The Pensacola Terrorist Attack: The Enduring Influence of al-Qa'ida and its Affiliates.

Author:Clarke, Colin P.
 
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On Friday, December 6, 2019, a 21-year-old Saudi Air Force Second Lieutenant named Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani murdered three U.S. Navy sailors and injured eight others in an unprovoked attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola in the Florida panhandle. (1) The shooting occurred in a classroom building. (2)

"During the attack, the shooter fired shots at pictures of the current U.S. president and a former president, and a witness at the scene recounted that he made statements critical of American military action overseas," according to FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich. (3)

Alshamrani, who hailed from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province of Al Ahsa, was killed by one of two local sheriff's deputies who arrived at the scene as first responders. (4) He was also confronted by two unarmed Marines and a Navy airman who was shot five times. (5) The shooting lasted approximately 15 minutes. (6)

In mid-January 2020, U.S. Attorney General William Barr labeled the shooting an act of terrorism. (7) After the shooting, it was discovered that Alshamrani was a follower of al-Qa'ida propaganda, including lectures from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. (8) Just prior to the attack, (9) Alshamrani posted an anti-American message on his Twitter account, which repurposed the words of al-Awlaki as well as longtime al-Qaida leader Usama bin Ladin. (10) In the posting, the attacker openly denounced the policies of the United States and Israel. Before the attack, he also retweeted articles that referenced Israel's harsh treatment of Palestinians and a tweet referencing the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (11)

Nearly two months after the attack, on February 2, 2020, al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula released a video claiming "adoption" of the attack. (12) (a) The video features a message from beyond the grave from Qassim al-Rimi, the AQAP emir who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020 in Yemen, according to an official statement released by the White House. (13) In the tape, al-Rimi stated, "Alshamrani carried out his martyrdom operation on one of the dens of evil... the US Naval Air Station Pensacola." (14)

"Our hero moved for several years between several U.S. military bases in America to select his target among them. He searched for his prey. Allah bestowed on him great patience," al-Rimi stated. (15)

The video noticeably failed to explicitly spell out the nature of the connection between Alshamrani and AQAP It did, however, display a screen grab of an apparent iPhone Notes document time-stamped September 6, 2019, purportedly containing Alshamrani's last will and testament addressed to his family. (16) (See bottom-right image in Figure 1.)

"If you have received this message while I am imprisoned, be patient and do not feel weak... And if Allah graced me with death, I ask Allah to accept me as a martyr for His sake," the document reads. "I assure you that the issue is not an adolescent mindset or excessiveness and extremism in takfir [excommunication from Islam]. Instead, it is a way out for the crisis that the Islamic ummah [worldwide community] is experiencing for close to a century now."

AQAP does not offer proof that Alshamrani is the author of the last will and testament, and Alshamrani never references AQAP in the document. Still, faking such a document would be risky on theological grounds, even for a terrorist group.

The AQAP video also featured a quote, written out by the group on the screen, from what it claimed was the "correspondence of the martyr." (17)

"During the last month I was in preparation for this program. I started last Friday running tests and I passed it all thanks to God. Starting on Monday there will be swimming tests for a week. Then there will be academy tests for five weeks. The program graduates a batch every week." (18) The battery of physical tests is a common part of the training associated with the program that Alshamrani was enrolled in, something that would be difficult for AQAP to have specific knowledge of if the correspondence was fabricated. (19)

Taken at face value, this could suggest Alshamrani had been in contact with AQAP. However, the group did not explicitly state that the message was sent to them by Alshamrani, nor did the group provide any images of correspondence in its original form.

The AQAP video also included pictures purportedly showing Alshamrani, a picture apparently taken with photographic flash of a framed letter purportedly addressed to Alshamrani from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia Armed Forces office acknowledging his level of English-language learning, and a picture of a purported "Certificate of Completion" of an "aviation preflight indoctrination course" from the U.S. Naval Aviation Schools Command. This is another aspect of the video that would have been difficult, yet not impossible, for AQAP to fake. (20)

In probing the connectivity between the attacker and AQAP, one possible avenue of inquiry for the FBI has been ascertaining the authenticity of these documents and whether they existed in the public domain prior to AQAP's release of the video. Although this author is not in a position to confirm the authenticity of the documents and photos used in the video, the totality of what AQAP showed in the video appears to point to at least some connectivity between AQAP and the attacker.

