Federal investigators concluded that a Saudi military trainee who killed three service members during a shooting in December at a Florida naval base had been in contact with al-Qaida operatives for years, planning the lethal assault that reasserted the terror group as a global threat, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray said Monday.
Authorities learned of the communication after gaining access to the contents of cellphones used by the shooter, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani. Until recently, investigators had been blocked from the information because of the Apple iPhone's encrypted pass-code features.
For months, Barr said, Apple rejected requests for assistance in unlocking the devices, leaving the FBI to find its own key to the phones and, ultimately, Alshamrani's ties to the terror group.
"The phones contained information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes Alshamrani’s significant ties to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States," Barr said. "We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months and days leading up to the attack."
Wray said the information revealed on the phones indicates Alshamrani was radicalized as early as 2015 and joined the Saudi air force as part of his "special operation" against the United States.
"This case is a potent reminder of the stakes of our work," Wray said.
Alshamrani, officials said, had been in almost constant contact with his terror associates, speaking to operatives in Yemen the night before the assault at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
The attorney general said the phones' contents assisted in a counterterrorism operation targeting one of Alshamrani's associates, Abdullah al-Maliki. Barr did not elaborate on the operation that he said was "recently conducted in Yemen."
Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the FBI's findings underscore al-Qaida's "persistent threat to our homeland security."
"As we work to defeat this menace, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense must better coordinate to screen foreign military students who pose a risk to American servicemen and women," Rogers said.
In January, Barr declared the fatal shooting an act of terrorism motivated by "jihadist ideology."
Alshamrani, 21, who was part of a U.S. training program for the Saudi military, was killed in the rampage Dec. 6.
Investigators found that on Sept. 11, 2019, the shooter posted on social media that "the countdown has begun." He visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City over Thanksgiving weekend, and he posted "anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages" on social media two hours before the attack, authorities said.
Days after the attack, the Navy grounded more than 300 Saudi nationals who were training to be pilots. Twenty-one Saudi trainees were expelled from the country.
Alshamrani began his three-year course in August 2017 with English, basic aviation and initial pilot training.
He was one of 5,180 foreign students, including 852 Saudi nationals, from 153 countries in the USA for military training. Many operate American military hardware that foreign governments buy from the United States. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest customer for arms, many of which are American-made.
DOJ, Apple at odds over assistance in investigation
The investigation revived a long-standing dispute with Apple over law enforcement's efforts to crack encrypted passwords on suspects' iPhones.
Investigators recovered two heavily damaged iPhones from the deceased Pensacola shooter. The gunman was suspected to have shot one of them in an effort to destroy it.
Investigators rebuilt both phones, but they were unable to bypass the encrypted passwords until recently. Wray said the FBI designed its own coding to bypass the locks when Apple declined to assist and when outside companies were unable to unlock the devices.
"While the FBI’s hard work has led to an important breakthrough in this case that should be celebrated, I must also express my great disappointment that it took over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to obtain evidence that should be easily and quickly accessible with a court order," Barr said.
"Apple made a business and marketing decision to design its phones in such a way that only the user can unlock the contents, no matter the circumstances," the attorney general said. "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."
Apple has denied Justice's assertions since they were first leveled in January.
Military trainees get closer look: Pentagon to restrict, monitor foreign trainees to prevent repeat of Pensacola Navy base shooting
The company said it responded to the FBI’s requests for information, starting hours after the attack, provided “every piece of information” available to the company and lent “continuous and ongoing” assistance to FBI field offices in Florida and New York.
“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,” the company said in a statement, adding that weakening encryption “will make every device vulnerable to bad actors.”
Describing the shooting as a "devastating and heinous act," the company said it continues to provide assistance to federal and local law enforcement when needed.
"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," Apple 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."
The dispute mirrors a standoff between the FBI and Apple involving an iPhone recovered in 2015 after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 people dead.
In that case, the FBI went to court with a demand that Apple assist investigators. That case was dropped after the FBI secured the assistance of an outside contractor who was successful in bypassing the passcode.
Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Justice Department's criticism of Apple is not warranted.
"Every time there’s a traumatic event requiring investigation into digital devices, the Justice Department loudly claims that it needs backdoors to encryption, and then quietly announces it actually found a way to access information without threatening the security and privacy of the entire world," Kaufman said. "The boy who cried wolf has nothing on the agency that cried encryption."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Al-Qaida linked to Pensacola Naval Air Station shooting