Pentagon Orders Halt on Flight Training for 852 Saudi Students After NAS Pensacola Shooting

December 11, 2019 Updated: December 11, 2019
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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Tuesday ordered a halt to flight training for 852 Saudi military students in the United States after a Saudi Air Force lieutenant shot and killed three people last week at a Pensacola Navy base in Florida, ABC reports.

Esper reportedly issued the order in a memo to Pentagon leaders, and also called for immediate steps to be taken to review the vetting procedures for international students who take part in U.S military training.

The review must be completed in 10 days and limits all Saudi military students to classroom training only. It will look at current policies and procedures for screening foreign students and granting access to bases, the publication says.

It comes shortly after the U.S. Navy also halted flight training for more than 300 Saudi students at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Naval Air Station Whiting Field and Naval Air Station Mayport in Florida.

“These efforts will seek to more closely align international military student vetting procedures with those we apply to U.S. personnel,” Esper said in the memo, obtained by ABC.

“With respect to specific training programs and personnel under their cognizance, the Secretaries of the Military Departments may take additional security measures as they see fit,” he added.

Esper said that the Pentagon is working closely with the Saudi government following Friday’s shooting and stressed the importance of the long-standing military education and training with Saudi Arabia.

He added that the Defense Department had trained 28,000 Saudi students over the life of the bilateral security cooperation relationship “without serious incident.”

It comes after the FBI on Sunday said they are still investigating whether 21-year-old Saudi Royal Air Force Lieutenant Mohammed Alshamrani acted alone when he opened fire on a classroom at Pensacola Naval Air Station on Friday.

The incident raised questions about how well international military students are screened before they attend training at American bases.

Alshamrani, who was armed with a lawfully purchased Glock 9mm handgun, killed three U.S. sailors and left eight wounded before being shot dead by local police who responded to the scene.

The victims were named as Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia; and Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Enterprise, Alabama.

Meanwhile, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien on Sunday said the shooting “appears to be a terrorist attack.”

Speaking on CBS’s Face The Nation, O’Brien said: “To me, it appears to be a terrorist attack. I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but it appears that this may be someone that was radicalized… It’s unclear whether he’s got ties to any other organization.”

He added that Saudi Arabia, one of the closest U.S. allies in the Middle East, has pledged to cooperate with the investigation.

President Trump also said that King Salman of Saudi Arabia had offered his sincerest condolences to the victims and their families during a phone call on the weekend.

“King Salman of Saudi Arabia just called to express his sincere condolences and give his sympathies to the families and friends of the warriors who were killed and wounded in the attack that took place in Pensacola, Florida,” the president tweeted.

He added that the “King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter” and that the Saudi people “love the American people.”