics, weird ideas."
On January 7, 2010, three FBI agents showed up at Simpson's home in Avondale, Arizona. According to court documents, the agents asked Simpson if he planned to travel outside the United States. He said that he was headed to South Africa to study at a madrassa for the next five years. The agents then asked Simpson if he had ever discussed traveling to Somalia. Simpson asked why they wanted to know, and the agents asked their question again. Simpson lied, and a week later he was arrested and his passport was confiscated. The FBI said they picked him up a day before he was planning to leave for Africa.
At trial, the government played excerpts from the recordings made by Deng, in which Simpson clearly talked about waging jihad in Somalia. On September 1, 2011, he was convicted on one count of making a false statement to a federal agent. Simpson was given three years' probation, and he paid a $600 fine.
Deng, for his part, was paid more than $130,000 by the FBI, according to Kristina Sitton, the federal public defender who represented Simpson.
Messages left for Deng by VICE News weren't returned. An employee at a Phoenix-area PetSmart said he no longer works there.
After his conviction, Simpson got his passport back. But according to Sitton, the US government didn't want him traveling.
"Mr. Simpson called me one day and said, 'Hey, I'm trying to go to my grandmother's funeral and they won't let me on the plane — am I on a no-fly list or something?'" Sitton told VICE News. "Now, my knowledge about the no-fly list is that they will never confirm or deny that someone is on it, but based on the fact that he wasn't allowed to fly, even domestically, I have to assume he was on it."
Soofi, Simpson's accomplice, didn't have a criminal record, though pay-per-view distributor Joe Hand Promotions Incorporated sued him for $170,000 in 2012, accusing him of pirating a fight at Cleopatra Pizza Bistro, the business Soofi owned. Soofi began attending services at ICCP sometime around 2010, but Shami said work often kept him away.
"Nadir was very quiet, he had a little son that sometimes came to the mosque with him," Shami told VICE News. "But he bought a business, and we hardly saw him after that. He was too busy with his own thing."
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @justinrohrlich