A general view of the atmosphere at the Pensacola Naval Air Station main gate following a shooting on Dec 06, 2019 in Pensacola, Florida. (JOSH BRASTED / GETTY IMAGES / BLOOMBERG)
The FBI presumes a Florida attack by a Saudi air force officer that left three US sailors dead “was an act of terrorism,” the agent in charge of the investigation said, and Republican lawmakers urged a suspension of training from foreign fighters in the US.
As criticism mounted about the incident, including Donald Trump’s rapid defense of the Saudi royal family, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman called the US president on Sunday to express his condolences, the state-run SPA news agency reported.
The Saudi kingdom is willing to fully cooperate with US authorities and give information to help determine the shooter’s motives, SPA reported, citing the crown prince. Saudi’s King Salman spoke with Trump on Friday to offer condolences and sympathies to the victims.
The Saudi kingdom is willing to fully cooperate with US authorities and give information to help determine the shooter’s motives
A 21-year-old Saudi military student identified as Mohammed Alshamrani opened fire at the base with a 9-millimeter Glock handgun on Friday, killing three men -- from Alabama, Florida and Georgia -- and wounding eight others before sheriff’s deputies shot and killed him. Two days earlier, a US Navy sailor shot and killed two people at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii before taking his own life.
Deeming the Florida attack “terrorism” can help speed the investigation, FBI special agent-in-charge Rachel Rojas said Sunday in a press briefing.
The Saudi commander at Pensacola restricted all Saudi students there to base, and the Riyadh government is fully cooperating, she said.
The Pentagon should temporarily suspend training for foreign fighters, Republican lawmakers, including Representative Matt Gaetz and Senator Lindsey Graham, said on Sunday political talk shows.
‘Pause This Program’
“We should pause this program,” Gaetz, whose Florida district includes the Naval Air Station Pensacola, said on ABC’s “This Week” broadcast. “We should not be taking new incoming Saudi students until we’re absolutely confident in our vetting process.”
Graham of South Carolina called for a halt during the investigation of the Florida incident. “Saudi Arabia’s an ally, but there’s something really bad here. Fundamentally, we need to slow this program down and re-evaluate,” he said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”
Senator Cory Booker, a Democratic senator and 2020 presidential candidate from New Jersey, said on ABC that Trump has taken a “transactional” approach to US relations to Saudi Arabia driven by financial interests that include large US arms sales.
Rojas declined to comment on the shooter’s travels or activities while based in Pensacola. The Wall Street Journal reported Saudi authorities are examining whether he was radicalized last year during a visit to the kingdom.
“There was one gunman who perpetrated this attack and no arrests have been made in this case,” Rojas said, adding that the gunman bought the Glock gun legally.
Before the FBI agent spoke, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the agency is investigating whether the Florida shooter acted alone.
“It appears this may be somebody who was radicalized,” O’Brien said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “It looks from what we’re seeing in the public reports, this looks like something that’s terrorism or something akin to terrorism.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he’s opened a review of screening procedures for foreign nationals coming to the US to train. On Sunday, Esper said he didn’t know if the victims on Friday were targeted because they were American.
“I don’t know that yet,” Esper said on “Fox News Sunday.” “That’s why I think we need to let the investigation play out.”
Officials combed through the shooter’s belongings and social media accounts on Saturday while questioning six other Saudi nationals, at least some of them fellow students in the Navy flight training program, the Washington Post reported. Some of the Saudis took cellphone video at the scene, Esper said.
“Some one or two were filming it,” Esper said on Fox. “What’s unclear is, were they filming it before it began, or was it something where they picked up their phones and filmed it once they saw it unfolding. That may be a distinction with or without a difference.”
Gaetz said he spoke with Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the US, after the shooting and insisted on the full cooperation of the Saudi intelligence service.
“We want no interference from the kingdom as it relates to Saudis that we have, and if there are Saudis that we do not have that may have been involved in any way in the planning, inspiration, financing or execution of this, that we expect Saudi intelligence to work with our government to find the people accountable and hold them responsible,” Gaetz said. “I was given every assurance from the ambassador that that would occur.”
Gaetz said the “defining feature” of his district in northwest Florida is the military, and the base, which also home to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team.
“There is a special kind of grief when the bravest most patriotic Americans are putting themselves in harm’s way to train people from other countries to be able to protect and defend their own country and then they kill us for it,” he said.
Trump tweeted on Friday that “The King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter.” The White House hasn’t provided a readout so far of his call with the Crown Prince.
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