FBI intelligence links Saudi military student to al-Qaeda: Attorney General

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The FBI cracked the iPhone encryption of the Royal Saudi Air Force trainee who killed three American sailors in a December attack at a naval base in Florida, and found evidence linking him to al-Qaeda, Attorney General William Barr said on Monday.

The shooter, Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani, 21, also wounded eight people before being killed by law enforcement during the December 6, 2019, attack. He was on the base as part of a US Navy training program designed to foster links with foreign allies.

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The Justice Department succeeded in unlocking the encryption on the shooter's iPhone after Apple Inc declined to do so, Barr told reporters on a conference call. Apple later disputed his version, saying it cooperated to the extent that its technology allowed.

“The information from the phone has already proved invaluable,” Barr said.

Barr called on Congress to act forcing Apple and other tech companies to help law enforcement agencies get through encryption during criminal investigations.

“Apple's decision has dangerous consequences,” Barr said. “Many of the technology companies that advocate most loudly for warrant-proof encryption... are at the same time willing to accommodate authoritarian regimes.”

Apple defended its practice. “It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors,” Apple said in a statement. “There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”

In February, an audio recording purporting to be from the terrorist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack but provided no evidence.

Prior to the shooting spree, the shooter had posted criticism of US wars and quoted slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on social media.

“The Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Monday, adding that evidence showed al-Shamrani had been radicalized by 2015.

Barr has said the Saudi government did not have any advanced warnings of the shooting.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington said in a statement it welcomed the recovery of intelligence from al-Shamrani's phone and it was continuing to provide full support to the investigation.

“The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reiterates its sincerest condolences to the American people on the tragedy that unfolded in December at Pensacola, Forida, and welcomes the announcement by US law authorities of the recovery of critical intelligence from the assailant’s telephones,” the Embassy’s statement said.

“Saudi Arabia will continue to use every means at our disposal to counter the men, mindset and money of terrorist that enables AQAP and others to recruit followers and threaten communities, or even entire nations.”

The Embassy also said terrorists have previously attacked the Kingdom’s people, military and “even Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.”

Read more:

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