PHOENIX (AP) — Surveillance video taken on the day that two Phoenix men left for suburban Dallas to attack a 2015 Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest shows them in religious clothing, one of the men with a handgun on his hip and both carrying unspecified objects out of their apartment, an FBI agent has testified.
The footage showing Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi outside their Phoenix apartment before the attack in Garland was the focus of a court hearing Tuesday. The FBI didn’t turn over the footage until three years after a friend of Simpson and Soofi was convicted for providing the guns used in the attack.
Attorneys for Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, who is serving a 30-year prison sentence for providing the guns and other convictions, argue the footage would have been beneficial to their client’s defense. They are asking a judge to either grant him a new trial or throw out his convictions and bar prosecutors from refiling the charges.
The video wasn’t played in court, but FBI agent Amy Fryberger described its contents.
As part of an earlier investigation of Simpson, Fryberger requested that a camera be installed three weeks before the Texas attack because Simpson had been in contact with a person who was overseas fighting for a terrorist organization.
The camera was installed the day that Simpson and Soofi left for the anti-Islam event. The lead FBI agent in the Kareem investigation didn’t learn of the video until early 2019, prosecutors said.
Simpson and Soofi were armed with semi-automatic weapons, body armor and had a copy of the Islamic State flag when they arrived at the event. They were killed in a shootout with local police officers assigned to guard the event. A security guard was shot in the leg.
Kareem, who also was convicted of conspiring with Simpson and Soofi to provide support to the Islamic State terror group, wasn’t in Texas during the attack.
Authorities said Kareem had trained Simpson and Soofi on how to use the guns and watched jihadist videos with them. Kareem testified he didn’t know his friends were going to attack the contest.
His attorneys said the camera didn’t capture any footage of Kareem, who was accused of being the trainer and providing financing for the attack. They said the video would have raised doubts at trial because it would be expected that a person serving as a trainer and motivator for such an attack would have been at the apartment to work out last-minute details.
Prosecutors say the evidence will show FBI agents inadvertently overlooked the surveillance footage as they moved forward with a broad and fast-moving investigation. They said agents and prosecutors didn’t have a motive to conceal the recording.
On the night of the Texas attack, Fryberger said she spent hours reviewing the footage but didn’t find anything of evidentiary significance.
She looked at the footage in hopes of finding that Simpson was still in Arizona, not Texas. “We didn’t have information from the scene (in Texas), so we were trying to determine if our guys were in town or not,” Fryberger said.
Kareem’s attorneys faulted the FBI for the lack of disclosure.
The existence of a pole camera was discovered in November 2018 as prosecutors reviewed records in the Kareem case during post-trial litigation. Prosecutors then asked an agent to track down information about the camera.
Even though the footage was disclosed years after Kareem’s trial, prosecutors said the camera didn’t offer a view of both entrances leading to the apartment, meaning Simpson and Soofi could have come and go without being seen by the camera.
Fryberger said the video wasn’t mentioned in any of the meetings with squads investigating Simpson and Soofi. “They didn’t reveal anything of major significance,” Fryberger said.
When questioning another FBI agent, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton said she found it odd that the surveillance footage wasn’t mentioned during the meetings.
The camera outside the apartment wasn’t the first surprising disclosure made by federal authorities since Kareem was convicted in March 2016.
In the months after his trial, authorities revealed for the first time that an undercover FBI agent had exchanged social media messages with Simpson days before the attack and was sitting in a vehicle outside the Garland convention center when the attack began.
As the agent drove around Simpson and Soofi’s car, which had stopped abruptly, the attackers got out and opened fire with military-style rifles. The agent drove away and was stopped by police. Prosecutors said the information about the undercover officer was classified at the time of the trial.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.