The Saudi military student who killed three Americans at a US naval base in December had longstanding ties to al-Qaeda and planned an attack before he arrived in the country, US justice officials said Monday (May 18th).
The December 6th attack by Mohammed al-Shamrani, a Royal Saudi Air Force flight student at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, "was actually the culmination of years of planning and preparation", said FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Evidence discovered on an encrypted cell phone shows he was radicalised at least as far back as 2015, and had since been associating with "dangerous" operatives from the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Wray added.
The FBI and Justice Department revealed their findings after a months-long effort to crack the encryption on al-Shamrani's phone.
Discussed plans and tactics
Wray said the 21-year-old Saudi had expressed a desire to learn to fly years ago with plans for a "special operation," enlisting in the Royal Saudi Air Force and joining flight training in the US.
"In the months before the attack, while he was here among us, he talked with AQAP about his plans and tactics -- taking advantage of the information he acquired here, to assess how many people he could try to kill," Wray said.
He was in touch with AQAP contacts the night before he launched the attack, Wray added.
The December 6th shooting in a classroom building at the naval base left three US sailors dead and wounded eight other people, including two responding sheriff's deputies, before al-Shamrani was killed by police.
AQAP claimed responsibility, but at the time there was no evidence of a direct link.
The incident forced the temporary freeze of all US training for foreign military officials in order to review security precautions.
Continuing al-Qaeda threat
The December attack indicated that al-Qaeda remains a potent threat, able to project its menace beyond the Middle East, according to experts.
If it was in fact directed by AQAP, al-Shamrani's attack would be the first successful al-Qaeda-organised assault on the US since the September 11th, 2001 attacks, said David Sterman, a senior policy analyst at the New America think tank.
All the successful attacks in the country since then have been organised locally by people inspired or encouraged by al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), but not organised by them.
"Is this the sign of an existing external plotting capability in Yemen that continues?" Sterman asked.
Even so, he noted: "One deadly foreign-directed attack in 19 years is a relatively high level of success for the US."
The Saudi Embassy in Washington issued a statement expressing its condolences to the American people over the attack in Florida and welcoming word that "critical intelligence" was recovered from al-Shamrani's phones.