By Yoram Schweitzer
In the Israeli Air Force, it is customary to view every event that is an "almost accident” as if it was a disastrous accident. This rule should also be applied to terror attacks that almost occurred. Regarding this case in point, a tragedy was materialized, yet, a potentially greater disaster was averted due to a lack of professional calculated operational planning by both the perpetrator and his handlers. Both were either amateurs or too eager, or maybe because they did not fully understand the potential lethality and destruction they could have caused with the adequate planning. This is what is known thus far from the FBI's investigation of the incident.
On the 6th of December 2019, a nineteen-year-old Saudi cadet, Mohammed al-Shamrani, shot and killed three American soldiers at the American naval base in Pensacola, Florida. Recently, due to the FBI's success at gaining access to al-Shamrani's two encrypted phones, it has become clear that he was a member of AQAP, having joined its ranks approximately four years prior to the attack. In fact, a year after joining AQAP he enlisted in the Royal Saudi Air Force to serve as a pilot. He was sent to the United States to be part of a three-year advanced study and military course, where at its conclusion he would return to Saudi Arabia after completing a flight course on helicopters and F-15 fighter. According to the FBI's investigation and as reported by the FBI Director and the Attorney General, it is evident that al-Shamrani was in close and continuous contact with AQAP operatives and even until the night before the attack. He made clear statements regarding his motives, declaring on social media that "the countdown has started."
AQAP - The Most Dangerous Among al-Qaeda's Affiliates
It should be mentioned that the terror attack at Pensacola is a reminder of AQAP's previous attacks, both in the US and against it. One proximate association is the murderous rampage conducted by Dr. Nidal Hasan, an American citizen of Palestinian descent who served as a military psychiatrist at the Fort Hood base in Texas, who murdered thirteen of his colleagues and wounded tens in Port Hood base in Texas in November 2009. Hasan was guided and deeply affected by Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the most prominent al-Qaeda propagandists in Saudi Arabia, through social media.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is considered as the most dangerous of all al-Qaeda's affiliates. This is due to additional series of attacks it has previously conducted against the US and other targets associated with it. One notable example was in December 2009, when AQAP sent a Nigerian suicide bomber with explosives hidden in his underwear in order to blow-up a Northwest Airlines on Christmas Eve. The explosive charge failed to detonate due to a technical malfunction and also the prompt action of the passengers who stormed and chained the attacker prevented a catastrophe. AQAP also attempted in 2010 to blow up cargo airliners flying from Yemen to the USA by explosive charges concealed in printers. The skim was foiled due to precise intelligence alert. The organization also claimed responsibility for the murder of twelve journalists and employees of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. The attack was in revenge for the magazine’s publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that were, considered as a blasphemy. One of the assailants, the Kouachi brothers, was in AQAP’s training camps 5 years before the attack.
The Pensacola Attack Should Raise a Red Flag in the USA and Beyond
The proven capability of a terror organization, linked to al-Qaeda, to carry out an attack on American soil and to kill American service men in an army base by penetrating a dormant agent is a huge achievement for that organization, as well as for the terrorist alliance of Al Qaeda, headed by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. This success was clearly expressed in a video statement issued by the organization's leader, Qasim al-Raymi, in February this year, shortly before he was killed by a missile fired from an American unmanned aerial vehicle. Al-Raymi took pride for the fact that a member of his organization had been able to infiltrate into the ranks of the Saudi and US military and bases without being traced and succeeded in killing American soldiers. By issuing this message, al-Qaeda made clear that US leaders' claims that the organization had been decimated and that it had been deprived of its ability to carry out attacks in the United States – and by implication, also outside of it, are illusions.
Since it was an al-Qaeda agent who was qualified and almost certified by the US to become a pilot, one can only imagine the potential carnage that could have been caused had al-Shamrani and his handlers have not rushed to launch a merely shooting attack in Pensacola, but rather "held back" for several months, at which time al-Shmarani could have committed an aerial suicide attack, either in the US or in Saudi Arabia. The choice of possible targets for such an assault is best left to one’s imagination.
Regardless of the successful outcome of the Pensacola attack for al-Qaeda, the failure, especially of al-Shamrani's handlers, to effectively manage and utilize the opportunity is striking, even if the reasons for this short vision are still unknown. Much more disturbing are the Saudi and American intelligence and security failures. Even though al-Shamrami posted radical statements on social media in the three months leading up to the attack, the US and the Saudi failure to filter, find, and identify al-Shamrani's intentions, from recruitment until the execution of the attack is a major debacle. The same applies to his Saudi and American instructors and in colleagues on base. Alongside, the incident has brought on a fundamental debate between US intelligence and security officials and Apple due to its refusal to allow immediate access to the killer's phone. The time it took for FBI researchers from its technological wing to gain access to the phone's encryption seriously delayed the initial investigation immediately after the attack for a significant period of time, thus allowing the organization and its co handlers to cover their tracks.
Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates continue to be active in various arenas throughout the globe. It is clear that the goal of defeating international terrorism is still far from being realized, if it is feasible at all. Thus it is advised that the Pensacola attack that caused a relatively limited number of casualties, be an early wake-up call for improvement and for a continuation of an more effective campaign against global terrorism, with local and international intelligence and operational cooperation, otherwise we may not be that lucky the next time.
Yoram Schweitzer is head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies