The shooter who killed three sailors and wounded eight others in a December incident at a Florida Navy base had ties to Al Qaeda, and U.S. officials now believe the shooting was an act of terrorism, Department of Justice officials announced on Monday.
Attorney General William Barr told reporters the FBI found links between the shooter, Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Ahmed Mohammed Alshamrani, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The FBI found messages on two iPhones belonging to Alshamrani that linked him to the terrorist group.
According to the FBI, investigators found:
- Alshamrani and his AQAP associates communicated using end-to-end encrypted apps, with warrant-proof encryption, deliberately to evade law enforcement.
- Alshamrani’s preparations for terror began years ago. He had been radicalized by 2015, and after connecting and associating with AQAP operatives, he joined the Royal Saudi Air Force to carry out a “special operation.”
- In the months before the Dec. 6, 2019 attack, while in the United States, Alshamrani had specific conversations with overseas AQAP associates about plans and tactics. In fact, he was communicating with AQAP right up until the attack and conferred with his associates until the night before he undertook the murders.
Barr and FBI director Christopher Wray chided iPhone maker Apple for not assisting the FBI in unlocking the Alshamrani’s phone immediately after the attack, which added time for the FBI to unlock the phone.
“The trove of information found on these phones has proven to be invaluable to this ongoing investigation and critical to the security of the American people. However, if not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered,” Barr said in a statement.
“The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety. The time has come for a legislative solution.”
Alshamrani was a foreign military student assigned to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., for flight training. On Dec. 6, investigators say he stormed into Building 633, which houses Aviation Pre-Flight Indoctrination classrooms, and began firing a handgun in the classroom.
He killed students Ens. Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, Ala.; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, from St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Airmen Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, from Richmond Hill, Ga.; as well as injuring eight others.
Local Escambia County sheriff’s deputies quickly responded to the shooting and killed Alshamrani in a subsequent shoot out.
Following the attack, the Department of Defense increased screening of foreign military students and revised rules for those living in U.S.
In January, 21 Saudi students were ejected from the training for possessing jihadist material and child pornography, Attorney General Barr said at the time.
Foreign military training is a key component of the U.S. foreign military sales program and a long-term diplomacy tool.
5,100 members of foreign militaries, representing 153 countries, are currently in the U.S. for flight training, combat weapons systems training, infantry training, professional development courses for officers, or as students at the U.S. military’s undergraduate and graduate-level colleges, according to the State Department.
”The Department of Defense is incredibly grateful for the diligent work by the FBI team investigating this horrific attack that took the lives of three American patriots,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in a Monday statement.
”Based on the FBI findings, and in addition to already executed protective measures, the Department will take further prudent and effective measures to safeguard our people.”