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FBI: We received effectively no help from Apple in accessing Pensacola Shooter’s iPhones

May 18, 2020, 7:46 PM UTC

The FBI was able to unlock encrypted iPhones belonging to the shooter in December’s attack at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, and discovered he had contact with a suspected al-Qaeda operative, Attorney General William Barr said Monday.

“The FBI finally succeeded” and found that the phones “definitively established” the shooter’s “substantial ties” to the terrorist organization, Barr said at a news conference with FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Success getting into the two phones heads off a legal confrontation — at least for now — with Apple in a continuing fight that pits the needs of law enforcement against the privacy of phone users — but Barr and Wray hit hard at the company.

“We received effectively no help from Apple,” Wray said, an assertion that Apple has previously denied. He said the delay in accessing the phones’ information means conspirators could have destroyed useful evidence.

The alleged link to al-Qaeda is also significant because it suggests the terrorist organization is still able to encourage, and possibly direct, operations in the U.S. almost two decades after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The Trump administration asked Apple in January for help unlocking a pair of iPhones belonging to the shooter, Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force. Alshamrani was killed by law enforcement responding to the attack.

Barr previously said the shooting rampage that killed three sailors was an act of terrorism. The attack frayed U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, which removed 21 of its cadets from military training in the U.S. in response.

Alshamrani and his associates in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “communicated using end-to-end encrypted apps, with warrant-proof encryption, deliberately in order to evade law enforcement,” Barr said in a statement Monday. “Alshamrani’s preparations for terror began years ago. He had been radicalized by 2015, and having connected and associated with AQAP operatives, joined the Royal Saudi Air Force in order to carry out a ‘special operation.’”

After accessing evidence on the phone, the U.S. recently carried out a counterterrorism operation targeting an overseas al-Qaeda operative that Alshamrani associated with, Barr and Wray said. However, the officials stopped short of asserting that al-Qaeda directed the Pensacola attack.

Shot Phone

The attorney general said that Alshamrani viewed the data on one of his iPhones as so valuable that he interrupted his rampage to fire a bullet into it.

Wray told lawmakers in February that the bureau had reconstructed an iPhone belonging to the shooter but still couldn’t access the encrypted data on the device.

Apple declined to comment on Monday but previously has said it gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation cloud data it held related to the iPhones and works “tirelessly” to assist the bureau. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company continues to insist that it won’t provide a backdoor around encryption to access information on its devices.

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” the company said in a statement in January. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.”

While the government had been pressing Apple to help it unlock the devices, experts in cybersecurity and digital forensics say the FBI has shown it has the ability to get into mobile phones when necessary without Apple’s help, as it eventually did with the one belonging to the shooter behind an attack in San Bernardino, California, five years ago.

“Every time there’s a traumatic event requiring investigation into digital devices, the Justice Department loudly claims that it needs backdoors to encryption, and then quietly announces it actually found a way to access information without threatening the security and privacy of the entire world,” said Brett Max Kaufman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The boy who cried wolf has nothing on the agency that cried encryption,” he said in a statement.