US officials have finally broken into the iPhones of Mohammad Alshamrani who they say was working for Al Qaeda.
Minutes before he was gunned down by police officers, the Pensacola naval base shooter, Mohammad Saeed Alshamrani, aimed his Glock Model 45 handgun at one of his two iPhones and fired a round of shots. He had already damaged another device. The 21-year-old Saudi cadet obviously had something to hide.
In the weeks that followed the incident that occurred on 6th December, in which Alshamrani killed three of his fellow students at the American training center in Florida, speculation began to mount over his motives.
Some initial reports suggested that the young second lieutenant of the Royal Saudi Airforce might have been radicalised while living in the US. Afterall, Alshramrani had filed a complaint against an instructor who called him by the moniker “porn stash”.
But now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says it has irrefutable evidence that shows Alshamrani had been in touch with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for some years before the attack.
"The Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Monday, adding that Alshamrani’s link with the group goes back to 2015.
The FBI have broken into Alshamrani’s iPhones using a third party contractor after months of haggling with Apple proved futile, the company refusing to help on privacy grounds.
A longtime insider
In February, AQAP released a video of its leader Qassim al Rimi, who said Alshamrani was working for his group.
“Our hero moved for several years between several US military bases in America to select his target among them.”
The video also showed a screengrab of what apparently was Alsharami’s will, written in Arabic, recorded on an iPhone note.
Alshamrani first arrived in the US in August 2017 for military training. He was first stationed at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and later moved to the Florida base.
For the FBI, the information within his phone means verifying key information and contacts that Alshamrani might have had. Qassim al Rimi was killed in a US drone strike a few days before his recorded video was released.
A direct involvement of AQAP can strain US-Saudi ties, which have already hit a low mainly as a result of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) rash decisions.
Friends with benefits
The Republican lawmaker from Florida, Matt Gaetz, at the time said that the incident may even reshape the US-Saudi relationship, originally forged on a US warship in 1945 during a meeting between Franklin D Roosevelt and the then Saudi King, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.
Washington has historically viewed Riyadh as a Middle Eastern ally on which it can rely when it comes to oil supply and foreign diplomatic goals.
Oil has been a binding force for decades. Even the 1973 Saudi embargo, that pushed the US into a recession, did not take the two partners to breaking point. But it must be acknowledged that the US reliance on Saudi oil has gone down sharply.
In 2013, the US was importing 1.3 million barrels of Saudi oil per day. In 2019 this dropped to half a million according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The revolution in drilling technology has enabled the US to become a major producer of its own, and therefore cut imports. But the recent price war initiated by Saudi Arabia along with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, has badly hurt American producers and states, which have come to rely on oil revenue.
US lawmakers from the oil-producing states such as Texas and North Dakota, Louisiana and Alaska, have threatened to cut military ties in retaliation.
Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, has questioned why the US keeps spending resources on protecting Saudi Arabia while seemingly receiving very little in return.
We have 2,500 troops and missile defense systems in Saudi Arabia protecting their oil assets as they wage war on American oil producers. @SenDanSullivan & I introduced legislation to remove these armed forces. We shouldn’t keep protecting them if they won’t treat us as an ally. pic.twitter.com/qN3TMT8Nte— Sen. Kevin Cramer (@SenKevinCramer) April 6, 2020
In recent years, the two countries closely coordinated on ways to contain Saudi Arabia’s key regional rival, Iran.
Last year, the US deployed Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries and troops in Saudi Arabia after the latter's oil installation came under drone and cruise missile attack
Earlier this month, the US announced pulling out two batteries along with some troops. While the official reasoning is adjustment in military deployment in the region, experts say it’s punishment for the oil price debacle which has hurt US interests.
Show them the money
Besides oil, the money that Saudis spend on buying US military gear has also kept the two countries close - as Andrew Feinstein, a global arms trade expert told The Guardian: “One of the outcomes of purchasing weapons is that you’re buying relationships.”
Who can forget the iconic pictures from the press conference in which President Trump unashamedly showed cardboard graphics of American-made weapons that Saudis will buy. All this while Mohammed bin Salman laughed in semi-embarrassment.
The crash in oil prices has strained the Saudi budget. Even though the country’s cost of pumping oil out of the ground is low, it needs a price of more than $80 per barrel to balance its finances, something that can cut its $62 billion defence expenditure.
US lawmakers have already been wary of Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations including the brutal muder of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
The devastating Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen that have directly and indirectly led to 100,000 deaths, has also put pressure on US lawmakers to reevaluate defence ties with the kingdom.