CAIRO – Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed on Sunday (Feb 2) that it directed a Saudi military officer to carry out the shooting at a US military base in Florida in December that killed three sailors and wounded eight people.
In an audio recording released on Sunday, the leader of the Yemen-based group, Qassim Al-Rimi, claimed responsibility for the Dec 6 attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola, according to Site, an organisation that tracks jihadi media.
The group offered no evidence that it had trained the gunman, Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, but produced a copy of his will as well as correspondence that indicated he had been in contact with Al-Qaeda. Experts said those elements gave the claim a plausible air.
Al-Rimi, the Al-Qaeda leader, may himself be dead. He was the target of a US drone strike in eastern Yemen last week, according to US and Yemeni officials who said they believed he had been killed but were awaiting confirmation.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump fueled speculation that confirmation had been received when he retweeted several messages and a media report about Al-Rimi's death.
The 21-year-old Saudi air force trainee who carried out the Pensacola attack was not a known member of Al-Qaeda. A sheriff's deputy shot him dead during the attack, and his family in Saudi Arabia said it was mystified by his actions.
But FBI investigators have said they were following leads that Alshamrani had been influenced by extremists as early as 2015. And on Sunday, Al-Qaeda provided a purported copy of a last will written in September.
The group also cited from correspondence with the young Saudi officer, in which he described his life on the base.
“The programme is called Aviation Preflight Introduction,” one letter read. “I started with the running tests last friday and I passed them, thank God. On Monday the swimming tests will start for a week, followed by five weeks of academic tests.”
At a news conference last month, the FBI deputy director David Bowdich said that while Alshamrani did not appear to be motivated by one specific terrorist group, he harboured anti-American and anti-Israeli views.
His social media comments echoed those of Anwar Al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni-American cleric and senior leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed in a drone strike in 2011, Mr Bowdich said.
On Sunday, Site said that Alshamrani posted a short manifesto on Twitter before the attack that read: “I'm against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil.” The Twitter account has been suspended.
“The timing of this audio is designed to cause maximum humiliation for Trump, who had just retweeted reports of Al-Rimi's death,” said Mr Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA officer. “It's also a statement that Aqap has infiltrated the Saudi military, which is an embarrassment for the Saudis.”
Mr Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Centre, a New York-based research organisation, said that Al-Qaeda's claim to have directed Alshamrani could well be legitimate.
“This makes the FBI's battle with Apple for access to Alshamrani's phone even that much more critical,” he said, referring to a dispute over Apple's refusal to unlock the shooter's iPhone.
Al-Rimi, 41, led a potent branch of Al-Qaeda that, despite some serious setbacks in recent years, still harboured ambitions of carrying out attack in the United States and Europe.
In 2018, the United States doubled a reward for information about Al-Rimi's whereabouts to US$10 million (S$13.65 million). The CIA picked up his trail in November, officials told The New York Times last week.
He had been considered a potential successor to Ayman al-Zawahri, the overall leader of Al-Qaeda, said Ms Rita Katz of Site.
Last month, the US Justice Department said it was sending home 21 Saudi students from the Pensacola base after they were found to be in possession of jihadi material or pornography.
Attorney-General Bill Barr said the Saudi government had undertaken to review each case under its code of military justice. Pornography is forbidden in the kingdom.