Five years before he was shot to death in the failed terrorist attack in Garland, Texas, Nadir Soofi walked into a suburban Phoenix gun shop to buy a 9-millimeter pistol.
At the time, Lone Wolf Trading Co. was known among gun smugglers for selling illegal firearms. And with Soofi's history of misdemeanor drug and assault charges, there was a chance his purchase might raise red flags in the federal screening process.
Inside the store, he fudged some facts on the form required of would-be gun buyers.
What Soofi could not have known was that Lone Wolf was at the center of a federal sting operation known as Fast and Furious, targeting Mexican drug lords and traffickers. The idea of the secret program was to allow Lone Wolf to sell illegal weapons to criminals and straw purchasers, and track the guns back to large smuggling networks and drug cartels.
Instead, federal agents lost track of the weapons and the operation became a fiasco, particularly after several of the missing guns were linked to shootings in Mexico and the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona.
Soofi's attempt to buy a gun caught the attention of authorities, who slapped a seven-day hold on the transaction, according to his Feb. 24, 2010, firearms transaction record, which was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, the hold was lifted after 24 hours, and Soofi got the 9-millimeter.
As the owner of a small pizzeria, the Dallas-born Soofi, son of a Pakistani American engineer and American nurse, would not have been the primary focus of federal authorities, who back then were looking for smugglers and drug lords.
He is now.
In May, Soofi and his roommate, Elton Simpson, burst upon the site of a Garland cartoon convention that was offering a prize for the best depiction of the prophet Muhammad, something offensive to many Muslims. Dressed in body armor and armed with three pistols, three rifles and 1,500 rounds of ammunition, the pair wounded a security officer before they were killed by local police.
A day after the attack, the Department of Justice sent an "urgent firearms disposition request" to Lone Wolf, seeking more information about Soofi and the pistol he bought in 2010, according to a June 1 letter from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, to U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch.
Though the request did not specify whether the gun was used in the Garland attack, Justice Department officials said the information was needed "to assist in a criminal investigation," according to Johnson's letter, also reviewed by The Times.
The FBI so far has refused to release any details, including serial numbers, about the weapons used in Garland by Soofi and Simpson. Senate investigators are now pressing law enforcement agencies for answers, raising the chilling possibility that a gun sold during the botched Fast and Furious operation ended up being used in a terrorist attack against Americans.
Among other things, Johnson is demanding to know whether federal authorities have recovered the gun Soofi bought in 2010, where it was recovered and whether it had been discharged, according to the letter. He also demanded an explanation about why the initial seven-day hold was placed on the 2010 pistol purchase and why it was lifted after 24 hours.
Asked recently for an update on the Garland shooting, FBI Director James B. Comey earlier this month declined to comment. "We're still sorting that out," he said.
Officials at the Justice Department and the FBI declined to answer questions about whether the 9-millimeter pistol was one of the guns used in the Garland attack or seized at Soofi's apartment.
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It remains unclear whether Soofi's 2010 visit to Lone Wolf is a bizarre coincidence or a missed opportunity for federal agents to put Soofi on their radar years before his contacts with Islamic extremists brought him to their attention.
Though Islamic State militants have claimed to have helped organize the Garland attack, U.S. officials are still investigating whether Soofi and Simpson received direct support from the group or were merely inspired by its calls for violence against the West.
Comey suggested that the attack fits the pattern of foreign terrorist groups indoctrinating American citizens through the Internet. He referred to it as the "crowdsourcing of terrorism."
In a handwritten letter apparently mailed hours before the attack, Soofi said he was inspired by the writings of Islamic cleric Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
"I love you," Soofi wrote to his mother, Sharon Soofi, "and hope to see you in eternity." In a telephone interview, Sharon Soofi described the letter and said her son had been shot twice in the head and once in the chest, according to autopsy findings she received.
At the time of the 2010 gun purchase, Soofi ran a Phoenix pizza parlor. His mother said that was about the same time he met Simpson, who worked for Soofi at the restaurant. They later shared an apartment, a short drive from the Lone Wolf store.
Reached by telephone, Andre Howard, owner of Lone Wolf, denied that his store sold the gun to Soofi. "Not here," Howard said before hanging up.
Sharon Soofi said her son had told her he wanted the pistol for protection because his restaurant was in a "rough area." She said he also acquired an AK-47 assault rifle at the end of last year or early this year, when authorities believe he and Simpson were plotting an attack on the Super Bowl in Arizona.
"I tried to convince him that, what in the world do you need an AK-47 for?" she said in a telephone interview. Soofi told her they practiced target shooting in the desert. Her younger son, Ali Soofi, was living with his brother and Simpson at the time, she said, but left after becoming frightened by the weapons, ammunition and militant Islamist literature.
She blamed Simpson for radicalizing her son, who she said had no history of religious extremism. A month before Soofi bought the pistol, Simpson was indicted on charges of lying to the FBI about his plans to travel to Somalia and engage in "violent jihad," according to federal court documents.
Simpson was jailed until March 2011 and convicted of making false statements. But the judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove the false statements were connected to international terrorism. Simpson was released and placed on probation.
After the Garland attack, the FBI arrested a third man, Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, and charged him with planning the Garland attack. At a detention hearing on June 16, prosecutors and an FBI agent provided details about the plot, but avoided discussing the history of the firearms.
Sharon Soofi said she found her son's letter in her post office box. It was dated the Saturday before the attack, and postmarked in Dallas on Monday, the day after the assault, suggesting he dropped it in the mailbox before he and Simpson arrived in Garland. "In the name of Allah," the letter began, "I am sorry for the grief I have caused."
He referred to "those Muslims who are being killed, slandered, imprisoned, etc. for their religion," and concluded, "I truly love you, Mom, but this life is nothing but shade under the tree and a journey. The reality is the eternal existence in the hereafter."email@example.com