Mohammed Alshamrani was a Saudi Air Force officer who committed a December 2019 mass shooting, killing three people and wounding eight more at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, a military base sometimes called the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” On May 20, the FBI director confirmed that the U.S. government had found a link between Alshamrani and al-Qaida.
“The new evidence shows that al-Shamrani had radicalized not after training here in the U.S. but at least as far back as 2015, and that he had been connecting and associating with a number of dangerous AQAP (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula) operatives ever since,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a virtual press conference.
Cracking the shooter’s cell phones proved key, Wray said:
We now have a picture of him we didn’t have before we obtained this evidence—before we could confirm that his connection to AQAP was real; before we could track his long and methodical path to violence. A picture we would never had obtained without accessing his devices. This case is a potent reminder, for anyone who needed one, of the stakes of our work. We protect the American people from a staggering range of threats. But make no mistake, securing the homeland against terrorism remains our top priority.
The FBI director had harsh words for Apple, saying, “We received effectively no help from Apple. We canvassed every partner, and every company, that might have had a solution to access these phones. None did, despite what some claimed in the media. So we did it ourselves.”
He added: “We at the FBI never forget that three brave members of our armed forces were killed in this attack. They were Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, and Airman Cameron Scott Walters. They were serving our country. They died as heroes.”
Accessing Alshamrani’s phones was a problem that delayed the investigation, Wray said:
Because the crucial evidence on the killer’s phones was kept from us, we did all that investigating not knowing what we do now: valuable intelligence about what to ask, what to look for. If we had, our round-the-clock, all-hands effort would have been a lot more productive. Cybercrime, opioid trafficking, child sexual exploitation, you name it. Lack of lawful access affects every fight we’re in, and Americans need to understand that this isn’t just an issue for law enforcement.
Florida’s governor previously identified the gunman as a Saudi national. “He was in the aviation pipeline. He was training in aviation,” the base commander said in an earlier news conference. The Associated Press reported that he “hosted a party before the shooting, where he and others watched videos of mass shootings.” The New York Times reported that the shooter and three other “Saudi military trainees” had visited Rockefeller Center in New York City recently, as well as museums.
ABC7 reported that authorities were trying to verify an “online screed” that ranted about American mistreatment of Muslims and may have been penned by the shooter. It expressed “hatred toward Americans” and dismay at U.S. support for Israel, according to the television station. News4JAX reported that the online comment, a tweet, called the U.S a nation of evil.
Asia Intel, a group that monitors Jihadist activity, has posted screenshots of a now-suspended Twitter page that it says may have belonged to the gunman; this is not confirmed, but the top tweet matches that described by ABC, which also reported that the FBI is investigating social media posts as well as the suspect’s affiliations, including whether he had any accomplices. The group says the Twitter page in question quoted bin Laden and al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Heavy has confirmed that Twitter suspended the account that may be the shooter’s; for hours people have been directing vitriol toward the page on Twitter, many of them in Arabic. “I’m sorry American people. This terrorist does not represent us,” wrote one person who responded. Rita Katz, director of the Site Intel Group, which monitors jihadist activity, wrote that the tweet that may be from Pensacola attacker Alshamrani “suggests terrorist motive. Does not claim allegiance to any group, but echos Bin Laden: ‘The security is a shared destiny…You will not be safe until we live it as reality in [Palestine], and American troops get out of our land.’”
The NAS Pensacola shooter is identified as Saudi national Mohammed Alshamrani. Anyone with information regarding his activites is encouraged to call 1-800-CALL-FBI. FBI Jacksonville is not aware of any credible threat toward the Pensacola community at this time. pic.twitter.com/RNc8ZL89WS
— FBI Jacksonville (@FBIJacksonville) December 8, 2019
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The FBI Director Says Alshamrani ‘Talked With’ Al-Qaida About His ‘Plans & Tactics’
Wray gave additional details about the gunman’s links to the terrorist organization. “Thanks to a lot of hard work by our people, we now know that al-Shamrani continued to associate with AQAP even while living in Texas and in Florida, and that in the months before the attack, while he was here among us, he talked with AQAP about his plans and tactics,” he said.
He wrote a final will, purporting to explain himself, and saved it in his phone. The exact same will that AQAP released two months later when they initially claimed responsibility. He wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics—he was helping the organization make the most it could of his murders. And he continued to confer with his AQAP associates right until the end, the very night before he started shooting.
Wray said the information in the shooter’s phone was useful:
We are still exploiting the evidence we’ve now obtained from al-Shamrani’s phones, and we’re continuing to run our investigation, now with the benefit a lot more insight into the murderer’s mind and intentions, his relations with AQAP, and his tactics. We have more to learn, but we know enough now to see al-Shamrani for what he was—a determined AQAP terrorist, who spent years preparing to attack us.
