Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ‘Devastated’ Over Pensacola Shooting, as Officials Investigate Radicalization Links

December 9, 2019 Updated: December 9, 2019
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Saudia Arabia’s King Salman Al-Saud phoned President Donald Trump to express his condolences over the deadly shooting at the U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, as it emerged that Saudi authorities are investigating whether the shooter—a member of its air force—was radicalized during a trip back to the kingdom, according to Saudi officials.

Trump on Saturday announced that Saudi Arabian leaders said they were devastated by the fatal shooting on Dec. 6, which claimed the lives of three people.

“The king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones,” Trump said after their phone call. “He feels very strongly. He’s very, very devastated by what happened and what took place. Likewise the Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman).”

The Saudi leaders “are devastated by what took place in Pensacola. I think they are going to help out the families very greatly,” Trump added.

The shooter, 21-year-old Mohammed Alshamrani, was identified by the FBI as a Saudi Air Force aviation officer, who was training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola. Alshamrani was a student naval flight officer of Naval Aviation Schools Command.

He opened fire in a classroom at the U.S. military base on Friday morning using a 9 mm Glock 45 handgun he had obtained legally in the United States before he was shot dead by authorities. He killed three people and wounded two sheriff’s deputies, one in the arm and one in the knee before one of the deputies killed him. Eight others were also hurt. Both deputies are expected to survive.

The shooting is being investigated as an act of terrorism, the FBI announced on Dec. 8.

Rachel Rojas, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville Field Office, said at a news briefing that investigators are looking into the matter with “the presumption that this was an act of terrorism.”

The designation “allows us to take advantage of investigative techniques that can help us more quickly identify and then eliminate any additional threats to the rest of our community,” she said, adding that there is no evidence of other threats to the community.

“Our main goal, right now, is to confirm whether he acted alone, or was he part of a larger network,” Rojas said.

In an attempt to identify the shooter’s motive, investigators are interviewing his friends, classmates, and associates, as well as personnel from the Pensacola base and witnesses, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported.

Rojas added that there were no signs which pointed to any immediate additional threat to the community. Meanwhile, all Saudi students at the Pensacola base have been restricted to the facility as part of the investigation, she added.

Alshamrani’s training was being funded by the Saudi government, and was linked to the sale of U.S. military equipment in Saudi Arabia, reported WSJ. Before the fatal attack, the 21-year-old had not been suspected for any extremist or criminal activity, Saudi authorities said.

Saudi officials are now trying to find out how the shooter spent his time, and who he was in touch with when he visited Saudi Arabia, before returning to the United States in February 2019 for training.

Days before the shooting, Alshamrani hosted a dinner party where he and three other Saudi aviation students watched videos of mass shootings, a person briefed on the investigation said on Dec. 7.

A Twitter account that reportedly belonged to Alshamrani was identified by the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that tracks militant groups. It found that the now-suspended account contained messages which blamed America for “crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity.”

National security adviser Robert O’Brien, in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Dec. 8, said that it “appears to be a terrorist attack,” echoing Rojas’s comments. “I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but it appears that this may be someone that was radicalized, whether it was here, or it’s unclear if he’s got any other ties to other organizations,” O’Brien said.

Meanwhile, speaking to Fox News on Dec. 8, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he wasn’t sure whether the shooting was an act of terror.

“I don’t know yet. I think that’s why it’s important to allow the investigation to proceed, to understand exactly what he was doing and why,” he said, adding that he called on officials to “begin a review of what our screening procedures are with regard to foreign nationals coming into the United States.” At the same time, he emphasized the need to maintain programs where foreign individuals come to train with U.S. forces.

All three victims of the shootings were Americans, the Navy said: 23-year-old Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, from Coffee County, Alabama; 19-year-old Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham from St. Petersburg, Florida; and 21-year-old Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters from Richmond Hill, Georgia.