The FBI has determined Alshamrani spent years preparing for the attack on NAS Pensacola and that he communicated with members of the al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, who encouraged the attacks.

Federal investigators have determined the gunman who carried out a deadly shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola last year was in contact with al-Qaeda prior to the attack.


RELATED: Al-Qaida claims credit for NAS Pensacola mass shooting


Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a Saudi-born aviation student enrolled in the international military training program, opened fire in a Navy educational facility the morning of Dec. 6, 2019. The gunman killed three people and wounded eight others before he was shot and killed by responding law enforcement.



The FBI has determined Alshamrani spent years preparing for the attack on NAS Pensacola and that he communicated with members of the al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, who encouraged the attacks.


RELATED: U.S. kills al-Qaida leader who claimed responsibility for NAS Pensacola shooting


In a press conference Monday morning, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray said they discovered this information after FBI engineers found a workaround to crack the built-in security of Alshamrani's two iPhones.


"The FBI finally succeeded in unlocking 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," 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."


The new evidence shows that Alshamrani had radicalized not after training here in the U.S. but at least as far back as 2015, and that he had been connecting and associating with a number of dangerous AQAP operatives ever since, Wray said.


Wray said beyond just being inspired by the AQAP, the gunman was actively cooperating with the group.



"He talked with AQAP about his plans and tactics, taking advantage of the information he acquired here to assess how many people he could try to kill," Wray said. "He was meticulous in his planning. He made pocket camera videos as he cased his classroom building. He wrote the final will purporting to explain himself and saved it in his phone, the exact same will that AQAP released two months later when they initially claimed responsibility.


"He wasn't just coordinating with them about planning and tactics, he was helping the organization make the most they could out of his murders. And he continued to confer with his AQAP associates right up until the end, the very night before he started shooting."


In early February, an al-Qaeda group in Yemen released an 18-minute video claiming responsibility for the attack on NAS Pensacola. Days later, the White House announced the founder of the terrorist cell, Qassim al-Rimi, was killed in a counterterrorism operation.


Barr said the Department of Defense recently completed another counterterrorism operation that has significantly degraded the strength of AQAP, but did not confirm whether the attack had killed another targeted AQAP leader.


Wray noted that while the investigation of Alshamrani and his associates is ongoing, he said, "we have not identified any current threats here in the U.S., or current operative here in the U.S."


Prior to the attack, Alshamrani made an array of social media posts that promoted jihad ideology and criticized American values, according to federal officials. He visited a New York City memorial to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and he reportedly made incendiary posts as recently as two hours before the shooting.


Barr declared the NAS Pensacola attack an act of terror in mid-January. While officials initially said they had no evidence Alshamrani was assisted in the attack, they began publicly urging Apple to help them unlock the security on Alshamrani's two phones so that they could better investigate his contacts and communications.


"It was clear at the time that the phones were likely to contain very important information," Barr said Monday. "Alshamrani attempted to destroy the phones, even going so far as to disengage from the gunfight long enough to fire a bullet into one of the phones."


Wray and Barr said Apple has provided them no assistance in accessing the phones, despite the fact that the FBI immediately sought and received court orders allowing them to search the phones. The officials said it was purely through the ingenuity of FBI technicians that they were able to crack the two devices, and that the solution they found was partly dependent on luck and not one they could depend on if a similar situation arose in the future.


"Finally getting our hands on the evidence Alshamrani tried to keep from us, is great, but we really needed it months ago back in December when the court issued its warrants," Wray said.


He said the information in the cells would have given investigators helpful leads during their initial reviews and interviews of Alshamrani's friends and associates. He said in intervening months since the phones were unlocked, those associates had months to concoct alibis, destroy evidence or simply disappear.


Barr and Wray said even direct requests from President Donald Trump had not swayed Apple to help them crack the phones' security. Historically, Apple has contended that the back-door access the government was requesting does not exist, and that creating such an access route also created a pathway for abuse and misuse that could put their users and their information at risk.


Still, Barr and Wray said it should be up to legislators, not corporations, to decide the proper balance of consumer privacy and public safety.


"There is no reason why companies like Apple cannot design their consumer products and acts to allow for court authorized access by law enforcement while maintaining very high standards of data security," Barr said.


Kevin Robinson can be reached at krobinson4@pnj.com or 850-435-8527.