WASHINGTON - The FBI has uncovered a trove of information linking the Saudi gunman in a terror attack on a U.S. military base last year to al-Qaida and showing he had been planning for years to carry out the attack, senior law enforcement officials announced Monday.
The breakthrough came after FBI investigators examining the December deadly shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola unlocked two smartphones belonging to the 21-year-old gunman, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a virtual press conference.
“The phones contained information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes Alshamrani’s significant ties to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States,” Barr said.
Barr said that investigative leads generated by Alshamrani’s phones led to a recent U.S. counterterrorism operation in Yemen targeting Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s AQAP associates.
“We will not hesitate to act against those who harm Americans,” Barr said without providing further details of the operation.
Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Saudi Royal Air Force, opened fire inside a classroom at Pensacola on Dec. 6, killing three U.S. sailors and severely wounding eight other people. Barr said Alshamrani tried to destroy both his phones, firing a bullet into one before being killed by responding police officers.
In January, Barr called the attack an act of terrorism and asked Apple to help unlock the phones. Apple refused for privacy reasons, leading to a months-long effort by FBI computer experts to break through the phones' encryption.
“Thanks to the great work of the FBI — and no thanks to Apple we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said.
Before unlocking Alshamrani’s phones, investigators had uncovered anti-American and anti-Israeli posts he had created on social media, suggesting he harbored jihadist ideology.
The new information gleaned from Alshamrani’s phones suggests the “attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation, by a longtime AQAP associate,” Wray said. The evidence shows Alshamrani had become radicalized not after he moved to the U.S. for training in 2017 but as far back as 2015, Wray said.
“It shows that Alshamrani described a desire to learn about flying years ago, around the same time he talked about attending the Saudi Air Force Academy in order to carry out what he called a ‘special operation,’” Wray said. “And he then pressed his plans forward, joining the Air Force and bringing his plot here — to America.”
In the lead up to the attack, Alshamrani made pocket cam videos of his classroom and wrote a final will that he saved on his phone. Right up to the night before the attack, according to Wray, Alshamrani continued to communicate with AQAP associates.
Saying the four-month delay in cracking Alshamrani’s phones “seriously hampered” the investigation, Wray said the technique used in unlocking the two devices is “not a fix for our broader Apple problem.”
Barr used the announcement to criticize Apple and other technology companies that advocate “warrant-proof encryption” in the name of privacy rights.
“The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety,” Barr said. “The time has come for a legislative solution.”
The shooting also led the Pentagon to enhance its vetting of foreign military trainees in the United States.
In January, 21 members of the Saudi military training in the United States were sent home after an investigation into the attack.
More than 1 million students from 150 countries have trained at U.S. bases over the past 20 years, according to the Pentagon.