The Saudi Air Force student who opened fire inside a classroom aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, was an operative for al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. That’s the word from the Justice Department and the FBI.
Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani killed three U.S. servicemen and wounded 11 others before he was shot to death by Escambia County deputies on Dec. 6. In a news conference Monday, Attorney Gen. Bill Barr said the key to why was accessing information from the student’s cellphone.
“It was clear at the time that the phones were likely to contain very important information,” said Barr. “Indeed, Alshamrani attempted to destroy both of the phones; even going so far as to disengage from the gunfight long enough to fire a bullet into one of the phones.”
After FBI technicians pulled the data from the shattered device, they showed the gunman’s approach and planning were meticulous, and that he had been on that path since before arriving in the United States – having been radicalized overseas since at least 2015.
“Indeed the information from the phones has already proved invaluable in protecting the American people,” Barr said. “A counter-terrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdul al-Maliki – one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates – was recently conducted in Yemen.”
Apple’s refusal to unlock the phones – even with a court order to do so – drew criticism from the attorney general, who said FBI technicians spent four months unlocking the data on Alshamrani’s device.
“In cases like this, when the user is a terrorist – or in other cases where the user is a violent criminal, a human trafficker, [or] a child predator – Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for the public safety and the
national security,” said Barr.
“We now have a picture of [Alshamrani] that we didn’t have before we obtained this evidence, before we could confirm his connection to AQAP was real,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. After conducting more than 500 interviews after the shooting – without the phone data – he says they’re now using that evidence to continue the investigation with more insight into Alshamrani’s mind, intentions, tactics, and his relationship with AQAP.
But Wray adds that obstacles remain.
“And now, months after the attack, anyone he spoke to here or abroad, has had months to concoct and compare stories with co-conspirators; destroy evidence, and disappear,” said Wray. “As a result, there’s a lot we can’t do at this point, that we could have done months ago.”
In his remarks, Barr lauded the agencies that responded to the attack, at the state, federal, and local levels.
“And I especially want to recognize the brave naval security forces personnel, and deputies from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office who responded to that initial call for help,” Barr said.
Among the wounded were an NAS police officer and two deputies from ECSO.
“Our two officers, one has returned to full duty, and we have one that’s going to have a lot of follow-on rehabilitation – he sustained a wound to the knee,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. “But we expect him to return to full duty, too.’
Morgan adds that the response and coordination among local, state and federal authorities on that day was “textbook.”
“It was like running a checklist on how to do a response to one of these situations,” said Morgan. “From the response at the navy base to the call to us to the termination of the terrorist shooter. There was some hiccups on information sharing initially, but there was not one time that I ever heard anyone complain that they weren’t being recognized.”
The events of Dec. 6, 2019, aboard NAS Pensacola, Morgan believes, will find their way into law enforcement training programs at all levels.
“I can guarantee you that,” Morgan said. “Training’s just something that you do constantly in our active shooter program. There will probably be closer ties with the navy base and more joint training, I would suspect, with our federal partners – meaning in this case the military. And that’s a good thing.”
In a written statement, Apple rebutted the feds’ claims that they failed to cooperate in the Pensacola investigation. The company said “Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing. Still quoting, “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.”