Suspicions confirmed? The FBI and Department of Justice announced today that the Saudi pilot who killed three and wounded eight in a mass shooting at the Pensacola naval aviation station in December had communicated with al-Qaeda prior to the attack. The AQ “operative” had “encouraged” the attack, the New York Times reported this morning ahead of a press conference with Attorney General William Barr. Those contacts went all the way up to the terror network’s leadership, apparently — and got past any security checks by the US and Saudi Arabia:

Federal investigators found cellphone evidence that links Al Qaeda to last year’s deadly shooting at a United States military base in Pensacola, Fla., according to two American officials briefed on the investigation.

The F.B.I. found that the gunman, Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi Air Force cadet training with the American military, had communicated with a Qaeda operative who had encouraged the attacks, according to the two officials, who were not authorized to speak about it publicly ahead of an 11 a.m. news conference by Attorney General William P. Barr. …

Mr. Alshamrani was in touch over time with the Qaeda branch, including its leadership at times, up to the attack, according to one of the officials, who said that Mr. Alshamrani’s ties to the group went beyond simply being inspired to act based on watching YouTube videos or reading extremist propaganda.

In the press conference, Barr called the contacts between Alshamrani and his AQ contact Abdullah al-Maliki “significant.” The Saudi pilot’s AQ ties go back at least as far as 2015, and his efforts to penetrate the Saudi air force intended to set up a terrorist attack in the US. This was no impulse shooting, Wray explained, but a well planned operation by Alshamrani and al-Maliki:

Barr and FBI Christopher Wray also announced that the US had conducted a “counterintelligence operation” on al-Maliki. They didn’t get more specific, but one presumes that this information would not have been released if al-Maliki had not reached room temperature.

How did the FBI track down those communications? Alshamrani attempted to destroy his two iPhones, but investigators could still access encrypted data on them. Apple refused to unlock the phones, but the FBI finally figured out how to decrypt them on their own. “We did it ourselves,” Wray said, and “Apple provided no help” in this effort:

The contacts between the shooter, Mohammed Alshamrani, and the al-Qaida operative were discovered on the shooter’s phone, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the case by name and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Justice Department had previously asked Apple to help extract data from two iPhones that belonged to the gunman, including one that authorities say Alshamrani damaged with a bullet after being confronted by law enforcement. It was not immediately clear how the FBI and Justice Department were able to ultimately access the phone.

Wray sounded quite peeved at Apple, noting that they had “court approved search warrants” for the data on Alshamrani’s phones. This might not be the time for the FBI to take a stand on search warrants, even though Wray wasn’t wrong about the impact the delay will have on the counterintelligence operation in reaction to this attack. Perhaps the FBI would have been wiser to protect its credibility by, say, not lying to judges on FISA warrants.

The AQ link has been long suspected. The Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), issued a video at the time taking credit for the attack, but AQ and its affiliates have exaggerated their roles in so-called “lone wolf” attacks in the past. Far from being a “lone wolf,” Wray described Alshamrani as a “determined AQAP operative” and the shooting the result of a years-long plot against the US. Wray warned that this shows how serious a threat al-Qaeda “or its offshoots” pose to the US.

It also raises serious questions about the vetting process for visiting personnel from Saudi Arabia. Twenty-one other Saudi aviators training in the US (out of around 900) got sent back to Riyadh after increased security checks showed that they had either had expressed jihadist sympathies or “had contact with child pornography” while in the US. Just for comparison, that’s more potential terrorists than conducted the 9/11 attacks, and on a much more limited scale for vetting, too. The Saudis ended up discharging seventeen of them in the aftermath of the humiliating episode.

The success in cracking Apple’s encryption might raise other questions, too. Now that the FBI has this knowledge, where else might they apply it? Apple had resisted cooperating on this case in part to preserve its customers’ privacy, and probably in part because of the FBI’s declining reputation for respecting the boundaries of law. The recent revelations on Operation Crossfire Hurricane and FISA warrant practices won’t boost confidence in the FBI’s ability to get past that encryption now either, even if in this case they unlocked critical information that reminds us of the threat al-Qaeda still poses. If more recent existential threats have distracted us from the war on terror, this development should warn us that not all other threats stopped in the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Watch today’s press conference in full here: