Washington — The FBI and Department of Justice said a Saudi gunman whoin an attack at a Navy air station in Florida last December had "significant ties" to al Qaeda, citing new evidence gleaned from iPhones the FBI was able to unlock after months of trying.
The gunman was identified as 21-year-old Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi national who was training at Naval Air Station Pensacola. He opened fire inside a classroom on December 6, 2019, killing three and wounding eight others before being shot and killed.
At a press conference Monday, Attorney General William Barr said the FBI was able to gain access to Alshamrani's iPhones, which the gunman had tried to destroy during the attack.
"The FBI finally succeeded in unlocking Alshamrani's phones. The phones contain 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," Barr said, referring to the terrorist group's affiliate in Yemen, known as AQAP. The group claimed responsibility for the attack in February.
Data on iPhones is encrypted, and they're designed so only the owner can unlock the device if it's protected with a passcode. Neither Barr nor Wray revealed details about how the FBI was ultimately able to gain access to the phones four months after the attack. Barr said the Justice Department and the president himself asked Apple for help in gaining access to the devices, but the company "would not help us unlock the phones."
"There's a lot we can't do at this point that we could have done, months ago," Wray added. Barr said the effort to access the phones "took over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to obtain evidence that should have been easily and quickly accessible when we obtained court orders."
In a statement later Monday, Apple said it gave the FBI information "just hours after the attack," including account details, transaction data and iCloud backups. The company said it doesn't store users' passcodes and doesn't have the ability to unlock protected devices, while reiterating its opposition to the creation of a so-called "backdoor" to allow law enforcement to access encrypted data.
"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 Apple statement 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."
Wray said evidence "shows that the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime AQAP associate." The attorney general said the information gleaned from Alshamrani's devices provided intelligence that led to a recent strike on an AQAP leader in Yemen.
Wray said the evidence from Alshamrani's phones did not reveal any other current threats in the U.S., but said the investigation is going. "It's important that Americans not get complacent because the threat is real, it's still here and we're determined to thwart it," Wray said.
Barrthat the shooting was an act of terrorism but that Alshamrani acted alone during the attack itself.
Alshamrani was a cadet in a U.S. program to train members of the Royal Saudi Air Force. The program was suspended in the aftermath of the shooting, and an earlier Justice Department investigation found 21 Saudi trainees possessed "derogatory material" including jihadist or anti-American content on their social media profiles and were sent back to the kingdom.
Andres Triay contributed reporting.