Saudi Murderer in Florida Air Base Had Close Ties to Al-Qaeda

According to the FBI and the Department of Justice, the Saudi gunman who murdered three U.S. service members during an attack at a Navy air station in Florida last December had “significant ties” to Al-Qaeda, alluding to evidence gathered from iPhones the FBI was able to unlock after repeated attempts over the course of several months.

The gunman, 21-year-old Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, is a Saudi national who was training at Naval Air Station Pensacola. He attacked a classroom on December 6, 2019 and killed three and wounded eight other people before he was shot and killed.

During a press conference on Monday 18. 2020, Attorney General William Barr said the FBI was able to access Alshamrani’s iPhones, which the murderer attempted to destroy during the attack.

“The FBI finally succeeded in unlocking Alshamrani’s phones. The phones contain information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes Alshamrani’s significant ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States,” Barr stated, making reference to the terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen, known as AQAP. The group announced that they were responsible for the attack back in February.

iPhone data is encrypted, and the phones are designed in a way that only the owner can unlock the device if it’s protected with a passcode. Neither Barr nor Wray explained how the FBI was ultimately able to access the phones four months following the attack. Barr said the Justice Department and President Donald Trump asked Apple for help in obtaining access to the devices, but the company “would not help us unlock the phones.”

“There’s a lot we can’t do at this point that we could have done, months ago,” Wray continued. Barr remarked that the effort to access the phones “took over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to obtain evidence that should have been easily and quickly accessible when we obtained court orders.”

In a statement later on May 18, Apple recounted that it gave the FBI information “just hours after the attack,” which included account details, transaction data and iCloud backups. The company claimed it doesn’t keep users’ passcodes and doesn’t have the ability to unlock protected devices, while stressing its opposition to the creation of a so-called “backdoor” that lets law enforcement access encrypted data.

“It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” the Apple statement declared. “There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”

Wray stated that the evidence “shows that the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime AQAP associate.”

Barr said that the information gathered from Alshamrani’s devices supplied intelligence that was crucial in a recent strike on an AQAP leader in Yemen.

Wray declared that the evidence from Alshamrani’s phones did not disclose any imminent threats in the U.S., but said the investigation will continue. “It’s important that Americans not get complacent because the threat is real, it’s still here and we’re determined to thwart it,” Wray stated.

In January, Barr said that the shooting was a terrorist act but that Alshamrani acted alone.

Alshamrani was part of a U.S. program to train members of the Royal Saudi Air Force. After the shooting, the program was suspended. In an earlier Justice Department investigation, 21 Saudi trainees were discovered possessing “derogatory material” which included jihadist or anti-American material on their social media profiles and were sent back to the kingdom.