WASHINGTON – A shooting by a Saudi pilot on a Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, in December was an act of terrorism motivated by “jihadist ideology,” Attorney General William Barr said Monday.
The Justice Department’s findings were announced about a month after the Saudi pilot, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani,fired on service members at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
The 21-year-old shooter, who was part of a U.S. training program for the Saudi military, was killed in the rampage Dec. 6 that also killed three American service members and injured eight others.
Investigators found that on Sept. 11 last year, the shooter posted on social media that “the countdown has begun.” He visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City over Thanksgiving weekend, and he posted “anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages” on social media two hours before the attack, Barr said.
Days after the attack, the Navy grounded more than 300 Saudi nationals who were training to be pilots. Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist ordered Defense intelligence officials to review and strengthen vetting procedures.
Alshamrani began his three-year course in August 2017 with English, basic aviation and initial pilot training.
He was one of 5,180 foreign students, including 852 Saudi nationals, from 153 countries in the USA for military training. Many operate U.S. military hardware that foreign governments buy from the United States. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest customer for arms, and many of those are American-made.
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said Monday there was “no indication” that others were involved in the attack. While no single ideology is believed to have motivated the assault, Bowdich said the shooter posted messages echoing the teachings of al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
The American-born al-Awlaki was killed by an American drone strike in 2011. Prosecutors have found that suspects in several terror investigations drew inspiration from the radical cleric subsequent to his death.
Barr debunked reports that the shooter may have been assisted by other Saudi cadets. The Saudi cadets happened to be in the area and took videos of the chaos after the shooting. They cooperated with investigators, Barr said.
Although there’s no evidence that members of the Saudi military training in the USA were involved in the attack or had advance knowledge of it, Barr said investigators learned that 21 trainees expressed derogatory sentiments about the United States. At least 15 of them had been found in possession of child pornography during the investigation.
The 21 trainees will not face charges, but Saudi Arabia removed them from training, Barr said, after finding their conduct to be “unbecoming” of an officer. The trainees were sent back to Saudi Arabia on Monday.
The attorney general said federal authorities reviewed evidence found in the cadets’ possession, including images of child pornography. The volume of material, however, did not trigger thresholds for prosecution.
“The (Saudi) kingdom has assured us that, if we later decide to charge any of those being sent back to Saudi Arabia in connection with this counter-terrorism investigation, it will return them for trial,” Barr said.
Barr praised American military members who responded during the shooting and helped victims. Sgt. Ryan Maisel and Staff Sgt. Samuel Mullins, both U.S. Marines, were outside the building when they heard gunfire and ran inside to confront the shooter. Barr said the two were armed with only a fire extinguisher they pulled off a wall. The two performed CPR on victims.
Navy Airman Ryan Blackwell was shot five times. “Yet Ryan still managed to jump on top of a fellow sailor to keep her from being shot. He further assisted other students and helped them escape, while taking additional fire from the shooter,” Barr said.
Blackwell was shot in the right arm and pelvis, and his intestines were severed by ricocheting bullets.
“Airman Blackwell’s heroic acts also save countless lives that day,” Barr said.
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The investigation revived a longstanding dispute with Apple over law enforcement’s efforts to crack the encrypted passwords used to lock suspects’ iPhones.
Investigators recovered two heavily-damaged iPhones from the deceased shooter. The gunman is believed to have shot one of them in an effort to render it unusable.
Investigators rebuilt both phones, but they have been unable to bypass the encrypted passwords to gain access to the data.
“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones,” Barr said. “So far, Apple has not given us any substantive assistance. This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause.”
The dispute mirrors a standoff between the FBI and Apple involving an iPhone recovered in a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 people dead.
In that case, the FBI went to court with a demand that Apple assist investigators. That case was dropped after the FBI secured the assistance of an outside contractor who was successful in bypassing the passcode.
Barr declined to say whether the Justice Department would file a similar suit against the technology giant.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Pensacola case has touched off a separate dispute about how foreign nationals are vetted before they come to the U.S. for military training programs.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the shooter had “deep-seated hatred for the United States,” which needs to make sure foreign nationals are vetted.
Foreign military trainees are vetted before traveling to the USA. U.S. Embassy personnel research databases for activities such as support for terrorism, drug trafficking, corruption and other criminal behavior. Travel orders are denied to those who fail to pass the screening.
Contributing: Ryan Mills, Pensacola News Journal