21 Saudi cadets ex­pelled af­ter naval base at­tack

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Eric Tucker and Michael Balsamo

WASH­ING­TON — The U.S. is send­ing 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 that 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 are be­ing re­moved had ji­hadi 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 21year-old gun­man carry it out.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment re­viewed whether any of the trainees should face charges, but con­cluded that the con­duct did not meet the stan­dards for fed­eral pros­e­cu­tion, Barr said.

The Dec. 6 shoot­ing at the base in Pen­sacola, Florida, 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.

De­spite the mis­con­duct, U.S. of­fi­cials have said they want to con­tinue train­ing pi­lots from Saudi Ara­bia, an im­por­tant ally in the Mid­dle East.

“The King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia gave com­plete and to­tal sup­port for our coun­tert­er­ror­ism 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 that Al­sham­rani was mo­ti­vated by ji­hadi ide­ol­ogy, say­ing he vis­ited a New York City me­mo­rial to the at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, over the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day week­end and posted an­tiAmer­i­can 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 that Al­sham­rani hosted a party be­fore the shoot­ing, where he and oth­ers watched videos of mass shoot­ings. The gun­man had also ap­par­ently taken to Twitter be­fore the shoot­ing to crit­i­cize U.S. sup­port of Is­rael and ac­cuse Amer­ica of be­ing anti-Mus­lim, an­other U.S. of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press last month.

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.

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.

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

Na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Robert O’Brien said in an in­ter­view on Fox News that the shoot­ing “showed that there had been er­rors in the way that we vet­ted” the stu­dents. The ac­tions be­ing taken by the Jus­tice Depart­ment and De­fense Depart­ment to re­move the Saudi stu­dents are to “pro­tect our ser­vice­men and women,” he said.

Twelve of the trainees be­ing re­moved are as­signed to the base in Pen­sacola, and nine oth­ers are as­signed to other bases in the U.S., a se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial said.

Of the 21 be­ing sent home, 17 had so­cial me­dia con­tain­ing ji­hadi or an­tiAmer­i­can con­tent, though there was no in­di­ca­tion that any­one was af­fil­i­ated with a par­tic­u­lar group. Fif­teen had some kind of con­tact with child pornog­ra­phy.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr said Mon­day that Saudi Ara­bia has fully co­op­er­ated in the shoot­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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