He added: “At the FBI, we remain laser-focused on the terrorism threat, not just because of how much damage an attack can cause our country, but also because we know that even as we speak, there are evolving and sophisticated groups around the world intent on striking us.”
The FBI director said the ability authorities have to access devices remains an issue:
Unfortunately, the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem—it’s of pretty limited application. But it has made a huge difference in this investigation. The delay getting into these devices didn’t just divert personnel from other important work, it also seriously hampered this investigation. Finally getting our hands on the evidence al-Shamrani tried to keep from us it great. But we really needed it months ago, back in December, when the Court issued its warrants. In the weeks immediately following December 6, we conducted over 500 interviews of witnesses, base personnel, and the shooter’s friends, classmates, and associates—among many other efforts.
Four people were killed, including the suspect, and more were wounded when the shooting broke out on December 6, 2019, according to the local sheriff. Two deputies were shot, one in the arm and one in the leg, but they were expected to survive, officials told the media.
You can read about the lives of two of the victims here.
“It covered two floors from that one building. It is a bit like a movie because you have spent shell casings all over,” said a sheriff’s commander during a press conference. AP reported the building was Building 633. The shooter fired randomly but was thwarted from killing more people when someone barricaded a door, according to ABC7.
It was the second mass shooting at a military installation in the United States in one week. An active shooter named Gabriel Romero killed two people at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Romero was a petty officer in the United States Navy.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he had spoken to the president. “This is a special place … all these brave warriors who wear the wings, they come here for flight training. This is a dark day for a very great place.” He said it “strikes at the heart of the community” – both Pensacola and the Navy overall.
“This day will be etched in your memory for the rest of your life,” Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said of the effect on families and the Naval community. But he said people could be proud of the Navy and community. “Thank God for the United States of America,” Morgan said.
2. Alshamrani Was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Saudi Air Force & the Florida Governor Says the Saudi Arabian Government Owes a ‘Debt’ to the Victims
— Jennifer Munoz (@JennifermunozTV) December 6, 2019
DeSantis said when the shooting happened that there are “a lot of questions about this individual being a foreign national, being a part of the Saudi Air Force, and then to be training on our soil and then to do this.” He said authorities are investigating to try to answer all of those questions.
“The government of Saudi Arabia needs to make things better for these victims, and I think they’re going to owe a debt here, given that this is one of their individuals.”
The governor said that “obviously when you have a foreign national involved, you know, particularly in that part of the world, the investigation is going to be different than if it was somebody from a local community.”
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott wrote on Twitter at the time, “I’m very concerned that the shooter in Pensacola was a foreign national training on a US base. Today, I’m calling for a full review of the US military programs to train foreign nationals on American soil. We shouldn’t be providing military training to people who wish us harm.”
Scott continued: “Whether this individual was motivated by radical Islam or was simply mentally unstable, this was an act of terrorism. It’s clear that we need to take steps to ensure that any and all foreign nationals are scrutinized and vetted extensively before being embedded with our American men and women in uniform.”
According to the Associated Press, the suspect was “a Saudi aviation student.” CNN reported that the suspect was “a member of the Saudi Arabian military training at the station.” President Donald Trump tweeted that King Salman of Saudi Arabia “just called to express his sincere condolences and give his sympathies to the families and friends of the warriors who were killed and wounded in the attack that took place in Pensacola, Florida.”
Alshamrani was a Saudi Air Force member, the AP reported. The New York Times called him “Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani.” Metro UK reported that Alshamrani “was in the US learning how to fly American aircraft sold to the Saudi Arabian army.”
WKG-TV reported that the shooter’s training began in 2017 and included English language lessons.
The active-shooter situation at Naval Air Station in Pensacola broke out on the morning of December 6, 2019, but in an early statement on it, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the gunman was dead.
At 6:51 a.m., the call went out, according to the Escambia County Sheriff, who said he couldn’t release all details at the time because the investigation was ongoing. “I want to assure our community that the threat has been negated. Our community is secure at this time,” he said. “This strikes home particularly hard for me as a retired military member. Walking through the crime scene was like being on the set of a movie. You just don’t expect this to happen at home.”
3. Officials Said the Mass Shooting Ignited in a Classroom Building & the Base Has Trained Foreign Aviators For Years, Including During World War II
— WEAR ABC 3 (@weartv) December 6, 2019
The mass shooting started in a classroom building, building 633, authorities revealed in a press conference. Building 633 is the home of the Naval Aviation Schools Command. It is located at 181 Chambers Avenue. It’s most common for foreign military officers to come to the Pensacola base for training if they are from countries “to which the U.S. sells arms,” according to NBC News.
