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Time was Valuable: Could Authorities Have Handled Pensacola Naval Base Terror Attack Differently?

05-19-2020
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This undated photo provided by the FBI shows Mohammed Alshamrani. (FBI via AP)

CBN News is taking a closer look at the terror attack on the US naval base in Pensacola, Fla., as investigators scour new evidence from the gunman's cell phones. One key question is whether authorities could have or should have handled things differently.

It was chaos at Naval Air Station Pensacola last December when a terrorist opened fire killing three people and injuring 8 others. The gunman, Mohammed Alshamramni, a member of the Saudi Air Force, was being trained in Florida.  Only now, months later has the FBI been finally able to crack his cell phone, revealing strong ties to Al Qaeda.

"The new evidence shows that Alshamramni had radicalized not after training here in the United States but at least as far back as 2015," said FBI Director Christopher Wray.  

"Taking advantage of the information he secured here to assess how many people he could try to kill," Wray said. 

Initially, the Defense Department ordered a stop to all international military student training at US installations, but it has since resumed.

"The military trainees from abroad have by my count been responsible for two or three of these incidents on American soil in the last decade," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

"That's still two or three too many. It has to be kept in perspective," O'Hanlon explained. "There are some countries that we have security partnerships with that are important enough to weigh the risk against the value of having these people on our soil, being people we can work with in the future. With the Saudis, I'm a little bit more wary and a little bit more skeptical that the relationship is on the right track."

Still, O'Hanlon says we need trained foreign fighters to battle terrorism, and expecting foolproof vetting is unrealistic. Officials say tech companies could help.

"Apple's desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable but not at all cost," said Attorney General William Barr.

Barr chided Apple for not doing more to help access the gunman's iPhones.  

"Apple has deliberately designed them so that only the users, in this case, the terrorist, could gain access to their contents," the attorney general said.

It took agents five labor-intensive months to do it despite a court order. Barr wants these companies to create a backdoor that would allow law enforcement access in times like this.

"But technologically we also have to worry about the third aspect of this which is that nefarious actors will figure out how to exploit back doors," O'Hanlon said.  

"Let's remember apparently we still have retaliated against the perpetrators of the propaganda, it just took longer than we would have liked," he noted. 

Officials say that time was valuable.

"And now, months after the attack, anyone he spoke to here or abroad has had months to concoct and compare stories with co-conspirators, destroy evidence and disappear," Wray said.

Apple has responded to Barr's criticism saying it did do everything it could to assist investigators in this instance. It stopped short of committing to create a so-called backdoor, saying it would be a national security risk that would do more harm than good.

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