Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani

Second-Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani was an al-Qaeda-linked Saudi military officer who killed three people in an attack a U.S. military base in Florida on December 6, 2019. That morning, Alshamrani opened fire with a 9-millimeter handgun in a classroom building at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, killing three and wounding eight others. Alshamrani was shot and killed during the attack by a sheriff’s deputy.Frances Robles, Eric Schmitt, Patricia Mazzei, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Before Florida Shooting, Gunman Showed Off Videos of Mass Attacks,” New York Times, December 7, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/07/us/pensacola-florida-shooting-saudi.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article. In January 2020, the U.S. government labeled the shooting a terrorist attack and later linked Alshamrani to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for the attack.“Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barr-and-fbi-director-christopher-wray-announce-significant; “Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula claims December shooting at Florida naval base,” Reuters, February 2, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-florida-shooting-alqaeda/al-qaeda-in-arabian-peninsula-claims-december-shooting-at-florida-naval-base-idUSKBN1ZW0PH.

Alshamrani was a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force who grew up in southern Saudi Arabia in a home that was religiously observant but not strict. In approximately 2015, Alshamrani began following hardline Saudi clerics Abdulaziz al-Tarifi and Ibrahim al-Sakran, who were imprisoned by the Saudi government in 2016, as well as clerics from Jordan and Kuwait. Alshamrani reportedly made first contact with AQAP operatives in 2015, though the circumstances are unclear. He also joined the Saudi Air Force at approximately this time, reportedly fulfilling a childhood goal of becoming a pilot. He reported to the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh for training.Michael LaForgia and Eric Schmitt, “The Lapses That Let a Saudi Extremist Shoot Up a U.S. Navy Base,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/saudi-gunman-vetting.html.

Alshamrani was one of two students from the academy chosen to train in the United States. He arrived in the United States in August 2017 on a diplomatic visa and was scheduled to complete his training in the summer of 2020.Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Pensacola Attack Probed for Terrorism Link. Saudi Suspect Clashed With Instructor,” New York Times, December 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/us/pensacola-gunman.html; Michael LaForgia and Eric Schmitt, “The Lapses That Let a Saudi Extremist Shoot Up a U.S. Navy Base,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/saudi-gunman-vetting.html. Alshamrani was one of more than 850 Saudi officers training in the United States at the time. Like all foreign officers training in the United States, Alshamrani was vetted for links to terrorism and a criminal history before he could start his training.Lolita C. Baldor, “US digs into Saudi shooting suspect motive in Navy shooting,” Associated Press, December 6, 2019, https://apnews.com/1102076110d04018176b4f7f12017347. A June 2020 New York Times investigation found that Alshamrani had passed multiple background checks to first join the Saudi military and then train in the United States, including by the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia, the State Department, and the Pentagon. The United States had bolstered its process of internal military background checks since the deadly 2009 Fort Hood and 2013 Washington Navy Yard shootings. According to media reports, however, the increases focused primarily on U.S. citizens, not foreign military students training in the United States.Michael LaForgia and Eric Schmitt, “The Lapses That Let a Saudi Extremist Shoot Up a U.S. Navy Base,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/saudi-gunman-vetting.html.

After completing his language training, Alshamrani transferred to the naval air station in Pensacola, Florida.Michael LaForgia and Eric Schmitt, “The Lapses That Let a Saudi Extremist Shoot Up a U.S. Navy Base,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/saudi-gunman-vetting.html. In April 2019, Alshamrani filed a complaint against one of his instructors, James Day, after Day gave him the nickname “Porn Stash”—as spelled in the complaint—during class. According to the complaint, Day cited Alshamrani’s mustache as inspiration for the nickname, referring to male porn stars having mustaches. Two other students in the class reportedly helped Alshamrani file the complaint against Day. Day’s employer, Delaware Resource Group of Oklahoma, told the New York Times “corrective action” was taken against Day in April.Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Pensacola Attack Probed for Terrorism Link. Saudi Suspect Clashed With Instructor,” New York Times, December 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/us/pensacola-gunman.html.

Alsharamni’s diplomatic visa allowed him to travel freely while studying.Michael LaForgia and Eric Schmitt, “The Lapses That Let a Saudi Extremist Shoot Up a U.S. Navy Base,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/saudi-gunman-vetting.html. He traveled home to Saudi Arabia during breaks in his trainings. He returned from his last visit to Saudi Arabia in February 2019. Friends and colleagues reported that he became noticeably more religious after that visit.Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Pensacola Attack Probed for Terrorism Link. Saudi Suspect Clashed With Instructor,” New York Times, December 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/us/pensacola-gunman.html. After the shooting, investigators found a Twitter account matching Alshamrani’s name, which included tweets criticizing the United States and praising Osama bin Laden.Frances Robles, Eric Schmitt, Patricia Mazzei, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Before Florida Shooting, Gunman Showed Off Videos of Mass Attacks,” New York Times, December 7, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/07/us/pensacola-florida-shooting-saudi.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.

