Garland Shooting: What Is the American Freedom Defense Initiative?

2015-05-04T190937Z_1057156228_TM3EB5415MS01_RTRMADP_3_USA-SHOOTING-TEXAS
An aerial view on Monday shows the car that was used the previous night by two gunmen in Garland, Texas. Rex Curry/Reuters

The host of the art exhibition in Garland, Texas, where a police officer shot and killed two gunmen who had opened fire on authorities Sunday evening, offered a $10,000 prize for the best drawing of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Any depiction of the prophet is considered forbidden under Islam. It wasn't immediately clear whether the gunmen targeted the sold-out, inaugural Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest because it promoted drawings of the prophet. But the shooting came just four months after gunmen killed 12 people at the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in revenge for its earlier cartoons depicting Muhammad.

The FBI and police continued their investigation into the incident on Monday, hours after two men drove to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland and shot at a security officer with assault rifles near the conclusion of the event. A Garland police officer returned the gunfire and killed the two men next to their vehicle.

Pamela Geller, executive director and co-founder of the New York–based American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), organized the two-hour event to promote freedom of speech. It is a self-proclaimed human rights organization also dedicated to freedom of conscience and individual rights. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, lists it as a hate group. The law center calls Geller the "anti-Muslim movement's most visible and influential figurehead."

AFDI encompasses Stop Islamization of America, which Geller also leads and which rallied against the building of a mosque in 2010 near New York City's Ground Zero, the site of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. AFDI made news headlines again in 2012 when it launched a controversial advertisement campaign in the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The exhibition had little to do with the city, which has a population of about 230,000 people. Most of the 200 people inside the building at the time of the shooting were visitors to the city, according to police. The center is owned by the Garland Independent School District.

Security concerns surrounding the event and speaker began several months ago. Geert Wilders, a polarizing and outspoken Dutch politician and anti-Islamic campaigner who is on an Al-Qaeda hit list, was among the speakers. An extra $10,000 was spent for additional security onsite during the contest, including a SWAT team and bomb squad.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, one of America's oldest Muslim communities, said in a statement Monday that its members disagree with the content of the hate rally in Garland, but said they do not tolerate or accept violence as a response.

"Violence is never an acceptable response to hate speech, no matter how inflammatory and uncivilized that speech is," said Dr. Nasim Rehmatullah, an orthopedic surgeon and the national vice president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. "While we do not yet know what motivated these shooters, we urge calm and defer to local, state and federal authorities to peaceably and justly resolve this."