- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2020

A Royal Saudi Air Force cadet who killed three U.S. sailors at a Florida Navy base last year had longtime ties to al Qaeda, top Justice Department officials said Monday, while slamming Apple for providing no help in the investigation.

The gunman, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, had extensive contact with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives before the attack and before arriving in the U.S., said FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.

“The evidence we’ve been able to develop from the killer’s devices shows that the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime AQAP associate,” he said.

Alshamrani, 21, killed three people and wounded eight others when he opened fire in a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Dec. 6. A sheriff’s deputy responding to the scene fatally shot Alshamrani about 15 minutes into the attack.

Mr. Wray and Attorney General William Barr stopped short of saying the terror group directed Alshamrani, but they said the gunman’s connections to al Qaeda were “significant” and dated to 2015.

FBI investigators uncovered Alshamrani’s ties to the terrorist network by recovering data from two of his iPhones. Both Mr. Wray and Mr. Barr had sharp barbs for Apple for refusing to help unlock the device.

Mr. Wray said the FBI “received effectively no help from Apple,” adding the delay stalled the probe for months and jeopardized public safety.

Mr. Barr called Apple’s refusal to help “a great disappointment.”

“Apple has made a business and marketing decision to design its phones in a way that only the user can unlock the contents no matter what the circumstances,” Mr. Barr said. “Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and national security and is in my judgment unacceptable.”

Apple fired back that it responded within hours to the FBI’s plea for help in December and provided “every piece of information available,” including providing access to iCloud, backups account information and transactional data.

The tech giant also said that it offered technical experts to assist in the case.

“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,” Apple said in a statement. “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.”

Justice Department officials did not offer details about how they were able to break into Alshamrani’s phone.

The phone yielded a treasure trove of details for the investigation. It revealed that Alshamrani was “meticulous” in plotting the attack and had been coordinating “planning and tactics” with al Qaeda operatives ahead of the attack, Mr. Wray said.

Alshamrani also wrote a “final will purporting to explain himself” that was saved on his phone, Mr. Wray said.

“We now have a picture of him we didn’t have before we obtained this evidence,” he said.

The Justice Department earlier this year called the naval attack an act of terrorism, motivated by jihadist ideology.

The shooting has prompted the Pentagon to take additional “prudent and effective measures” to safeguard its people in the wake of the attack, Defense Department officials said Monday.

“The Department of Defense is incredibly grateful for the diligent work by the FBI team investigating this horrific attack that took the lives of three American patriots,” said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

The Pentagon stopped all international military student training at U.S. bases in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting. A review of vetting and security procedures was later instituted. Foreign military officers who come to the U.S. to train now have limited access to military installations and restrictions on the possession and use of firearms.

The Pentagon also established new standards and training for detecting and reporting “insider threats.”

Defense Department officials did not disclose the additional security steps that would be implemented following Monday’s announcement.

But the Department of Defense said it will not discontinue training assignments for international military officers in the U.S.

“Security cooperation directly contributes to U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives,” a Pentagon official said. “We will continue to work closely with them to counter the threats of international terrorism and protect our freedom.”

The Saudi Embassy in Washington issued a statement Monday evening stressing the long-term alliance between the two countries.

“As Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray noted, Saudi Arabia has fully cooperated with U.S. law enforcement on the investigation, and we are continuing to provide full support to our American counterparts,” the statement read.

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