Sunday’s attack on a Muhammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, wasn’t successful—only the two gunmen were killed—but it was still far more worrisome than most of the terrorist “plots” uncovered in the U.S. in recent years. Most of these have been borderline cases of entrapment, with federal agents nudging along the plans of wannabe jihadists until they have enough evidence for an arrest. In the Texas attack, though, two men, including one with previously suspected links to terrorism, actually carried out an attack they appear to have planned themselves.
Armed with assault rifles and body armor, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi were prevented from causing a large number of casualties mainly because they had chosen a particularly well-guarded target: Authorities were prepared for trouble at the deliberately provocative event, and there was a SWAT team nearby.
Today ISIS took responsibility for the attack. But we shouldn’t take this claim—the group’s first claim of an action in the United States—at face value. For one thing, it’s not unusual for terrorist groups to claim responsibility after the fact for attacks they had no advance knowledge of. For another, the notion of responsibility is a bit murky in the age of Internet-inspired terror.
The statement on ISIS’s radio network referred to the two gunmen as “soldiers of the caliphate,” and in an earlier message, one of the men had pledged his allegiance to the “leader of the faithful,” likely a reference to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But it’s still unclear if the two gunmen had any communication with any fighters inside Syria or Iraq, much less whether ISIS played a role in organizing the attack. The more likely scenario is that, like the attacks on a kosher supermarket in Paris in January and on a synagogue and a free-speech forum in Copenhagen in February, this was the work of lone wolves acting, in their own minds, on the group’s behalf.
The Texas attack does seem to be more evidence that ISIS is replacing al-Qaida and al-Shabaab as the affiliation of choice for Western jihadists. One of the gunmen, Emmet Simpson of Phoenix, had previously popped on authorities’ radar in 2010 when he told a police informant about plans to travel to Somalia to fight nonbelievers. While authorities collected over 1,500 hours of recorded conversations with Simpson, he wound up being convicted only of the relatively minor offense of lying to a federal agent and sentenced to three years of probation. In the meantime, he may have switched his allegiance to ISIS.
It would be misleading to suggest that the Texas attack means ISIS is now able to orchestrate attacks against the United States. But if this was indeed an ISIS-inspired attack that actually got to the point of execution, it’s still a troubling milestone.