In July 2019, Alshamrani purchased a Glock Model 45 9mm pistol from a Florida gun dealer. Federal law prohibits the sale of such weapons to foreign nationals, but Alshamrani relied on a loophole in the law that allowed the purchase for hunting purposes. He had received a Florida hunting permit earlier that month.Courtney Mabeus, “Questions mount about how Saudi gunman bought murder weapon,” Navy Times, December 17, 2019, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/12/17/questions-mount-about-how-saudi-gunman-bought-murder-weapon/; Pensacola News Journal, “Pensacola gunman legally purchased Glock 45 used in shooting, FBI says. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blames 'federal loophole,’” USA Today, last updated December 9, 2010, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/12/08/pensacola-shooting-gunman-legally-bought-glock-45-fbi/4378016002/. On September 11, 2019, Alshamrani posted on Twitter that “the countdown has begun.”Michael LaForgia and Eric Schmitt, “The Lapses That Let a Saudi Extremist Shoot Up a U.S. Navy Base,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/saudi-gunman-vetting.html. Also that month, Alshamrani wrote out a will and saved it to his iPhone. He also forwarded a copy to AQAP.Michael LaForgia and Eric Schmitt, “The Lapses That Let a Saudi Extremist Shoot Up a U.S. Navy Base,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/saudi-gunman-vetting.html.

During the December attack, Alshamrani shot at his own iPhone to destroy it. Investigators found him with a second phone he had attempted to destroy.Katie Benner and Adam Goldman, “F.B.I. Finds Links Between Pensacola Gunman and Al Qaeda,” New York Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/us/politics/justice-department-al-qaeda-florida-naval-base-shooting.html. Within one day of the attack, investigators received judicial approval to search Alshamrani’s cellphones but could not unlock their security protocols. On January 13, 2020, U.S. Attorney General William Barr labeled the shooting an act of terrorism and publicly asked Apple to help the FBI access the locked contents on the two iPhones.“Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barr-and-fbi-director-christopher-wray-announce-significant. Apple refused the request, according to the Department of Justice, though Apple claimed it had provided access to Alshamrani’s online storage accounts and provided support to federal investigators.Katie Benner and Adam Goldman, “F.B.I. Finds Links Between Pensacola Gunman and Al Qaeda,” New York Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/us/politics/justice-department-al-qaeda-florida-naval-base-shooting.html. While the extent to which Apple aided the investigation is in dispute, the FBI successfully cracked the security protocols on the phones.“Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barr-and-fbi-director-christopher-wray-announce-significant.

In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the FBI had found evidence of encrypted conversations between Alshamrani and AQAP members as well as details of his radicalization in 2015. According to the Justice Department, the phones contained previously unknown information that “definitively established Alshamrani’s significant ties to” AQAP before the attack and before he arrived in the United States.“Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barr-and-fbi-director-christopher-wray-announce-significant. Investigators also found videos of a classroom building and a digital will on Alshamrani’s phone. The attack was the culmination of years of planning and Alshamrani had joined the Saudi military in order to carry out a “special operation,” according to the Justice Department.Katie Benner and Adam Goldman, “F.B.I. Finds Links Between Pensacola Gunman and Al Qaeda,” New York Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/us/politics/justice-department-al-qaeda-florida-naval-base-shooting.html; “Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barr-and-fbi-director-christopher-wray-announce-significant.

Information found on Alshamrani’s phone also provided intelligence on AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, who was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen earlier in May 2020. According to an unnamed U.S. official, Maliki was an al-Qaeda communications specialist in AQAP’s command structure who was globally distributing al-Qaeda’s messages. His death degraded al-Qaeda’s capabilities in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.Katie Benner and Adam Goldman, “F.B.I. Finds Links Between Pensacola Gunman and Al Qaeda,” New York Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/us/politics/justice-department-al-qaeda-florida-naval-base-shooting.html.

Investigators believe Alshamrani acted alone and found no links to other Saudi military students training in the United States. Nonetheless, the United States expelled 21 Saudi students in possession of “derogatory material.”C. Todd Lopez, “DOJ Finds Pensacola Attack 'Act of Terrorism;' New Rules for Foreign Military Students,” U.S. Department of Defense, January 17, 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2060608/doj-finds-pensacola-attack-act-of-terrorism-new-rules-for-foreign-military-stud/. The U.S. government temporarily halted all international student military training at U.S. facilities after the December 2019 attack. In January 2020, the Department of Defense imposed further restrictions on international military students’ access to firearms and government facilities.Katie Benner and Adam Goldman, “F.B.I. Finds Links Between Pensacola Gunman and Al Qaeda,” New York Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/us/politics/justice-department-al-qaeda-florida-naval-base-shooting.html; C. Todd Lopez, “DOJ Finds Pensacola Attack ‘Act of Terrorism;’ New Rules for Foreign Military Students,” U.S. Department of Defense, January 17, 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2060608/doj-finds-pensacola-attack-act-of-terrorism-new-rules-for-foreign-military-stud/.

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