By Masood Farivar
The FBI has uncovered a trove of information linking the Saudi gunman in a terror attack on a U.S. military base last year to al-Qaida and showing plans for the attack had been years in the making, senior law enforcement officials announced Monday.
The breakthrough came after FBI agents investigating the December deadly shooting unlocked two smartphones belonging to the gunman, Mohammad Saeed Alshamrani, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a virtual press conference.
Alshamrani, a Saudi Royal Air Force second lieutenant training at the base, opened fire inside a classroom on Dec. 6, killing three U.S. sailors and severely wounding eight other people. Alshamrani fired a bullet into one of his phones and tried to destroy the second before being killed by responding police officers.
In January, Barr called the attack an act of terrorism and asked Apple to help unlock the phones. Apple refused for privacy reasons, leading to a monthslong effort by FBI computer experts to break through the phones’ encryption.
“Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said.
Officials had previously said that Alshamrani had been motivated by “jihadist ideology.” But information retrieved from his phones showed he had been radicalized in 2015, began preparations for the attack years ago and joined the Saudi Air Force in order to carry out a “special operation,” officials said.
In the months leading up to the attack, Alshamrani communicated with al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) associates about plans and tactics, the officials said.
He was communicating with AQAP “right up until the night before” he carried out the attack, Wray said.
Officials said they used evidence obtained from Alshamrani’s phones in a counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP associate Abdullah Al–Maliki.
Barr and Wray excoriated Apple’s encryption policy, saying it puts lives in danger.
“The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety,” Barr said. “The time has come for a legislative solution.”
In February, AQAP, considered the terror group’s most dangerous branch, released a video claiming responsibility for the attack and indicating Alshamrani had been in touch with the group.
As part of the investigation, the FBI interviewed hundreds of Saudi military trainees in the United States. Wray said Alshamrani’s phone records did not uncover any terror threat or operative in the United States.
In January, however, 21 members of the Saudi military training in the United States were sent home after an investigation into the attack.
The shooting also led the Pentagon to enhance its vetting of foreign military trainees in the United States.
More than 1 million students from 150 countries have trained at U.S. bases over the past 20 years, according to the Pentagon.