It is important to note that if this attack were directed, and not merely inspired by AQAP, it would be the first successful directed attack on U.S. soil by a foreign terrorist organization since 9/11. (21)

Alshamrani arrived in the United States in August 2017 on an A-2 Visa for military training. (22) He was initially stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for English-language instruction. (23) After Lackland, Alshamrani moved on to aviation training in Pensacola and eventually advanced strike fighter training in the fall of 2019. (24) Although Alshamrani filed a formal complaint against one of his instructors for repeatedly mocking him with a nickname, "Porn Stash," a moniker that apparently infuriated him, (25) investigators believe that the attack was premeditated and not a result of this incident, as evidenced by the U.S. government's terrorism label. There is also AQAP's claim that Alshamrani had been planning the attack for years and scouting various targets. (26) Indeed, Alshamrani was interested in extremist videos, literature, and social media postings as early as 2015. (27) While he was in the United States for training in July 2019, Alshamrani used a hunting license to legally purchase a 9mm Glock 45 handgun. (b)

The week before the attack, Alshamrani and three other Saudi military trainees traveled to New York City, visiting several museums and Rockefeller Center. (28) On this trip, Alshamrani also visited the September 11th Memorial in New York City. Months prior to his December 2019 visit to New York City, Alshamrani posted a cryptic message on the internet on September 11, 2019, noting that "the countdown has started." (29) The evening before the attack, Alshamrani hosted a dinner party where he showed videos of mass shootings. (30) Attorney General William Barr subsequently made clear that while several fellow Saudi Air Force officers attending the training facility took videos of the attack's aftermath, reports that they filmed the attack as it unfolded were false and that they had fully cooperated with investigators. (31) At least one of the individuals who attended the dinner party was among those who filmed the aftermath of the attack. (32)

This article examines several issues raised by the attack. First, it analyzes the enduring influence of al-Qa'ida propaganda and how it continues to resonate with the group's supporters. This section also examines the degree to which the attack may provide an opening for al-Qaida to reassert itself among jihadis around the world and renew its appeal to jihadis in Saudi Arabia. Second, it discusses the impact the attack may have on US.-Saudi relations, which has experienced particular volatility over the past several years. Third, it explores the issue of foreign military personnel vetting in the United States and whether a stricter and more rigorous vetting regime will allow Washington to be able to sustain the rate at which it trains military personnel from Saudi Arabia and other partner countries in the continuing fight against terrorism. Fourthly and finally, the article looks at how the attack will impact the privacy-security debate, especially given the inability of investigators to gain access to the attacker's iPhone. (33)

Issue 1: The Enduring al-Qa'ida Threat

Just prior to the attack, a Twitter account with the handle @M7MD_SHAMRANI, believed to belong to Alshamrani, posted a message criticizing the United States and Israel and accusing the United States of crimes against Muslims, with references to Guantanamo and the presence of U.S. troops in Muslim nations. Although Alshamrani opted not to refer to any al-Qa'ida leaders by name, his message repurposed the words of bin Ladin and AQAP's longtime American propagandist, until his death in 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki. (34)

Al-Awlaki's influence has been a key factor in some of the most significant terrorist attacks of the past decade, including the Boston Marathon bombings (2013), the Charlie Hebdo attack (2015), the San Bernardino shootings (2015), and the Orlando nightclub massacre (2016), in addition to numerous other attacks. (35) Despite highly publicized efforts to remove terrorist content from the internet, his sermons glorifying "martyrs" and calling for attacks against the West can still be accessed on YouTube and other social media platforms. (36)

The Pensacola attacker's social media account echoed some of al-Qa"ida's key themes, including anger over the presence of U.S. troops in the Muslim world and U.S. support for Israel. These themes have...

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