Navy personnel carry the casket of Cameron Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, after his funeral service in Savannah last month. Walters was one of the three sailors killed in the Dec. 6 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Photo: Stephen B. Morton
Photo: Stephen B. Morton

Attorney General: Fatal shooting in Pensacola was act of terrorism

Georgian among three sailors killed in attack at naval air station

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a statement Apple issued Monday evening.

The Dec. 6 shooting that killed a Georgia man and two other sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola was an act of terrorism, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced Monday in summarizing the results of the federal investigation.

Barr identified the shooter as 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani of the Royal Saudi Air Force, saying the attack was driven by “jihadist ideology.” Amid his rampage, Alshamrani shot at a picture of President Donald Trump and criticized the U.S. military’s actions overseas, according to the FBI.

“During the course of the investigation, we learned that the shooter posted a message on social media on Sept. 11 of last year that said, ‘The countdown has begun,’” Barr said, flanked by other federal law enforcement officials. “Over Thanksgiving weekend, he visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. He also posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli, and jihadi messages on social media, and did so two hours before his attack at the naval base.”

Cameron Walters, 21, an Effingham County High School graduate from Richmond Hill, was among the three sailors killed in the shooting. All three were students at Naval Aviation Schools Command. Eight others were injured. Alshamrani was studying at the same institution. A sheriff’s deputy who responded to the attack killed him.

The Navy posthumously promoted Walters to naval aircrewman mechanical 3rd Class on Dec. 12. Four days later, Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife Marty Kemp were among hundreds of mourners who honored Walters at his funeral service in Savannah. Walters’ family declined to comment Monday.

More: Hundreds honor Georgia sailor killed in Pensacola shooting

U.S. service members acted courageously during the attack, according to Barr. Two Marines, armed with only a fire extinguisher they had pulled off the wall, ran into the building to confront Alshamrani after hearing gunfire. They helped save lives by performing CPR on victims. Navy Airman Ryan Blackwell was shot five times but still managed to jump atop a fellow sailor, protect her from being wounded and then help others escape.

A semi-automatic handgun with an extended magazine and about 180 rounds of ammunition were found at the scene, said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich. Alshamrani legally purchased the weapon in Florida last year under a hunting license exception, Bowdich said.

Barr also disclosed that 21 Saudis have been “disenrolled” from military training in the United States following the federal investigation. The Justice Department, Barr said, learned 17 of them had “social media containing some jihadi or anti-American content.” And 15 had “some kind of contact with child pornography.”

“The relevant U.S. Attorneys offices independently reviewed each of the 21 cases involving derogatory information and determined that none of them would, in the normal course, result in federal prosecution,” Barr said. “However, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia determined that this material demonstrated conduct unbecoming an officer in the Saudi Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and the 21 cadets have been disenrolled from their training curriculum in the U.S. military and will be returning to Saudi Arabia later today.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.

Barr did not identify where the 21 Saudis were being trained.

The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning — located near Columbus — trains foreign military personnel, law enforcement students and civilians from other western nations. A spokesman for Benning referred questions to the Defense Department, which referred questions back to the Justice Department.

There is also a program that has for decades trained foreign national pilots and ground crews at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta. Moody officials had no immediate comment.

Barr sought to highlight the basis for such programs, calling them “critically important to the United States. The Royal Saudi Air Force, which flies American-made aircraft, is an important military partner, and has long had a training relationship with us.”

Also Monday, the attorney general said the government has asked Apple for help unlocking Alshamrani’s two iPhones.

“Both phones are engineered to make it virtually impossible to unlock them without the password. It is very important to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died,” Barr said. “So far, Apple has not given us any substantive assistance.”

Apple released a statement Monday evening, denying Barr’s statement and saying its responses to the government have been “timely, thorough and are ongoing.” 

“We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance,” Apple said. “Apple has great respect for the bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation.”

Staff writer Christopher Quinn contributed to this report.

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