By Aaron Kliegman
In December, a Saudi national opened fire at US Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, killing three American sailors and wounding eight other people. The gunman, 21-year-old Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was an officer in Saudi Arabia’s Air Force who was at the military base as part of an American training program for Saudi aviators. He was shot and killed at the scene.
In January, US Attorney General William Barr called the attack an “act of terrorism” and said an investigation determined Alshamrani was “motivated by jihadist ideology.”
The next month, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen, claimed it directed Alshamrani to carry out the attack.
This week, in a major development, the FBI and the Justice Department announced that the gunman had “significant ties” to AQAP dating back to long before the shooting. Officials stopped short of saying al Qaeda directed the attack, but they said the group did more than just inspire Alshamrani.
“The Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime AQAP associate,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a news conference. “We know, for example, that he was sharing plans and tactics with them. We know that he was coordinating with them and providing an opportunity for them to take credit.”
According to senior officials, Alshamrani had communicated with operatives from AQAP as recently as the night before the shooting.
These latest developments should remind us of a few critical points concerning American national security.
First, we need to know who is entering our country, plain and simple. Alshamrani, like other foreign government officials (including military personnel), was here in the US with an A-2 visa. Did we vet Alshamrani or interview him before he arrived? Did the Saudis see any red flags and, if so, share them? Did American officials follow up on any warnings? Some Republican senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asked these very questions in a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf in January.
Clearly, we need to address the process of vetting people who come to America on A-2 visas. And more broadly, those who decry vetting as bigotry and advocate open borders are just inviting America’s enemies to come here.
Second, the ongoing impasse between Apple Inc. and federal authorities about accessing data on iPhones is a major problem. Indeed, the tech company is actually hurting America’s national security.
Barr and Wray said federal investigators discovered Alshamrani’s ties to AQAP by gaining access to his iPhones, which he tried to destroy during the attack. But it took several months for American authorities to crack into the phones — no thanks to Apple.
“We did it ourselves” and had “effectively no help from Apple,” Wray said. “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.”
Data on iPhones is encrypted, and if an iPhone is protected with a passcode, then only the owner can unlock the device no matter the circumstances. Apple has repeatedly refused to create a “backdoor” to allow law enforcement to access encrypted data, arguing that such a backdoor would make every device vulnerable to bad actors. The company has also taken steps in recent years to close technological loopholes that allowed law enforcement to get information from locked iPhones.
In practice, Apple is prioritizing criminals and terrorists, whose iPhones are often critical to investigations, over the safety of the American people — even if law enforcement obtains the required warrants and court orders.
Hypocritically, Apple has submitted to various demands from the Chinese Communist Party’s government to undermine users’ privacy in order to do business in China. Indeed, Apple seems to have no problem with the Chinese Communist Party storing customers’ data, but the company is completely self-righteous about privacy when it comes to US law enforcement trying to fight terrorism.
Third and most important, the war on Islamist extremism — a more appropriate name than the war on terror — is far from over. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), and other jihadist groups still maintain strongholds around the world, plotting to attack the US and Americans. But the US can’t defeat this threat simply by killing terrorists on the battlefield — though military force is an essential piece of a comprehensive strategy.
Ultimately, the US needs to wage an ideological war to counter the terrorists’ Islamist ideology. Anything less will ensure more Alshamranis — early reports indicate there was another one just on Thursday. This means working with Muslim communities and foreign Muslim leaders who denounce extremism in the name of their religion. But it also means discouraging leaders from driving their people toward extremism with brutal authoritarianism.
In 2014, the former chief of the Australian army, Peter Leahy, warned that his country is in a war against radical Islam that is “likely to last for the rest of the century.” The entire Western world must adopt this mindset and recognize that this war will not end in any one presidential term, and that it will ebb and flow — sometimes simmering, away from the headlines, and sometimes boiling over, right in our faces.
Right now, the US is prioritizing China as its chief strategic threat, deploying more resources to counter China’s belligerent ambitions. This is smart policy. But recall how, before 9/11, the US under President George W. Bush similarly prioritized China and American officials used similar rhetoric to what we hear today. The lesson here is simple: It takes just one terrorist attack to change everything. And as Leahy wisely observed, “terrorists only have to be lucky once.”