GARLAND, Texas — Two gunmen were killed Sunday after opening fire on a security officer outside a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of Prophet Muhammad in Texas and a bomb squad was called in to search their vehicle as a precaution, authorities said.
The men drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in the Dallas suburb of Garland as the contest was scheduled to end and shot at a security officer, the City of Garland said in a statement. Garland police officers returned fire, killing the men.
“Because of the situation of what was going on today and the history of what we’ve been told has happened at other events like this, we are considering their car [is] possibly containing a bomb,” Officer Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland Police Department, said at a news conference.
Police were not aware of any ongoing threat and had not received any credible threats before the event, Harn said.
Harn said it was not clear whether the shooting was connected to the event inside, a contest hosted by the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative that would award $10,000 for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Such drawings are deemed insulting to many followers of Islam and have sparked violence around the world. According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad — even a respectful one — is considered blasphemous.
The Curtis Culwell Center, a school-district owned public events space, was evacuated earlier Sunday, as were some surrounding businesses. Police blocked off a large area around the center Sunday night. There was a heavy police presence, and police helicopters circled overhead as bomb squads worked on the car.
Authorities had not removed the bodies of the gunmen, who had not yet been identified, Harn said. The bodies are too close to the car to be removed, but that will happen once the scene is clear, he said.
The security officer who was shot worked for the Garland Independent School District, Harn said. He was treated at a local hospital for injuries and had been released Sunday night.
“Texas officials are actively investigating to determine the cause and scope of the senseless attack,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement issued late Sunday.
The event featured speeches by Pamela Geller, president of the AFDI, and Geert Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker known for his outspoken criticism of Islam. Wilders received several standing ovations as he quoted former President Ronald Reagan and Texas founding father Sam Houston.
“Muhammad fought and terrorized people with the swords. Today, here in Garland, we fight Muhammad and his followers with the pen. And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword,” Wilders said during his speech.
Geller said during the event that her group had spent thousands of dollars on private security guards, several of whom could be seen standing on stage. Wilders left immediately after his speech, and Geller was not seen by an Associated Press reporter inside the hall after the shooting.
After the shooting, about 75 attendees were escorted by authorities to another room in the conference center. A woman held up an American flag, and the crowd sang “God Bless America.”
They were then taken to a separate location, where they were held for about two hours until they were questioned briefly by FBI agents who took brief written statements from most people. Police officers drove some attendees to their homes and hotels, and arranged hotel rooms for others whose cars remained under lockdown.
The FBI is providing investigative assistance and bomb technician assistance, Dallas FBI spokeswoman Katherine Chaumont said.
Johnny Roby of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was attending the conference. He told the AP he was outside the building when he heard around about 20 shots that appeared to be coming from the direction of a passing car.
Roby said he then heard two single shots. He said he heard officers yell that they had the car before he was sent inside the building.
Geller told the AP before Sunday’s event that she planned the contest to make a stand for free speech in response to outcries and violence over drawings of Muhammad. Though it remained unclear several hours after the shooting whether it was related to event, she said Sunday night that the shooting showed how “needed our event really was.”
In January, 12 people were killed by gunmen in an attack against the Paris office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had lampooned Islam and other religions and used depictions of Muhammad. Another deadly shooting occurred the following month at a free speech event in Copenhagen featuring an artist who had caricatured the prophet.
Geller’s group is known for mounting a campaign against the building of an Islamic center blocks from the World Trade Center site and for buying advertising space in cities across the U.S. criticizing Islam.
When a Chicago-based nonprofit held a January fundraiser in Garland designed to help Muslims combat negative depictions of their faith, Geller spearheaded about 1,000 picketers at the event.
One chanted: “Go back to your own countries! We don’t want you here!”
Others held signs with messages such as, “Insult those who behead others,” an apparent reference to recent beheadings by the militant group Islamic State.
NOMAAN MERCHANT AND JAMIE STENGLE, Associated Press