Feds Find al-Qaeda Ties in Pensacola Shooting After Breaking Encryption on Gunman’s Phones

May 18, 2020 Updated: May 18, 2020

Federal authorities said the Saudi military trainee who killed three people and wounded others at a U.S. naval base in a terror attack last year was in touch with a suspected al-Qaeda operative.

The association between the shooter and the terrorist group was uncovered from the shooter’s locked iPhones. The FBI made the discovery after the bureau successfully broke through the encryption of the shooter’s two phones over four months after the attack, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced at a press conference on Monday.

The officials’ update comes about five months after the Dec. 6, 2019, shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, which killed three U.S. sailors and wounded eight other Americans.

The gunman, Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, 21, opened fire at the naval base before he was fatally shot by police. Alshamrani was a flight student at Pensacola, where members of foreign militaries are routinely trained by the United States.

In January, Barr described the attack as an act of terrorism and had publicly pressured Apple to help the FBI access the contents of the two locked iPhones belonging to Alshamrani.

Following the shooting, investigators sought and received court orders to allow them to search the contents of Alshamrani’s iPhones. They approached Apple for assistance in early January when they were unable to break through the company’s security features and had “exhausted all readily available options.”

iPhones - pensacola shooter
Images of two Apple iPhones that the Pensacola naval base shooter, Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, tried to destroy are on display at a press conference at the Justice Department in Washington on Jan. 13, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

At the press conference on Monday, Barr said Apple declined to cooperate despite the calls for assistance by the Justice Department and President Donald Trump.

“The trove of information found on these phones has proven to be invaluable to this ongoing investigation and critical to the security of the American people. However, if not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered,” Barr said in a statement.

The phones contained previously unknown information that definitively established Alshamrani’s “significant ties” to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Authorities said the information showed that Alshamrani was radicalized before arriving in the United States for training in 2015 and had prepared for terror activities years ago.

While in connection with AQAP operatives, who he communicated with using end-to-end encrypted applications, Alshamrani joined the Royal Saudi Air Force in order to carry out a “special operation,” authorities said. A month before the Dec. 6, 2019, shooting, Alshamrani was communicating with overseas AQAP associates about plans and tactics and was communicating with the terrorist group up until the night before the shooting.

“He was meticulous in his planning. He made pocket-cam videos as he cased his classroom building. He wrote a final will, purporting to explain himself, and saved it in his phone—the exact same will that AQAP released two months later when they initially claimed responsibility,” Wray said during the press conference. “He wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics—he was helping the organization make the most it could out of his murders.”

Epoch Times Photo
Side-by-side comparison of Pensacola shooter Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani’s notes (left side) with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s original claim of responsibility. (FBI)

Wray said the information was important because it has allowed the bureau to use it in recent counterterrorism operations to protect the American people.

“In just the short time since we finally accessed that evidence, we and our partners have already put it to good use,” Wray said. “Among other steps we’ve taken, just a moment ago you heard the attorney general describe the recent counterterrorism operation targeting Abdullah al-Maliki, one of the overseas AQAP operatives that Alshamrani associated with while here in the U.S.”

Wray said the bureau’s investigation is still ongoing.

“We now have a picture of him we didn’t have before we obtained this evidence—before we could confirm that his connection to AQAP was real, before we could track his long and methodical path to violence—a picture we would never had obtained without accessing his devices,” he said.

In January, Barr and senior law enforcement officials said investigators had found evidence that Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology, including a social media message posted on Sept. 11 2019, stating, “The countdown has begun,” and other anti-American, anti-Israel, and jihadi messages on social media, as recent as two hours before his attack.

During the press conference, the attorney general criticized Apple for their refusal to assist investigators in breaking the encryption on Alshamrani’s phone.

“I must … express my great disappointment that it took over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to obtain evidence that should be easily and quickly accessible with a court order,” Barr said.

“In cases like this, where the user is a terrorist, or in other cases, where the user is a violent criminal, human trafficker, or child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and national security and is, in my judgment, unacceptable,” he added.

The Epoch Times reached out to Apple for a comment.

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