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May 18, 2020

FBI Director Christopher Wray’s Remarks at Press Conference Regarding Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting Investigation

FBI Director Christopher Wray delivered the following remarks during a virtual press conference with Attorney General William P. Barr at the Department of Justice today announcing updates in the criminal investigation of the December 6, 2019 shootings at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida that killed three U.S. service members and wounded eight other Americans. (Remarks prepared for delivery)

Thank you very much. I deeply appreciate the attorney general’s leadership and support for the FBI—both in our relentless fight against terrorism, and in our drive to obtain the vital evidence we need to protect the American people.

Investigation Update

We’re here today because of a tragic reminder of just how grave, how imminent, the terrorism threat still is—an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula associate’s murder of three people, and wounding of eight others, right here in America.

As the AG described, through a combination of skill and determination, the men and women of the FBI have succeeded in accessing the terrorist’s two phones—both of which he tried to destroy.

Our investigation into December’s terror attack in Pensacola continues, so there are limits to what I can say today. But this is an important moment in an important case.

It’s important because of what accessing the evidence on this killer’s phones allows us to do to protect the American people. In just the short time since we finally accessed that evidence, we and our partners have already put it to good use. Among other steps we’ve taken, just a moment ago you heard the attorney general describe the recent counterterrorism operation targeting Abdullah al-Maliki, one of the overseas AQAP operatives that al-Shamrani associated with while here in the U.S.

It’s also important because it underlines just how serious our fight against terrorism is—and how vital it is for the FBI to maintain its unflagging vigilance against this threat.

What We’ve Learned

The evidence we’ve been able to develop from the killer’s devices shows that the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation, by a longtime AQAP associate.

The new evidence shows that al-Shamrani had radicalized not after training here in the U.S. but at least as far back as 2015, and that he had been connecting and associating with a number of dangerous AQAP operatives ever since. It shows that al-Shamrani described a desire to learn about flying years ago, around the same time he talked about attending the Saudi Air Force Academy in order to carry out what he called a “special operation.” And he then pressed his plans forward, joining the Air Force and bringing his plot here—to America.

Thanks to a lot of hard work by our people, we now know that al-Shamrani continued to associate with AQAP even while living in Texas and in Florida; and that 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.

He was meticulous in his planning. He made pocket-cam videos as he cased his classroom building. He wrote a final will, purporting to explain himself, and saved it in his phone—the exact same will that AQAP released two months later when they initially claimed responsibility. He wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics—he was helping the organization make the most it could out of his murders. And he continued to confer with his AQAP associates right until the end, the very night before he started shooting.

We are still exploiting the evidence we’ve now obtained from al-Shamrani’s phones. And we’re continuing to run our investigation, now with the benefit of a lot more insight into the murderer’s mind and intentions, his relations with AQAP, and his tactics.

We have more to learn. But we know enough now to see al-Shamrani for what he was—a determined AQAP terrorist, who spent years preparing to attack us.

We now have a picture of him we didn’t have before we obtained this evidence—before we could confirm that his connection to AQAP was real, before we could track his long and methodical path to violence—a picture we would never had obtained without accessing his devices.

Side-by-side comparison of Pensacola shooter Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani's notes (left side) with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's original claim of responsibility. (Part of virtual press conference held May 18, 2020 at DOJ.)

Side-by-side comparison of Pensacola shooter Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani's notes (left side) with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's original claim of responsibility.

The Terrorism Threat Remains Our Top Priority

This case is a potent reminder, for anyone who needed one, of the stakes of our work.

We protect the American people from a staggering range of threats. But make no mistake, securing the homeland against terrorism remains our top priority.

The men and women of the FBI are deployed around the clock, all over our country and around the world, identifying and disrupting threats, and pursuing those who would do us harm. At the FBI, we remain laser-focused on the terrorism threat, not just because of how much damage an attack can cause our country, but also because we also know that even as we speak, there are evolving and sophisticated groups around the world, intent on striking us. Whether core al Qaeda or its offshoots like AQAP, ISIS, or the many others—we are working with our partners to find and disrupt them, wherever they are, whether they’re plotting attacks on Americans here at home or abroad.

Our people are attacking every aspect of the terrorism threat—international, like we’re here talking about today, and domestic—with dedication and expertise; with innovation to more than match the evolving threat; and with a commitment to getting the job done right.

