The Dec. 6 shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Station was an act of terrorism by an assailant who visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City on Thanksgiving weekend — “not an unusual activity” for Saudi students, the Justice Department said Monday.
Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force, was training at Pensacola when he entered a building on the base, killed three and wounded eight. Alshamrani was killed about eight minutes after he started shooting; he was armed with semi-automatic handgun with an extended magazine, several ammunition magazines, and about 180 rounds of ammunition. He legally purchased the gun in July under an exception that allows nonimmigrant visa holders to purchase weapons if they have a valid state hunting license.
“The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology. During the course of the investigation, we learned that the shooter posted a message on September 11 of this year, stating the countdown has begun,” Attorney General Bill Barr said at a Monday press conference. “…He also posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages on social media including two hours before his attack.”
Barr said there was no evidence Alshamrani was assisted by other Saudi cadets during the attack, or that they accompanied him in order to take video. “The shooter arrived by himself, the other Saudi cadets happened to be in the area, and after the attack began, they took some videos of the resulting commotion around the building,” he said. “They fully cooperated in the investigation as did all other Saudi cadets who were interviewed by the FBI at the base and in other bases around the country.”
Barr defended the training relationship with the Saudis as “critically important to our country,” but noted that investigators “did learn of derogatory material possessed by 21 members of the Saudi military who were training in the United States.”
“Seventeen had social media containing some jihadi or anti-American content; however, there was no evidence of any affiliation or involvement with any terrorist activity or group,” he said. “Fifteen individuals — including some of these 17 I just mentioned, so there is overlap — had some kind of contact with child pornography. While one of these individuals that a significant number of such images all of the rest had one or two images, in most cases posted in a chat room by some other person or received over social media.”
The DOJ chose not to prosecute any of the 21, and the Saudis pulled them out of U.S. training.
Barr also called out Apple, saying the company “has not given any substantive assistance” in attempts to unlock Alshamrani’s iPhone. “This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence once it has obtained a court order based on probable cause,” he said. “We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of American people and prevent future attacks.”
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said the bureau has interviewed more than 500 witnesses in an “around-the-clock” investigation since the shooting.
“While we are still searching for more information so far, we have not identified any co-conspirators, any evidence that the shooter acted with anyone else, or that he was inspired by any one specific group,” Bowdich said. “Social media attributed to the shooter suggests that he harbored anti-U.S. military and anti-Israel sentiments and that he thought violence was necessary to defend Muslim countries.”
Alshamrani posted “many messages that were very similar to Anwar al-Awlaki,” the late American-born cleric and al-Qaeda recruiter, “and during the attack, the shooter fired shots at pictures of the current U.S. president and a former U.S. president, and a witness at the scene recounted that he made statements critical of American military actions overseas,” Bowdich added.
Asked whether Alshamrani may have gone to New York to scout other possible attack sites, Bowdich said the FBI hasn’t determined the purpose of his trip. “What I will tell you is there were other Saudi students throughout the country. It is not unusual for them to travel,” he said. “We did extensively vet the places they went, and this was not an unusual activity.”