FBI finds link between Pensacola gunman and al-Qaida

WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement authorities ripped Apple for being uncooperative Monday as they detailed a link between an al-Qaida operative and the gunman in a deadly attack at a military base last December.

Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray held a news conference to announce developments in the shooting at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. On Dec. 6, Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani killed three U.S. sailors and injured eight others at Pensacola Naval Air Station. The 21-year-old gunman was also killed during the attack.

The Justice Department had previously asked Apple to help extract data from two iPhones that belonged to the gunman, including one that authorities say Alshamrani damaged with a bullet after being confronted by law enforcement.

“We received, effectively, no help from Apple,” Wray said Monday. “The crucial evidence on the killer’s phones was kept from us, we did all that investigating, not knowing what we do know now, valuable intelligence about what to ask, what to look for,” he added alongside Barr.

“I’ve seen no sign that Apple has moved the needle or is willing to try to move the needle,” Barr said, adding that Apple’s decision could set a dangerous precedent in the criminal justice system.

“For some reason, there are some tech companies who feel that they’re above that and that they unilaterally can make decisions based on their business interest and regardless of the dangers posed to the public and we cannot let that happen,” 

Apple did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Apple has previously said it “produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation” and provided “gigabytes of information” including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.”

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” the company said in a statement in January. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” the tech giant added.

Read more: Apple refuses government’s request to unlock Pensacola shooting suspect’s iPhones

The contacts between the shooter and the al-Qaida operative were discovered on the shooter’s phone. Separately, al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, released a video claiming the attack. The branch, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has long been considered the global network’s most dangerous branch and has attempted to carry out attacks on the U.S. mainland.

Law enforcement officials left no doubt that Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology, saying he visited a New York City memorial to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and posted anti-American and anti-Israeli messages on social media just two hours before the shooting.

“This was an act of terrorism,” Barr said during a news conference in January. “The evidence showed that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology. During the course of the investigation, we learned that the shooter posted a message on Sept. 11 of this year stating, ‘The countdown has begun.”‘

Saudi Arabia provided “complete and total support” to the American investigation of the incident, Barr added.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr discusses Pensacola Naval Air Station Shooting in Washington, DC.

Michael Brochstein | Barcroft Media | Reuters

In January, U.S. officials announced that they were sending home 21 Saudi military students after an investigation revealed that they had had jihadist or anti-American sentiments on social media pages or had “contact with child pornography.”

Barr said at the time that Saudi Arabia had agreed to review the conduct of all 21 to see if they should face military discipline and to send back anyone the U.S. later determines should face charges.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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