Pensacola shooting was an act of terrorism, attorney general says
WASHINGTON - Attorney General William Barr said Monday that the December shooting that killed three U.S. sailors on a Florida base was an act of terrorism, as officials revealed harrowing new details about the 15-minute rampage and publicly called out Apple Inc. to help them unlock the killer's phones.
At a news conference to discuss the results of the FBI's investigation into the shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Barr said investigators had found evidence that Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, a Royal Saudi Air Force member training at the base, was motivated by "jihadist ideology" and had posted anti-American messages on social media about two hours before his attack.
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said that during the attack, Shamrani fired shots at pictures of President Donald Trump and a past U.S. president, and witnesses at the scene said he made statements critical of American military actions overseas. Bowdich said that while Shamrani did not seem to be inspired by one specific terrorist group, he harbored anti-American and anti-Israeli views and felt "violence was necessary." Bowdich said the gunman's social media comments echoed those of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemeni American cleric tied to the terrorist group al-Qaeda who was killed in a drone strike in 2011.
Monday's announcement offered the most definitive account of the gunman's actions and thinking. Bowdich said investigators had interviewed more than 500 people - including witnesses, base personnel and friends and classmates of the shooter - and collected more than 42 terabytes of digital information.
But investigators have been stymied in trying to access two key pieces of evidence - the gunman's iPhones. Standing before giant photographs of two severely damaged devices, the attorney general publicly urged Apple to act.
"So far, Apple has not given us any substantive assistance," Barr said, though aides later clarified that Apple had, in fact, given investigators access to cloud data linked to the gunman. "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."
Barr did not say whether the Justice Department would seek a court order to force Apple's compliance. The department filed legal papers on a similar case in 2016, but the issue was never resolved by a higher court.
Officials said Shamrani intentionally fired a round into one of the phones during his rampage.
In a lengthy statement, Apple disputed the attorney general's description of its role, saying the company began responding within hours of the first FBI request on Dec. 6, and has turned over "many gigabytes" of data in the case."
Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing," the company said. "The FBI only notified us on January 6th that they needed additional assistance - a month after the attack occurred. . . . Early outreach is critical to accessing information and finding additional options."
ACLU lawyer Jennifer Granick said the government's demand to Apple "would weaken the security of millions of iPhones, and is dangerous and unconstitutional. . . . There is simply no way for Apple, or any other company, to provide the FBI access to encrypted communications without also providing it to authoritarian foreign governments and weakening our defenses against criminals and hackers."
Even without the phone data, investigators were able to review Shamrani's social media postings, which were critical to the officials' determination.
In declaring the incident terrorism, Barr noted that on Sept. 11, Shamrani posted a message on social media saying, "The countdown has begun." Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Barr said, Shamrani visited the memorial in New York City to those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out those attacks were Saudis.
Barr said that while it was initially reported that Shamrani arrived to the shooting with others, who filmed it, those accounts turned out to be incorrect. The shooter, he said, arrived alone, though other cadets who happened to be in the area did film the ensuing commotion.
Bowdich said the incident lasted about 15 minutes, with authorities intervening to stop the attack after about eight minutes. Barr singled out sailor Ryan Blackwell, who he said - despite having been shot five times - jumped on top of a fellow service member to prevent her from being shot and helped others get to safety.
The gunman, who used a semiautomatic handgun he purchased legally via an exception that allows non-U.S. citizens with hunting licenses to do so, was fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy.