Military personnel carry a transfer case for a service member who died in the Pensacola shooting, Dec. 8, 2019. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The FBI uncovered cellphone evidence that links al-Qaeda to last year's shooting at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, that killed three service members, the New York Times reports.

The state of play: The agency discovered that the gunman, a Saudi Air Force cadet training with the American military, communicated with an operative of a branch of the terrorist group who encouraged the attacks.

  • The FBI found the texts by bypassing the security features on at least one of the shooter's two iPhones without help from Apple, which refused to give the military access to the encrypted phone data.
  • It is unclear whether the al-Qaeda operative specifically directed the shooter to carry out the shooting, but an official told the Times that the shooter was in contact with the terrorist branch, including its leadership, up until the attack.

The big picture: The shooting increased tensions between the U.S. and Saudi governments, which were already elevated after the assassination of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2o18.

  • And whether law enforcement has the right to access encrypted data on smartphones remains unsettled and is one of the most hotly debated issues in tech, with no clear middle ground.

What's next: Attorney General Bill Barr is set to address the finding during an 11am news conference.

  • Barr said earlier this year that the shooting was an "act of terrorism" and that the Saudi gunman was determined to have been "motivated by jihadist ideology."

Go deeper: Florida shooting spirals into international incident

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