FBI finds al-Qaeda link to Pensacola naval base shooting suspect: AG Barr

The suspect in last December's shooting was a Saudi national.

Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced Monday that Pensacola Naval Air Station shooting suspect Mohammed Alshamrani had communicated directly with al-Qaeda operatives in an attack that they described as "a brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation," based on newly revealed evidence obtained from the shooter's iPhones.

Alshamrani made efforts to destroy his phones, even shooting a bullet through one of them, Barr said.

"The phones contained information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes Alshamrani's significant ties to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States. We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani's associations and activities in the years, months and days leading up to his attack," he said.

FBI technicians found a solution to unlock the phones, after months of efforts to bypass Apple’s security measures. The Justice Department requested Apple’s assistance in opening the phones, but both Barr and Wray criticized the company for what they described as a total lack of cooperation in the investigation.

“We needed some luck here,” Barr said during a virtual press conference.

From the new evidence, investigators now believe Alshamrani had been preparing for years after being radicalized in 2015 and joined the Royal Saudi Air Force in order to carry out a “special operation.” Alshamrani continued to communicate with AQAP right up until the attack, they said.

Alshamrani was killed by law enforcement during the attack.

Barr said that, because of the work of the FBI, a counterterrorism strike against one of the shooters overseas associates, Abdullah Almalki, was recently conducted in Yemen.

"We will not hesitate to act against those who harm, Americans," he said.

Barr said that President Donald Trump asked Apple for help, but to no avail.

Wray went into more detail about the shooter's alleged radicalization.

"The new evidence shows that Alshamrani had radicalized not after training here in the United States, but at least as far back as 2015. And then he had been connecting and associating with a number of dangerous AQAP operatives ever since," Wray said.

Wray also said that the technique they used is not a fix for the "broader Apple problem."

The FBI director said they "effectively received no help from Apple."

The Defense Department said in a statement said that it is working with the FBI "as they uncover more information pertaining to the terrorist, his links with al-Qa’ida, and the methods he used to conceal this from us. At the same time, we continue to review our procedures to identify any additional vetting and security measures we can adopt."

The department said that the information "underscores the threats to our nation posed by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the Pentagon is working to secure military members around the country.

“Based on the FBI findings, and in addition to already executed protective measures, the Department will take further prudent and effective measures to safeguard our people,” he said.

Wray said that FBI technology experts used up valuable time to access the new information from the suspect's iPhones even though they had court approval, and that that had prevented them, in some instances, from working on other cases.

"We should also be thinking about the cost of all that work, public servants, already swamped with important things to do to protect the American people, toiling through a pandemic and with all the risk and hardship that entails had to spend all that time, just to access evidence that we had court authorized search warrants four months ago," he said.

Wray said that the time it took to unlock the phones, "seriously hampered this investigation, finally getting our hands on the evidence extra money tried to keep from us, is great, but we really needed it months ago back in December, when the court issued its warrants."

In a statement Monday afternoon, Apple said that they "responded to the FBI's first requests for information just hours after the attack on December 6, 2019 and continued to support law enforcement during their investigation."

"We provided every piece of information available to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts, and we lent continuous and ongoing technical and investigative support to FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York over the months since," the company continues.

Apple says that are working with FBI investigators.

"The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security," the company says. "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. 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."

PHOTO: Mohammed Alshamrani in a photo released by the FBI.
Mohammed Alshamrani in a photo released by the FBI.

The shooting at the naval base in Pensacola, Florida, in December left three service members dead, in addition to the suspect, and eight others were wounde.

In a news conference in January, the attorney general said an investigation of the shooter has determined he was "motivated by jihadist ideology," and called the attack an "act of terrorism."

The Justice Department has said that twelve of the 21 Saudi students identified were trainees at the Pensacola Naval Air Station while the other nine were receiving their training in military facilities across the U.S.

A review of the trainees computers and personal devices found that several of the students had possessed "derogatory material.”

"Seventeen had social media containing some jihadi or anti-American content," Barr said. "However, there was no evidence of any affiliation or involvement with any terrorist activity or group. 15 individuals (including some of the 17 just mentioned) had had some kind of contact with child pornography."

PHOTO:The Pensacola Naval Air Station main gate following a shooting on Dec. 06, 2019, in Pensacola, Fla.
The Pensacola Naval Air Station main gate following a shooting on Dec. 06, 2019, in Pensacola, Fla.
Josh Brasted/Getty Images

The trainees were not prosecuted by the United States, but the Saudi armed forces had determined the cases "demonstrated conduct unbecoming an officer," and the students were subsequently dis-enrolled from service, Barr said.

On Sept. 11, the shooter posted a message on social media the “countdown has begun." Investigators also learned that he visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City over Thanksgiving weekend, and posted anti-American messages as recently as two hours before carrying out the attack at the base.

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said at the time, the FBI interviewed “more than 500 people.” The shooting itself lasted 15 minutes, Bowdich said, he was engaged by law enforcement about eight minutes in. He was killed by responding law enforcement and found to have possessed 180 rounds of ammunition.

The FBI also determined that the shooter had studied al-Qaeda’s U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose propaganda campaign may have inspired more radicals than anyone outside of Osama Bin Laden before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

The shooting also exposed a rift between U.S. law enforcement and Apple.

At the time, Barr and Bowdich criticized Apple for its lack of cooperation, saying that the company has “has not given us any substantive assistance.”

Apple, in a statement, rebutted the characterization.

"The characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing."

"Within hours of the FBI’s first request on December 6th, we produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation. From December 7th through the 14th, we received six additional legal requests and in response provided information including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts," the company said.