On Monday, the United States Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced that the perpetrator of the Pensacola Naval Base terror attack on December 6th, 2019 was linked to branches of al-Qaeda. The assailant was found to have had continued communications with the terrorist group up until the night before the shooting.
Uncovering Terrorist Links
Government investigation groups verified the connection between Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani and al-Qaeda by breaking the encryption on the shooter’s iPhones that had hitherto been locked. Both Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray have acknowledged that information on the phones, which Alshamrani had tried to destroy before being killed by law enforcement, has since been used to aid in counterterrorism operations in the Middle East.
The December attack by the Saudi Air Force trainee took the lives of three people and injured another eight. Notably, a New American study identifies the shooting as the first deadly act of terrorism by a foreign organization on US soil since 9/11, marking a significant development in the war on terror and renewing concerns for US safety.
The investigation into the contents of Alshamrani’s phones has been an important step in uncovering the details of the attack. The devices contained evidence of “meticulous” planning and coordination with al-Qaeda before the assault, as well as the shooter’s final will explaining his actions. The group’s branch in Yemen, AQAP, would later release the will during a video taking credit for the attack.
Privacy Concerns In Lieu Of Surveillance
Apple Inc. has been criticized for their unwillingness to help US officials break the phones’ security systems, citing concerns over enabling larger safety breaches for their products. “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,” the company said in a statement. Barr called the company’s refusal 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. In cases like this, where the user is a terrorist, or in other cases where the user is a violent criminal, a human trafficker, a child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for the public safety and the national security and is in my judgment unacceptable.”
But A One-Off Solution Is Insufficient
While the FBI developed a solution to Apple’s encryption software, Wray noted that it “is not a fix for our broader Apple problem” with “pretty limited application.” Third party technology groups were also largely unable to help federal investigators.
The Justice Department had recognized the Pensacola attack as being motivated by jihadist ideologies even before reviewing the contents of the phones. Alshamrani had shown radicalized behavior on social media, shooting down photos of President Donald Trump and yelling hateful remarks about US military involvements overseas during his attack, the FBI has confirmed.
Aftermath Of A National Tragedy
Since the AQAP claimed responsibility, US military activity in the Arabian Peninsula has increased. The White House has upped the ante, including an airstrike in Yemen in February that killed AQAP leader Qassim Al-Rimi and one other operation more recently. Barr would not comment on the specifics of the second intervention except to say that he was “very pleased” with its results.
These attacks follow the pattern of Trump’s reckless policies in the Middle East that have aggravated its leaders, putting the area at risk of further military escalation. While the U.S narrows its focus on the safety of its own citizens, lives abroad are in jeopardy as tensions in the area continue to heat up and boil over.