FBI engineers bypassed security controls on the shooter’s phones to uncover links to several associates of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
(CN) — The gunman in the deadly attack on a Florida military base last year had significant ties to al-Qaida, the FBI said Monday.
Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi air force cadet training with the U.S. military at Pensacola Naval Air Station, used two iPhones to communicate with al-Qaida operatives in the years leading up to the December attack, FBI Director Christopher Wray told reporters in a conference call.
The FBI managed to hack into Alshamrani’s phones, which revealed his contacts with several al-Qaida members as far back as 2015, Wray said. The FBI director stopped short of saying the terrorist group directed Alshamrani to carry out the shooting, which killed three sailors and wounded eight others. Alshamrani was shot and killed by police during the attack.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr also spoke on the call and used the opportunity to criticize Apple for not cooperating with authorities trying to unlock Alshamrani’s phones.
“Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for the public’s safety and national security,” Barr said. “And it is unacceptable.”
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Alshamrani purposely damaged his phones during the attack, the FBI director said, suggesting to investigators that the devices held important information. After Apple refused a request by the Department of Justice to help unlock the phones, FBI engineers managed to bypass the security controls to uncover links to several associates of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemeni offshoot of the terrorist organization.
“Unfortunately, the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem—it’s of pretty limited application,” Wray said. “But it has made a huge difference in this investigation.”
Barr said the government recently used some of the phones’ information to conduct a counterterrorism operation targeting one of Alshamrani’s associates, Abdullah al-Maliki. He did not provide further details.
The attorney general spent considerable time attacking Apple and other tech companies over their refusal to help law enforcement bypass encryption and other security controls on suspects’ phones.
“Public safety and privacy are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “We need tech leaders to work with us, not against us.”
Barr and other law enforcement officials have long considered Alshamrani’s attack on the Pensacola Naval Air Station a terrorist act, but the phones’ information shows a level of coordination with the international terrorist group and not the act of a “lone wolf.” Shortly after the attack, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility. A video released by the group contained a will written by Alshamrani outlining some of his motives. A copy of that will was found on one of Alshamrani’s phones, the FBI said.
The attack forced U.S. officials to look more closely at the roughly 900 Saudis training at military bases in the U.S.
In January, 21 Saudi military students were sent home after an investigation revealed social media posts with jihadist ideology and some contract with child pornography.
While taking questions, Barr also addressed President Donald Trump’s recent assertions that Obama administration officials had committed crimes during his 2016 campaign.
The attorney general said he did not believe prosecutors will investigate former president Barack Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden as part of their probe into how the FBI investigated Trump’s 2016 campaign for signs of Russian influence. Last year, Barr named U.S. Attorney John Durham to lead the probe.
“I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man,” Barr said. “Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others.”