The gunman who killed three U.S. sailors at a military base in Florida last year repeatedly communicated with al-Qaida operatives about planning in the months leading up to the attack, U.S. officials said Monday. They lashed out at Apple for refusing to help them open the shooter’s phones so they could access key evidence.
Law enforcement officials discovered contacts between Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani and operatives of al-Qaida after FBI technicians succeeded on their own in breaking into two cellphones that had previously been locked and that the shooter, a Saudi Air Force officer, had tried to destroy before he was killed by law enforcement.
“We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months and days leading up to his attack,” Attorney General William Barr said at a news conference in which he sharply chastised Apple for not helping unlock the phones.
The new details, including that Alshamrani had been radicalized in Saudi Arabia years before he arrived in the U.S., raise fresh questions about the vetting of Saudi military members and trainees who spend time at American military bases. The announcement also comes as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are at odds over oil production during the coronavirus pandemic and as the Trump administration faces enduring criticism that it is not doing enough to hold the kingdom accountable for human rights violations.
The criticism directed at Apple could also escalate divisions between the U.S. government and the massive technology company, which previously rejected the characterization that it had not been helpful. The company, which was sued by the Justice Department in 2016 following a separate mass shooting, has said that breaking the encryption on its phones could create vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers.