The government of Saudi Arabia has condemned a fatal shooting by a Saudi aviation student at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. (Dec. 6)
PENSACOLA, Fla. – A Saudi pilot’s deadly shooting rampage in a naval air station classroom here is being investigated as an act of terrorism, authorities said Sunday.
“We work, as we do with most active shooter investigations, with the presumption that this was an act of terrorism,” Rachel Rojas, FBI special agent in charge, said at a news conference. But she added that the “investigation has not led us to any information that indicated any credible threat to our community.”
Rojas also said investigators were still trying to determine a motive for Friday’s attack that left three service members dead and eight injured. The FBI identified the shooter as Mohammed Alshamrani, 21, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force and student naval flight officer at the Naval Aviation Schools Command.
Alshamrani, armed with a legally purchased 9mm Glock handgun and several extra magazines, was shot to death by Escambia County sheriff’s deputies. Rojas said that Alshamrani was the sole shooter and that no arrests have been made in the case.
Investigators were interviewing the gunman’s friends and colleagues, trying to determine whether he acted alone or was part of a network, she said. They also want to “discern if any possible ideology” prompted the attack, Rojas said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the shooter’s beliefs expressed on social media should’ve been vetted by both the American and Saudi militaries.
“This guy was somebody who just had a deep-seated hatred for the United States,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “For us to be bringing in these foreign nationals, you have to take precautions to protect the country.”
Rojas declined to comment on reports that investigators were trying to determine why Alshamrani and three other students visited tourist sites in New York City days before the attack. She also would not confirm reports by multiple news outlets citing authorities briefed on the investigation that Alshamrani hosted a dinner party days before the carnage at which guests viewed videos of mass shootings.
Authorities were tracking a trip that the shooter made to New York with three other students in the days before the attack, a person familiar with the matter said. Based on interviews with those who made the trip, the person said, there is no indication so far that the travel was linked to anything sinister.
The trip lasted about four days. “They did touristy things,” said the person, who is not authorized to speak publicly.
It was after the group returned to Florida, the person said, that the shooter and others at a dinner gathering watched videos related to mass shootings.
The Associated Press, the first media outlet to report on the party, said one of the three students who attended later recorded video outside the building while the shooting was taking place. Two other Saudi students watched from a car, AP said, citing a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity after being briefed by federal authorities.
The New York Times, citing a person briefed on the investigation, said the student who recorded the video later told investigators he just happened to be in the area when the shooting broke out. The FBI said in a statement that it had obtained video taken a bystander from outside the building after the attack had begun and after first responders had arrived.
“We have interviewed that person and are analyzing the videos to determine if any details can further this investigation,” the statement said.
The Navy identified the victims as Airman Mohammed Hathaim, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, of Coffee, Alabama; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia.
The murders in Florida come at an already tense time in U.S.-Saudi relations after the Saudi role in the 2018 slaying of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister “expressed his condolences and sadness” for the attack.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, said he spoke with Saudi Ambassador Reema Al-Saud, expressing “in the strongest possible terms” that the U.S. expected full Saudi cooperation in the investigation.
“This was a planned terrorist attack, and the shooter wasn’t alone,” Gaetz said.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., told Fox News he had heard reports that not all the Saudi airmen were speaking with the FBI.
“I mean, if the Saudi government is our ally and our partner, they will make sure that there is full cooperation,” Scott said. “Not one airmen needs to leave this country” until the investigation is completed.
Alshamrani was one of 852 Saudi nationals in the United States training under a cooperation agreement. He was among 5,180 foreign students from 153 countries in the United States for military training. Many of those students operate U.S. military hardware that foreign governments buy from the United States.
Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had ordered a review of the Defense Department’s security and vetting policies. Guns are not allowed on the base, said Navy Rear Admiral Gary Mayes, without prior approval.
Hours before the Pensacola shooting, tweets purportedly written by the suspect railed against the United States for its support of Israel and for stationing troops at bases in Saudi Arabia. Rojas declined to confirm that tweets came from the Saudi military trainee.
Rita Katz, director of the U.S.-based SITE intelligence group that tracks jihadist activity, said the now-deleted Twitter account was created in 2012 and amassed more than 2,700 tweets.
“What is important to emphasize is the preventability of the attack,” Katz said. “Investigation into social media profiles must be a part of the vetting process. Current carte-blanche U.S. policies restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries are ineffective and create more fodder for ISIS and Al Qaeda campaigns.”
Bacon reported from McLean, Virginia; Pensacola News Journal’s Robinson reported from Pensacola. Contributing: USA TODAY’s Tom Vanden Brook and Kevin Johnson in Washington, D.C.; Dennis Wagner in San Diego; Grace Hauck in Chicago; Kristin Lam in Los Angeles; and Doug Stanglin and Mike James in McLean, Virginia.