Accessing the Killer’s Phones

On the topic of innovation—I want to thank and congratulate the men and women at the FBI who devoted months of hard work to accessing these devices. They successfully tackled a problem that required tenacity, creativity, and technical expertise. Those qualities are valuable in any organization—so I know how fortunate we are, and how fortunate the American people are, that we have so many people with those qualities at the Bureau. That’s why we work to recruit the kind of people we do.

The magnitude of the challenge they faced is hard to overstate.

We received effectively no help from Apple. We canvassed every partner, and every company, that might have had a solution to access these phones. None did, despite what some claimed in the media. So we did it ourselves.

Unfortunately, the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem—it’s of pretty limited application. But it has made a huge difference in this investigation.

Images of the Pensacola shooter's phone were on display during a January 13, 2020, press conference at DOJ Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

These images of al-Shamrani's phone were displayed during a January 13, 2020 press conference.

Cost of the Effort

While we’re thanking the FBI’s computer scientists, engineers, and other professionals for their hard work, we should also be thinking about the cost of all that work.

Public servants, already swamped with important things to do to protect the American people—and toiling through a pandemic, with all the risk and hardship that entails—had to spend all that time just to access evidence we got court-authorized search warrants for months ago. Our engineers and computer scientists working to access these phones were also needed on other, pressing, national security and criminal investigations.

But the delay getting into these devices didn’t just divert our personnel from other important work. It’s also seriously hampered this investigation.

Finally getting our hands on the evidence al-Shamrani tried to keep from us is great. But we really needed it months ago, back in December, when the court issued its warrants.

In the aftermath of the attack, we and our Joint Terrorism Task Force partners worked urgently to collect and analyze evidence. In the weeks immediately following December 6, we conducted over 500 interviews of witnesses, base personnel, and the shooter’s friends, classmates, and associates—among many other efforts. Because the crucial evidence on the killer’s phones was kept from us, we did all that investigating not knowing what we do now: valuable intelligence about what to ask, what to look for. If we had, our round-the-clock, all-hands-on-deck effort would have been a lot more productive.

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, or disappear. As a result, there’s a lot we just can’t do at this point that we could have done months ago.

You’ll hear more from the attorney general in just a moment on just how vital lawful access is to every part of both our law enforcement and national security missions. Cybercrime, opioid trafficking, child sexual exploitation—you name it. Lack of lawful access affects every fight we’re in.

And Americans need to understand this isn’t just an issue for law enforcement. Lack of lawful access certainly affects our ability to do our jobs, but we know where the harm really falls when evidence is kept unavailable—it falls on innocent people, the people we’re sworn to protect.

In this case, we and our partners aren’t the only ones who needed this information months ago. The victims—those who were wounded or lost loved ones that day—deserved to know then what happened. Not to have to wait to hear it from AQAP months after the fact, when one of the killer’s own associates, the operative Abdullah al-Maliki the attorney general and I mentioned earlier, issued AQAP’s claim of responsibility for the attack.

We at the FBI never forget that three brave members of our armed forces were killed in this attack. They were Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, from St. Petersburg, Florida; Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, of Coffee, Alabama; and Airman Cameron Scott Walters, from Richmond Hill, Georgia. They were serving our country. They died as heroes. And we have them front of mind every day as we continue to battle the same threat they did.

Thanking Our Partners

I want to end by also extending my and the FBI’s thanks to all our partners. Our partners are essential to everything we do, and this case has been a perfect example of that.

Our Joint Terrorism Task Force in Jacksonville and our Pensacola Resident Agency have led this investigation, in partnership with their colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, and with essential help from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, ATF, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The assistance of our other state and local partners in Pensacola has been invaluable as well, as has that of our Intelligence Community partners.

I especially want to recognize the brave Naval Security Forces personnel, and deputies from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, who responded to the initial call for help.

The Defense Department has also been an essential partner. In addition to DOD’s work on the JTTF, the Navy officials in Pensacola and DOD personnel at all levels in Washington and around the world have been vital to our effort to investigate this heinous attack and prevent others in the future.

Finally, to the victims and their families—know that our work continues. Right now, we and our partners are exploiting the evidence from this investigation, pursuing the killer’s potential associates and the new evidence these devices can lead us to. We and our JTTF colleagues come in every day dedicated to preventing terrorism from any place, by any actor—and that work will never rest.

Thank you.