Attorney Gen. Bill Barr and the FBI’s second-in-command are out with the findings of the investigation into last month’s shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Station, which left three U.S. servicemen dead.
For the attorney general, one thing is cut and dried:
“This was an act of terrorism; the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology,” said Barr, who adds that the evidence is clear that Saudi Royal Air Force Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani acted alone when he entered a classroom aboard the base and opened fire, along with the three fatalities, eight others were wounded. Alshamrani was killed by Escambia County deputies.
“We learned that the shooter posted a message on Sept. 11 , stating ‘the countdown has begun.’ During the Thanksgiving weekend he then visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City,” said Barr. “He also posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages on social media, including two hours before the attack.”
Barr’s comments covered the month-long investigation into the attack by Alshamrani, who was in the United States taking part in a military fighter training program. Early accounts had him arriving at the site with other Saudi cadets, who took video of the shooting. But Barr says those reports were inaccurate; that the shooter arrived by himself.
“The other Saudi cadets happened to be in the area and after the attack began, they took some videos of the resulting commotion around the building,” said the Attorney General. “They fully cooperated in the investigation, as did all other Saudi cadets who were interviewed by the FBI at the base, and at other bases around the country.”
Barr thanked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its “complete and total support” to the investigation, including the order that all Saudi trainees — roughly 850 nationwide — fully cooperate. This was critical, said Barr, in determining whether any others assisted Alshamrani in the attacks. However, the investigation did turn up what are being called “derogatory materials” possessed by 21 members of the Saudi military across the U.S.
“Seventeen had social media containing some jihadi or anti-American content; however, there was no evidence of any affiliation or involvement with any terrorist activity group,” said Barr.
Fifteen of them had some form of contact with child pornography, but not enough to trigger federal charges.
“However, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia determined that this material demonstrated conduct unbecoming an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force and in the Royal Navy,” Barr said. “And the 21 cadets will be returning to Saudi Arabia.”
Alshamrani had two Apple iPhones, and the FBI sought court authorization to search them. Barr said the FBI asked Apple for help unlocking the phones, but Apple has not given any assistance.
“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence, once it is obtained by a court order based on probable cause,” said Barr. “We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can prevent future attacks.”
In a statement, Apple told the Washington Post that it had assisted an FBI investigation by providing relevant data in its cloud storage.
“As you can imagine, this has been a large and incredibly complex investigation, with dozens of investigative entities being involved,” said Deputy FBI Director Dave Bowdich.
“Social media attributed to the shooter suggest that he harbored anti-U.S. military and anti-Israel sentiment,” Bowdich said. “And that he thought violence was necessary to defend Muslim countries.”
The shooting lasted about 15 minutes, according to the investigation, with first responders on-scene within about eight. Bowdich said during the attack, Alshamrani fired shots at photos of President Trump and former presidents.
Barr called the shooting "an act of terrorism" and said the gunman, a Saudi national, had been "motivated by jihadist ideology." https://t.co/rQawDldWta
— NPR (@NPR) January 13, 2020
“At the crime scene, we found a semi-automatic handgun with an extended magazine; several ammunition magazines, and approximately 180 rounds of ammunition,” said Bowdich. “The ATF identified the shooter’s weapon as having been lawfully purchased in July of 2019 in the state of Florida.”
Attorney General Bill Barr says the shooting is expected to lead to the closer vetting of allied military personnel training in the United States.
“I wouldn’t suggest or speculate that improved vetting would necessarily have prevented this particular event,” Barr said. “But I do think that it’s clear — and I think the Department of Defense agrees — that we have to improve our vetting procedures. And they are in the process of doing that.”
The eight people wounded in the attack — including Escambia County sheriff's deputies who killed Alshamrani in a shootout — have since been released from Baptist Hospital and continue their recoveries.