About an hour before two gunmen – believed to be Islamist extremists – pulled up to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, on Sunday and opened fire, Pamela Geller took to the podium to explain why she had decided to hold a contest for the best caricature of the Muslim prophet, Mohammed.
"We are here for freedom," said the contest's organizer, "everything else is smear."
A massive investigation is under way in Texas after an alleged terrorist shooting that left the two gunmen dead and one unarmed guard injured. The two shooters, who lived in the same apartment complex in Phoenix, both had Muslim backgrounds: one an American-born convert, the other also possibly American-born, of Pakistani descent. At least one of them had a history of pro-jihad leanings.
The shooting rocked the city of Garland, a community just outside Dallas with a population of about 250,000. In January, a Muslim group had held an event at the Curtis Culwell Center to "Stand with the Prophet" Mohammed. In her speech to the attendees on Sunday, Ms. Geller said she chose the conference centre for that reason. At the event, which featured Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, the winning cartoonist was to receive a $10,000 (U.S.) prize. About 200 people showed up; on her website, Ms. Geller said the event was sold out.
All indications are that the shooting could have been much more bloody had a traffic cop stationed outside the venue not managed to shoot and kill both suspects within a few seconds of their rampage. According to police, the two shooters, identified as Hamid Soofi, 34, and Elton Simpson, 30, emerged from a black sedan outside the heavily guarded convention centre wearing armoured vests and carrying assault rifles. They then started shooting at a nearby police car. Less than 30 seconds later, the officer had managed to kill both men.
The 30-year-old Mr. Simpson was previously convicted in 2011 of lying to federal agents about his intent to travel to Somalia, allegedly to partake in violent jihad. In a Twitter account believed to be his, Mr. Simpson seemed to foreshadow the attack moments before it happened, writing: "May Allah accept us as Mujahideen."
The shooting once again threatens to strip away any nuance from the often-heated conversation about Islam in the United States. On Monday, Islamic organizations were quick to wholly condemn the shooting – but also to explain that condemnation of extremist violence doesn't automatically entail support for what many of Ms. Geller's critics see as a deliberately provocative event.
The woman behind the Mohammed cartoon contest isn't new to controversy. Well before Ms. Geller became the subject of widespread media attention again this week, she had established her credentials as an opponent of what she sees as increasing Islamic influence on American culture. She was perhaps best-known for spearheading opposition to an Islamic community centre in New York, which she and others helped term the "Ground Zero Mosque."
"It's intentionally provocative, intended to gain … cheap publicity through inflammatory rhetoric and action," Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said about the cartoon contest.
"We weren't going to play along."
Ms. Geller did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Many of her theories – including the allegation that U.S. President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and the love-child of Malcolm X – are patently false. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit legal and civil-right group based in Montgomery, Ala., lists her as a hate-group leader; she runs an organization called Stop Islamization of America, among others.
However, outside of some right-wing media outlets, Ms. Geller rarely managed to garner the same level of attention she did during the "Ground-Zero Mosque" controversy. That was until January of this year, when Saïd and Chérif Kouachi marched into the offices of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and slaughtered 11 people. Self-described al-Qaeda members, the brothers forced an international conversation on the extent to which extremists – particularly Islamist extremists – have focused their efforts on silencing free speech.
It was this avenue Ms. Geller decided to pursue when she announced a contest to draw the prophet Mohammed. Most interpretations of Islam prohibit the visual depiction of the prophet.
"If you come to this country, stand for freedom," Ms. Geller wrote on her blog, Atlas Shrugs (named after the Ayn Rand novel). "Don't try to impose your brutal and extreme ideology on freedom loving peoples. That's why we are holding this contest."