GARLAND, Texas (CNN – May 4, 2015) — Two men opened fire outside an event holding a cartoon contest of the Prophet Mohammed before they were shot dead by police in suburban Dallas on Sunday night.
The FBI says it is searching the Phoenix apartment of the two gunmen in Sunday night’s shooting. John Iannarelli, assistant special agent in charge of the agency’s Phoenix office, said agents have not found anyone else at the apartment and are collecting evidence.
While details about the gunmen, including their religion or their motive, weren’t immediately known, the shooting — as was the case in France in January and Denmark in February — targeted a facility where depictions of the revered Muslim prophet was being caricatured.
And it quickly reignited the debate on free speech versus provocation.
The keynote speaker at the event in Garland was right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who was placed on an al Qaeda hit list. And it was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative — considered an anti-Muslim group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
“The Islamic jihadis are determined to suppress our freedom of speech violently.” Pam Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, told CNN. “They struck in Paris and Copenhagen recently, and now in Texas.”
Exchange lasted seconds
The men drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, got out of their car and began shooting just as the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” inside was ending around 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET).
An unarmed security guard, Bruce Joiner, was shot in the ankle. He was later treated at a hospital and released.
Garland police, who were helping with security, fired back, killing both gunmen. The exchange lasted about 15 seconds, police said.
“The first suspect was shot immediately,” Garland Mayor Douglas Athas told CNN. “The second suspect was wounded and reached for his backpack. He was shot again.”
The gunmen’s identities weren’t immediately released.
“We have no other indication that anyone else was involved,” Athas said.
Early Monday morning, FBI and local officials were checking the gunmen’s vehicle for explosives and the area around the center was blocked off.
Surrounding businesses, including a Walmart, were evacuated, as were attendees from the Curtis Culwell Center.
There is no immediate threat to the area, police said; the check for explosives was a precautionary measure.
“It’s a very slow, tedious operation that goes on,” Garland police spokesman Joe Harn said.
Heavy security for event
The American Freedom Defense Initiative said it specifically picked the venue, a school district-owned facility, because it hosted an event denouncing Islamophobia in January.
The Sunday night event invited cartoonists to send in caricatures of Prophet Mohammad. The group said it received more than 350 submissions. The winning entry would get $10,000.
There were about 200 people at the event, police said.
“Most of the people who were there were from out of state,” Athas said.
Security was tight. The school district brought in extra officers, and the group itself hired several more. Security costs, the group said, were upwards of $30,000.
Only those who purchased tickets ahead of time were admitted. They had to go through metal detectors.
“We were prepared for something like this,” Harn, the police spokesman, said.
Shortly after the shooting, a security officer in military fatigues interrupted the gathering to herd the attendees into an auditorium.
“There was an incident outside, a police officer has been shot. Two suspects have been shot. Possibly have explosives on ’em, okay?” he said. “I just need everybody to remain calm, become orderly and we’re going to take you into the auditorium a little further away from the front of this building. All right?”
Someone asked, “Were the suspects Muslim?”
“I have no idea right now,” he responded.
Depiction considered blasphemy
Depictions of Prophet Mohammed are considered blasphemous by many Muslims.
The prohibition against illustrating the Prophet Mohammed began as an attempt to ward off idol worship, which was widespread in Islam’s Arabian birthplace. But in recent years, it has taken a deadly toll.
In January, gunmen attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine that has a controversial history of depicting Mohammad, and killed 12 people.
The next month, a gunman attacked a free speech forum in Copenhagen, Denmark featuring cartoonist Larks Vilks, who infuriated al Qaeda with his depictions of Mohammed.
In the United States, cartoonist Molly Norris is still in hiding, four years after she depicted the likeness of Mohammed on several items and was deemed a “prime target” for execution by Islamic extremists.
Shortly after the Sunday night shooting, a prominent Muslim leader in Dallas tweeted that the incident was “just what we didn’t want.”
“The community stayed away from event,” wrote Imam Zia Sheikh. “Seems like a lone wolf type of attack. Just what we didn’t want.”
‘Freedom of speech is under violent assault’
Wilders, the keynote speaker at the Garland event, is controversial for his anti-Islam views. He was placed on an al Qaeda hit list for his film “Fitna.”
The film, which Wilders released online in March 2008 to international outcry, features disturbing images of terrorist acts superimposed over verses from the Quran in an apparent attempt to paint Islam as a threat to Western society.
In 2011, Wilders was cleared on charges of inciting discrimination and hatred with the movie.
“The day we give away humor and freedom of speech is the day that we cease to exist as a free and independent people,” he told the attendees at the Garland event Sunday night.
Likewise, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is also notorious for its anti-Muslim stance.
Its president, Pamela Geller, is “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” the SPLC says.
“Who designated the SPLC as a legitimate authority? They are a radical leftist group who targets patriots, vets and even GOP presidential candidates,” she told CNN. “They have never named a jihadi group as a hate group.”
A conservative blogger, she first gained national attention with her group, “Stop the Islamicization of America,” and its vocal opposition to an Islamic community center planned near the site of New York’s ground zero, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by Islamist hijackers on September 11, 2001.
She said Sunday night she wasn’t expecting such an attack, but wasn’t surprised that it happened.
“This incident shows how much needed our event really was. The freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation. The question now before us — will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery, and savagery?”
The relevance of the venue
Because of the Sunday night shooting, the Garland Independent School District canceled Advanced Placement testing at the Curtis Culwell Center.
The center is owned by the school district and rented out for sporting events, concerts and other gatherings.
In January, it rented the facility for an event titled “Stand with the Prophet,” which was meant to counter Islamophobia after the Charlie Hebdo attack. It drew several hundred attendees and about 200 protesters, and went off without incident.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative said it intentionally booked the venue because of the January event.
Culwell Center Director John Wildborn told the Dallas Morning News that the venue has yet to turn down an event because of content.
As for Geller, she said she plans on holding similar events.
“I will not abridge my freedoms so as not to offend savages,” she said.
CNN’s Ed Lavandera reported from Garland and Joe Sutton from Atlanta; and Saeed Ahmed reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Kevin Conlon, Kristina Sgueglia, Joe Sutton, Vivian Kuo, Janet DiGiacomo, Chris Lett and Holly Yan contributed to this report.