The commanding officer of the base, Capt. Timothy F. Kinsella Jr., said in the press conference that “we have an international training service” and there are students “from several different countries who come here. They learn aviation. They become Naval aviators while they’re here. It’s something we’ve been doing for quite a while. It’s with our partner nations. It’s important cross-pollination and cross training that we do with our Allies. It’s something we’ve been doing for a long time. I mean World War II. We had Royal Air Force folks that were training here. There’s always been international students training here.”
Kinsella said in a news conference that “a couple hundred foreign students” are currently in the training program. “This has been a very, very difficult day for us and our families, the Navy family here,” he added. “I am absolutely in awe about the response by our sailors” and law enforcement. “There was real heroism. I couldn’t be prouder to wear the uniform I wear.”
He said that weapons are not authorized on the military base. “This is part of our training,” Kinsella said. “We train for active shooter scenarios regularly.”
“Like many other Saudi military personnel, I was trained in a U.S military base, and we used that valuable training to fight side by side with our American allies against terrorism and other threats,” wrote Saudi Vice Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman on Twitter.
“A large number of Saudi graduates of the Naval Air Station in Pensacola moved on to serve with their U.S counterparts in battlefronts around the world, helping to safeguard the regional and global security. Today’s tragic event is strongly condemned by everyone in #Saudi Arabia.”
You can listen to early scanner audio here. It starts around 19 minutes into the audio file.
“We have multiple patients at the front gate,” an officer says in the dispatch audio. The Escambia County Sheriff said in a news conference that, “while a dark day, folks this shows who we are. It shows the best of who we are. When one of us needs help, all of us respond.”
4. Three of the 9/11 Hijackers Gave Their Addresses as Being at Naval Air Station Pensacola; Alshamrani Acquired His Gun Locally, Reports Say
The New York Times reported that the gunman used a “locally purchased Glock 45 9-millimeter handgun with an extended magazine” and had more magazines in his possession. The shooter was involved in an Air Force military sales training course and the Saudi government was paying for it, according to The Associated Press.
In the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11, Newsweek reported that three of the hijackers had the addresses on their driver’s licenses listed as being at NAS Pensacola. The article notes that Naval Air Station Pensacola is known as the “Cradle of U.S. Navy Aviation.” Those three hijackers were all Saudi nationals.
Altogether, 15 9/11 terrorists were Saudi nationals, according to CNN. In September 2019, according to BBC, the U.S. Department of Justice said “it will reveal a key name sought by people suing Saudi Arabia for alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks.” The 9/11 Commission didn’t find evidence that the Saudi Arabian government had funded al-Qaida, BBC reported. But in 2012, it was revealed that a former Saudi consulate official and suspected Saudi intelligence officer were under investigation for involvement. A third person’s name was blacked out, and that’s the name being sought.
The Navy Times reported in February 2016 that NAS Pensacola officials had increased security measures at the base, after the base had been known as “unusually open” for years.
The Pensacola News Journal reported in September 2019 that “new, top-secret classrooms” had been built on the base to counteract the threat caused by cyber terrorism.
“Saddened to hear of the horrible shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola & continuing to monitor the situation. Praying for the victims & their families & we commend the first responders for their swift action in taking down the shooter & getting those on base to safety,” Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter.
5. A Sheriff’s Deputy Killed Alshamrani
A sheriff’s deputy shot Alshamrani, according to the Washington Post.
Today’s attack resembles past events in which terrorists infiltrated US military by different means and opened fire on US personnel: King Faisal Airbase in Jordan in November 2016, multiple times in Afghanistan, etc. pic.twitter.com/8TFTrV4vGU
— Rita Katz (@Rita_Katz) December 6, 2019
According to its website, NAS Pensacola, situated in Escambia County, “employs more than 16,000 military and 7,400 civilian personnel. This includes major tenant commands: Naval Aviation Schools Command, Naval Air Technical Training Center, Marine Aviation Training Support Group 21 and 23, the Blue Angels, and the headquarters for Naval Education Training Command, a command which combines direction and control of all Navy education and training.”
Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, who represents the district where NAS Pensacola is located, called for the shooting to be investigated as an act of terror. Rep. Gaetz told CNN, “We can safely call this an act of terrorism, not an act of workplace violence.” The base’s commanding officer, Capt. Kinsella, has refused to say if the incident will be investigated as an act of terror.
There have been mass shootings before on military installations.
In 2009, there was a mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 people dead and more than 30 wounded, according to The Army Times. Maj. Nidal Hasan was the shooter. He was an Army psychiatrist and was convicted in a 2013 court martial. CNN reported in 2014 that Hasan had written to ISIS asking to become an Islamic State citizen.