Non-State Actors

Al Qaeda in the US: The Pensacola Attack

June 15, 2020

Ana-Maria Baloi



According to the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the Saudi military trainee Mohammed Alshamrani who killed three US sailors and wounded several others in a terror attack in 2019 on a military base in Pensacola, Florida, was a long-time associate of Al Qaeda. He had communicated with operatives from the group as recently as the night before the shooting and the attack was carefully planned for years.


US investigators uncovered the Al Qaeda connection after the FBI broke through the encryption protecting the Saudi attacker’s iPhones and have been able to use the information on the devices to carry out a recent counterterrorism operation in Yemen.


Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP; an off-shoot of al-Qaeda based in Yemen) had claimed responsibility for the Pensacola attack and said it was in touch with the attacker. In February 2020, the White House announced that Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of the group, had been killed in an airstrike in Yemen. AQAP had released an audio message earlier that month with the attacker’s voice, in which he said the group was behind the naval base shooting.


The Pensacola Attack



The terrorist attack on a US Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, took place in December 2019. Three US sailors were killed and eight injured. The Saudi student opened fire inside a classroom at the Naval Air Station. The attack led to the expulsion of 21 Saudi military pupils who had been studying at the base with the attacker.


According to the FBI the gunman, who was killed by authorities after shooting 11 people, had been radicalised before arriving Florida for a three-year aviation course the US navy hosts for allied foreign servicemen.


Alshamrani had been directed by the terror group, but said his ties to the AQAP began as far back as 2015. The connection between the group and the attack marked a major development in the US fight against terrorism. Since 9/11, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully directed a deadly attack in the US.



Criticism of Apple


The American officials criticised Apple for refusing to help investigators break into the devices. FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the FBI received no help from Apple in bypassing the phones and that third-party technology firms were also unable to help investigators.


According to him, the fix that the FBI was able to develop for Alshamrani’s phones is not a fix for all the struggles the FBI is facing regarding the Apple encryption system. 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. The FBI is concerned about the cases where the user is a terrorist, a violent criminal, a human trafficker, etc.


The Justice Department and FBI officials said Apple had helped provide access to iCloud and other data from the shooter’s devices but that breaking the phones’ encryption was key to retrieving more of Alshamrani’s communications before the attack. Wray stated that Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and the national security and is in my judgment unacceptable.




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