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Saudi shooter in Pensacola attack had ties with Al-Qaeda, FBI reveals after breaking into his iPhones

Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani's preparation for the December 2019 shooting, in which three were killed, had gone on for months, officials said
UPDATED MAY 19, 2020
The Pensacola Naval Air Station (Getty Images)
The Pensacola Naval Air Station (Getty Images)

The deadly shooting case at a Florida naval base last December has seen a new twist with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) establishing a link between the incident and terror outfit Al-Qaeda. On Monday, May 18, US officials said the Saudi aviation student, who killed three American sailors at the Pensacola base, communicated with Al-Qaeda operatives about the planning months ahead of the attack and slammed Apple for not assisting them with opening the shooter’s cellphones which could have facilitated the probe. The links of the shooter, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, with Al-Qaeda operatives were discovered after FBI technicians broke into two cell phones that had earlier been locked and which the former tried to destroy before he was killed by a sheriff’s deputy, Associated Press reported. Alshamrani was only 21 at the time of the incident that also left eight injured. 

“We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani's associations and activities in the years, months and days leading up to his attack,” Attorney General William Barr said at a news conference in which he criticized Apple for not helping open the phones. In January, Barr called the December 6 attack as an act of terrorism and put pressure on Apple Inc to help unlock the assassin’s iPhones that could give more leads about the young man’s radicalization, reports the Wall Street Journal. The man had made chilling posts on social media revealing his anti-US sentiments.

Attorney General William Barr (Getty Images)

The fresh revelations, including the fact that the Saudi student had been radicalized before he came to the US, have raised questions over vetting of foreign military members who come to American bases for training. They also surfaced days after the FBI accidentally identified a former Saudi envoy who it suspected of having links to the terrorists that carried out the 9/11 terror attacks. The announcement also comes at a time when the US and Saudi -- two tested allies otherwise -- are facing tension over the oil trade. The Trump administration has been accused on a number of occasions of going soft on the Middle East kingdom’s human rights records, including the barbaric murder of veteran US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the regime, in October 2018. 

US govt-Apple rift could escalate

Besides potentially hurting the US-Saudi relation, the new revelations over Alshamrani could also see an escalation of the rift between the White House and Apple, which refuted the charges of not being cooperative. On Monday, Apple said it neither stores its customers’ passcodes nor has the capacity to unlock passcode-protected devices and that weakening encryption could harm national security and data privacy. In a statement, it said it had given the FBI with "every piece of information available to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts." In January, President Donald Trump, too, criticized the technology giant for not unlocking the password-protected iPhones that the gunman used in the Pensacola shooting. “We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” he tweeted.

The US officials said the phones unearthed the contact between Alshamrani and operatives from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which they said, continued until shortly before the shooting. They also said that the gunman had been radicalized since 2015 at least, before his arrival in the US. The assassin made minicam videos as he cased a military school building, the AP report said. He saved a will on his phone that seemed to explain himself -- the same document that AQAP released after the shooting while claiming responsibility for it, FBI Director Chris Wray said at the same news conference addressed by Barr. Wray called the attack “the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime AQAP associate".

“He (Alshamrani) wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics. He was helping the organization making the most it could out of his murders,” he said. 

He also said that the terror outfit more than just inspired the dreadful attacks.