WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. sent home 21 Saudi military students following an investigation into the deadly shooting last month by one of their fellow trainees at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, an attack Attorney General William Barr said was an act of terrorism driven by some of the same motivations of the Sept. 11 plot.
The trainees who were removed had jihadist or anti-American sentiments on social media pages or had “contact with child pornography,” including in internet chat rooms, officials said. None is accused of having had advance knowledge of the shooting or helped the 21-year-old gunman carry it out.
The Justice Department reviewed whether any of the trainees should face charges, but concluded the conduct did not meet the standards for federal prosecution, Barr said.
The Dec. 6 shooting at the base in Pensacola in which Saudi Air Force officer Mohammed Alshamrani killed three U.S. sailors and injured eight other people focused public attention on the presence of foreign students in American military training programs and exposed flaws in the way cadets are screened. Monday’s resolution singled out misconduct by individual cadets but also preserves the training of pilots from Saudi Arabia, an important ally in the Middle East.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gave complete and total support for our counter-terrorism investigation, and ordered all Saudi trainees to fully cooperate,” Barr said. “This assistance was critical to helping the FBI determine whether anyone assisted the shooter in the attack.”
Barr said the kingdom has agreed to review the conduct of all 21 to see if they should face military discipline and send back anyone the U.S. later determines should face charges.
Law enforcement officials left no doubt Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology, saying he visited a New York City memorial to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and posted anti-American and anti-Israeli messages on social media just two hours before the shooting. Last Sept. 11, Barr said, Alshamrani posted a message that said “the countdown has started.”
Officials had earlier said Alshamrani hosted a party before the shooting, where he and others watched videos of mass shootings. The gunman had also traveled back and forth between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and had taken to Twitter before the shooting to criticize U.S. support of Israel and accuse America of being anti-Muslim.
On the morning of Dec. 6, the gunman walked into a building on the grounds of the Navy base and shot his victims “in cold blood” as Marines who heard the gunfire from outside yanked a fire extinguisher off the wall and rushed to confront him.
The gunman shot at a photo of President Donald Trump and another former U.S. president and witnesses reported he was making statements “critical of American military actions overseas” during the attack, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said.
Alshamrani, who was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the rampage at a classroom building, was undergoing flight training at Pensacola, where foreign military members routinely receive instruction.
Twelve of the trainees who were removed were assigned to the base in Pensacola and nine others were assigned to Air Force bases in the U.S., including in Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma, a senior Justice Department official said. The trainees were all removed from the U.S. on a Saudi government aircraft Monday, the official said.
Of the 21 sent home, 17 had social media containing jihadi or anti-American content, though there was no indication anyone was affiliated with a particular group. Fifteen had some kind of contact with child pornography. One of the trainees had possessed more than 100 images of child pornography and had searched for the material but the U.S. attorney’s office determined there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant federal prosecution.
In a statement, the Saudi embassy called the shooter a “disturbed and radicalized” individual who acted alone and who does not represent the values of Saudi Arabia or the hundreds of thousands of Saudis who have lived and studied in the U.S. through the decades. It said it had fully cooperated with the U.S. investigation and would continue to do so.
“It is worth noting that the military training that the US provides to Saudi military personnel has enabled Saudi soldiers, pilots and sailors to fight along their American counterparts and against our common foes,” the statement said.