Pensacola shooter had ‘significant ties’ to AQAP, FBI finds

In early February, AQAP released a video claiming “full responsibility” for Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani’s Dec. 6, 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

The FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today that Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani (Al-Shamrani), the terrorist who carried out the Dec. 6, 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, had “significant ties” to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Investigators reached this conclusion after the FBI cracked the encryption on two of AlShamrani’s iPhones. AlShamrani, a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force, was in the U.S. as part of a training program. But he was secretly planning something else. Alshamrani “had specific conversations with overseas AQAP associates about plans and tactics,” according to the DOJ. “In fact,” the DOJ says, Alshamrani “was communicating with AQAP right up until the attack, and conferred with his associates until the night before he undertook the murders.”

Alshamrani and “his AQAP associates communicated using end-to-end encrypted apps, with warrant-proof encryption, deliberately in order to evade law enforcement.”

Not only was Alshamrani in contact with AQAP members just before his shooting spree, he began preparing for his day of terror “years ago.” Alshamrani was “radicalized” by 2015 and joined the Royal Saudi Air Force “in order to carry out a ‘special operation’.”

Therefore, the DOJ’s statement indicates that Alshamrani was a sleeper agent of sorts — just as AQAP alleged.

In a message released on Feb. 2, AQAP emir Qasim al-Raymi claimed “full responsibility” for the Pensacola shooting, during which three U.S. sailors were killed and eight other Americans injured. Raymi recorded his message, which was spliced together with various images of Alshamrani, before he was killed in a drone strike in January. Raymi claimed that Alshamrani had been patiently plotting years ahead of time.

“For several years, our hero moved between several U.S. military bases in America to select and contemplate his best and fattest target,” Raymi claimed. “Allah bestowed him great patience, and due to the Grace of Him alone, he passed all the military tests and all the security procedures.”

“For years, our hero was hiding his intention in his heart [until] Allah the Almighty granted him success,” Raymi continued. “He watered America, the enemy of Allah, from the same bitter cup, which she makes Muslims taste it every day.”

The video accompanying Raymi’s message also included images of Shamrani’s will and various notes, some of which apparently match documents released by DOJ today. [For more on AQAP’s claim of responsibility, see FDD’s Long War Journal report: AQAP claims “full responsibility” for shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola.]

Alshamrani’s two iPhones became part of an ongoing debate over privacy and security in January when Attorney General William P. Barr publicly asked Apple to unlock the devices. The U.S. government has sought similar assistance from Apple in past terror cases, such as after the Dec. 2015 shootings by a terrorist couple in San Bernardino. But Apple has refused to break its own encryption, citing legitimate concerns over user privacy.

The FBI’s “technical experts” were eventually able to crack the security on Alshamrani’s phones “over four months after the attack, revealing highly-significant evidence,” according to the DOJ.

In addition to the details concerning his longstanding relationship with AQAP and patient plotting, the DOJ says that “evidence derived from Alshamrani’s unlocked phones has already proven useful in protecting the American people.” The DOJ cites a “counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates.” The statement provided few details about the operation, other than it “was recently conducted in Yemen.”     

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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