The gunman who killed three U.S. sailors at a military base in Florida last year repeatedly communicated with al-Qaida operatives about planning in the months leading up to the attack, U.S. officials said Monday. They lashed out at Apple for refusing to help them open the shooter’s phones so they could access key evidence.
Law enforcement officials discovered contacts between Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani and operatives of al-Qaida after FBI technicians succeeded on their own in breaking into two cellphones that had previously been locked and that the shooter, a Saudi Air Force officer, had tried to destroy before he was killed by law enforcement.
“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 sharply chastised Apple for not helping unlock the phones.
The new details, including that Alshamrani had been radicalized in Saudi Arabia years before he arrived in the U.S., raise fresh questions about the vetting of Saudi military members and trainees who spend time at American military bases. The announcement also comes as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are at odds over oil production during the coronavirus pandemic and as the Trump administration faces enduring criticism that it is not doing enough to hold the kingdom accountable for human rights violations.
The criticism directed at Apple could also escalate divisions between the U.S. government and the massive technology company, which previously rejected the characterization that it had not been helpful. The company, which was sued by the Justice Department in 2016 following a separate mass shooting, has said that breaking the encryption on its phones could create vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers.
Alshamrani was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the Dec. 6 rampage at a classroom building at Pensacola Naval Air Station. He had been undergoing flight training at Pensacola, where members of foreign militaries routinely receive instruction. In addition to the three sailors who died, eight other people were injured.
Once unlocked by the FBI, the phones revealed contact between Alshamrani and “dangerous” operatives from al-Qaida in the Arabian Pensinsula, or AQAP, U.S. officials said. They also showed that he had been radicalized since at least 2015, before he arrived in the U.S. and that he had been meticulous in his planning of an attack while in Florida.
Alsharamni created minicam videos as he cased a military school building and saved a will on his phone that purported to explain himself — the same document AQAP released two months after the shooting when it claimed responsibility for the attack, said FBI Director Chris Wray.
“He wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics,” Wray said. “He was helping the organization making the most it could out of his murders.”
Asked whether al-Qaida had directed or merely inspired the attacks, Wray said it was “certainly more than just inspired.”
“We know, for example, that he was sharing plans and tactics with them. We know that he was coordinating with them and providing an opportunity for them to take credit for the attack,” he added.
The Justice Department had previously asked Apple to help extract data from two iPhones that belonged to the gunman, including one that authorities say Alshamrani damaged with a bullet after being confronted by law enforcement. Wray said FBI agents were able to break the encryption without the help of Apple.
Law enforcement officials had previously left no doubt that Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology, saying he visited a New York City memorial to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and posted anti-American and anti-Israeli messages on social media just two hours before the shooting.
Separately, AQAP, al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, released a video in February claiming the attack. The branch has long been considered the global network’s most dangerous branch and has attempted to carry out attacks on the U.S. mainland.
But it was only with access to the phones that U.S. officials were able to establish certain suspicions as facts.
Barr said the information retrieved from Alshramani’s phone has already proved valuable, with U.S. officials recently conducting a counterterrorism operation targeting an AQAP operative who was one of Alshramani’s contacts.
In January, U.S. officials announced that they were sending home 21 Saudi military students after an investigation revealed that they had had jihadist or anti-American sentiments on social media pages or had “contact with child pornography.”
Barr said at the time that Saudi Arabia had agreed to review the conduct of all 21 to see if they should face military discipline and to send back anyone the U.S. later determines should face charges.
Barr used Monday’s press conference to forcefully call on Apple to do more to cooperate with law enforcement.
“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,” Barr said.
Apple did not respond directly to Wray’s complaint that the company had been no help.
In January, it issued a statement saying the company had provided the FBI with data including “iCloud backups” from one of the suspect’s phones and had not been informed until a month later of the second phone or that the FBI had been unable to access either of them.
The company rejected the idea of breaking encryption for law enforcement’s benefit.
“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.”