Barr: ‘Significant ties’ between al Qaeda, shooter at Pensacola naval base

Attorney General William Barr said Monday that the Justice Department has uncovered evidence demonstrating that the Saudi military officer behind last year’s Pensacola Naval Air Station shooting had “significant ties” to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Barr, who disclosed the details at a virtual press conference in Washington, said the evidence was uncovered after the FBI unlocked two iPhones belonging to Mohammed Alshamrani, the gunman who opened fire at the naval station last December.

“Thanks to the relentless efforts and ingenuity of FBI technicians, the FBI finally succeeded in unlocking Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said. “The phones contained information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes Alshamrani’s significant ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, not only before the attack but before he even arrived in the United States.”

“We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months and days leading up to the attack,” Barr continued.

Officials were cautious about detailing the new information obtained from the phones, saying the investigation was ongoing. FBI Director Christopher Wray told reporters that the evidence showed Alshamrani was “more than just inspired” by AQAP.

“It is certainly more than just inspired. We know, for example, that he was sharing plans and tactics for them. We know that he was coordinating with them and providing them with an opportunity to take credit for the attack,” Wray said when asked whether the shooter was inspired or directed by the terror group.

Wray said that the evidence showed Alshamrani had been radicalized “at least as far back as 2015” and had been connecting and associating with AQAP operatives since, including conferring with them up until the date of the attack. 

“We have more to learn but we have enough now to see Alshamrani for what he was — a determined AQAP terrorist who spent years preparing to attack us,” Wray said. “We now have a picture of him we didn’t have before we obtained this evidence.”  

Wray also said the FBI hadn’t identified any current threats to the United States based on the information found in the phones, but noted the bureau continues to investigate Alshamrani’s associates.

The Dec. 6 attack killed three U.S. sailors and wounded eight others. Alshamrani was killed by law enforcement during the gun attack.

Barr and Wray on Monday both admonished Apple for not assisting the federal government in unlocking the phones, even though authorities obtained search warrants for their contents following the shooting last year.

Administration officials, including President Trump, pressed Apple months ago to assist law enforcement in unlocking the phones. Apple, which has maintained it will not provide a “backdoor” for law enforcement to access phones, contested accusations in January that it had not offered substantive assistance in the investigation.

The company said it provided iCloud backups, account information and transaction data as requested by the Department of Justice.

Barr said on Monday that Apple’s decision to manufacture its phones so that only users can unlock them “has dangerous consequences for the public safety and the national security.”

The company has maintained that any backdoor created for law enforcement would inevitably be accessed by malicious actors.

A similar showdown between Apple and the government played out in 2015 after the company refused to unlock a phone involved in the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack. The Obama administration was unable at the time to force Apple to unlock the phone of one of the two dead shooters, but did hire an outside firm that resolved the situation.

Apple pushed back on claims that it did not provide assistance to law enforcement in a statement later Monday.

“As a proud American company, we consider supporting law enforcement’s important work our responsibility,” Apple said. “The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security.”

“It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” the company said. “There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a fervent critic of big tech companies, slammed Apple in a statement shortly after Monday’s press conference.

“Despite Apple’s stonewalling, the FBI was finally able to access critical data from the cell phone of a terrorist,” he said. “But it’s work that wouldn’t need to be done if Apple would ‘Think Different’ about siding with terrorists over U.S. law enforcement and victims.”

Barr and the Trump administration have long argued that encryption across the tech industry kneecaps vital criminal investigations, while tech companies have defended encryption as an essential privacy protection for users.

—Chris Mills Rodrigo contributed. This report was updated at 1:19 p.m.

Tags Christopher Wray Donald Trump Tom Cotton William Barr

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