Pentagon to Place New Restrictions, Vetting on International Military Students

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
January 18, 2020 Updated: January 18, 2020

The Defense Department announced on Friday that it will put in place new policies and restrictions on foreign military students while enrolled in U.S.-based training programs following a tragic shooting at a naval base last month that left three people dead.

Director of Defense Intelligence Garry Reid said in a statement that in response to the Dec. 6 attack at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, the Pentagon will restrict students’ possession and use of firearms, implement control measures for limiting their access to military installations and U.S. government facilities, and impose standards for training on detecting and reporting insider threats.

Reid said that the department will also establish new vetting procedures that would include continuous monitoring of foreign military students while they are studying in the United States.

“All current and future students will be required to acknowledge their willingness to abide by these standards, committing to full compliance with all U.S. laws on and off duty as a condition of their enrollment,” he said.

He added that the flight and field training that have been suspended since the Pensacola attack will fully resume after the new procedures have been implemented.

On Jan. 13, Attorney General William Barr announced on the results of the criminal investigation of the attack that killed three U.S. sailors and injured eight other Americans, calling it an act of terrorism. He said the gunman, Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, 21, who was a flight student at Pensacola, was motivated by jihadist ideology and had posted multiple social media messages containing anti-American, anti-Israel, and jihadi messages up to two hours prior to the attack. One of those messages, posted on Sept. 11 last year, stated, “The countdown has begun.”

Federal officials said that during the course of their investigation they found 21 members of the Saudi military training in the United States who were in possession of derogatory material, including jihadist or anti-American content, or had contact with child pornography on social media.

Barr said they had informed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia about the 21 students, who then determined that the possession of such material was “unbecoming an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force and in the Royal Navy.” The Kingdom subsequently unenrolled the 21 students from their training curriculum in the United States, with the agreement of the United States, and they returned home to Saudi Arabia earlier this week.

The attorney general added that the relevant U.S. Attorney’s Offices independent review of the 21 cases determined that none of them would in the normal course result in federal prosecution.

The Dec. 6 attack left many questions in particular about the vetting of foreign military students into U.S. training programs. In response to the incident, the Pentagon ordered a broad review of the screening procedures, according to a memo on Dec. 10.

The memo, which was signed by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, also suspended flight and other operational training for all Saudi Arabian students in U.S. military programs.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Jan. 12 that the department was taking steps to strengthen the screening process.

The United States has long had a robust training program for the Saudi military, providing assistance at home and in the kingdom. There are currently about 850 Saudis participating U.S. military training programs, according to the Pentagon.

There are about 5,000 international military students overall in U.S. programs. These students go through background and biometric checks—processes set up by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security—to determine whether they are security risks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.