The gunman who killed three U.S. sailors at a military base in Florida last year communicated with al-Qaida operatives about planning and tactics in the months leading up to the attack, U.S. officials said Monday, as they lashed out at Apple for failing 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 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 a sheriff’s deputy.
“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 chastised Apple for not helping open the phones.
The new details, including that Alshamrani had been radicalized abroad before he arrived in the U.S., raise fresh questions about the vetting of foreign military members and trainees who spend time at American bases. The announcement also comes amid tension with the U.S. over instability in the oil market during the coronavirus pandemic and as the Trump administration faces criticism that it has not done enough to hold the kingdom, which has been trying to improve its international image, accountable for human rights violations.
The criticism directed at Apple could also escalate divisions between the U.S. government and the technology company, which rejected the characterization that it has been unhelpful. The company said Monday that it does not store customers’ passcodes, does not have the capacity to unlock passcode-protected devices and that weakening encryption could create vulnerabilities that undermine national secuity and data privacy.
Alshamrani was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the Dec. 6 rampage at a classroom building at Naval Air Station Pensacola. He had been undergoing flight training at Pensacola as part of instruction offered at American military bases to foreign nationals. Besides the three sailors who died, eight other people were injured.
Once unlocked, U.S. officials said, the phones revealed contact between Alshamrani and “dangerous” operatives from al-Qaida in the Arabian Pensinsula, or AQAP, that continued until shortly before the shooting. They also revealed that he had been radicalized since at least 2015, before he arrived in the U.S., and had meticulously planned the attack.
Alshamrani 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 after the shooting when it claimed responsibility for it, said FBI Director Chris Wray, who called the attack “the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation.”
“He wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics,” Wray said. “He was helping the organization make the most it could out of his murders.”
Asked whether al-Qaida had directed or inspired the attacks, Wray said it was “certainly more than just inspired.”
The phones have already yielded valuable intelligence, officials said, citing a recent counterterrorism operation in Yemen that targeted an AQAP associate Alshamrani had been in touch with.
The Justice Department had 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.