Today, Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced significant developments in the FBI’s investigation of the December 6, 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola that killed three U.S. sailors and severely wounded eight other Americans. On January 13, 2020, Attorney General Barr announced that the shooting was an act of terrorism and publicly asked Apple to help the FBI access the locked contents of two iPhones belonging to the deceased terrorist Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. The company declined to do so.
Attorney General Barr announced that the FBI recently succeeded in unlocking the phones of Alshamrani, who had attempted to destroy them while launching his attack. The phones contained important, previously-unknown information that definitively established Alshamrani’s significant ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States. The FBI now has a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months, and days leading up to the attack.
“Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” said Attorney General Barr. “The trove of information found on these phones has proven to be invaluable to this ongoing investigation and critical to the security of the American people. However, if not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered. The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety. The time has come for a legislative solution.”
“I could not be prouder of the relentless dedication of the men and women at the FBI who worked for months under difficult conditions to access these devices,” said Director Wray. “Their skill and persistence, and the sustained investigative efforts by FBI Jacksonville, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, and our many other federal, state, and local partners, have been nothing short of extraordinary in this case. As we continue to seek answers around the December 6th terrorist attack that killed three American service members and wounded others, I want their families, and all Americans, to know that protecting the United States from those who seek to do us harm remains the FBI’s foremost priority. Our work against the threat of terrorism never rests.”
Investigators sought and received court authorization to search the contents of Alshamrani’s iPhones within one day of the December 6, 2019 terrorist attack. Unable to unlock the phones because of their security features, and having exhausted all readily available options, the FBI approached Apple for its assistance in early January 2020. The company declined to assist. FBI technical experts succeeded in accessing the phones’ contents over four months after the attack, revealing highly-significant evidence, including:
- Alshamrani and his AQAP associates communicated using end-to-end encrypted apps, with warrant-proof encryption, deliberately in order to evade law enforcement.
- Alshamrani’s preparations for terror began years ago. He had been radicalized by 2015, and having connected and associated with AQAP operatives, joined the Royal Saudi Air Force in order to carry out a “special operation.”
- In the months before the December 6, 2019 attack, while in the United States, Alshamrani had specific conversations with overseas AQAP associates about plans and tactics. In fact, he was communicating with AQAP right up until the attack, and conferred with his associates until the night before he undertook the murders.
The evidence derived from Alshamrani’s unlocked phones has already proven useful in protecting the American people. In particular, a counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates, was recently conducted in Yemen.