The US is to send home 21 Saudi Arabian military trainees after an investigation into a “jihadist” killing of three US sailors last month, the US Department of Justice announced on Monday.
The Dec. 6 shooting attack by Royal Saudi Air Force Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida was an “act of terrorism,” US Attorney General Bill Barr said.
“The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology,” he told reporters.
There was no evidence that Alshamrani had colluded with others, although Barr said that FBI investigators had been unable to unlock his two smartphones to determine whom he had contacted.
“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones. So far Apple has not given us any substantive assistance,” Barr said.
The attorney general said that 21 of Alshamrani’s colleagues were being expelled from the base’s flight school after the probe found many of them had extremist material and child pornography.
While the material did not rise to the level of criminal prosecution, Barr said that Riyadh had “determined that this material demonstrated conduct unbecoming an officer in the Saudi Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, and the 21 cadets have been disenrolled from their training curriculum.”
They were to return to Saudi Arabia later on Monday, Barr said.
The Saudi Arabian government had vowed to review each case under its code of military justice and criminal code, he said.
“Further, the kingdom has assured us that, if we later decide to charge any of those being sent back to Saudi Arabia in connection with this counterterrorism investigation, it will return them for trial,” Barr said.
Alshamrani gunned down three US sailors and wounded eight other people in a classroom block, in what Barr described as a premeditated assault, before police shot him dead.
He had posted a message on social media on Sept. 11 last year saying that “the countdown has begun,” in addition to several other anti-US, anti-Israel and extremist messages, the investigation found.
The shooting threatened a decades-old military training program crucial to the US-Saudi Arabian relationship, which involves billions of dollars in military sales to the kingdom.
There are about 850 Saudi Arabians among the 5,000 foreign military personnel undergoing training in the US. Many, such as the Saudi Arabians in Pensacola, are trained in flying and maintenance of US-made military aircraft their countries are purchasing.
“These military partnerships are critically important to our country,” Barr said.
However, Senator Rick Scott called for the suspension of the Saudi Arabian program for further review by the US Department of Defense (DOD).
“This was an act of terrorism. Given the FBI’s confirmation that a number of Saudi nationals engaged in troubling conduct, it’s clear we need a hard reset,” Scott said on Twitter. “I’m calling on the Saudi gov’t to recall all Saudi nationals training in the US until DOD can conduct a full review.”
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said that Alshamrani undertook the attack with a legally bought semi-automatic pistol.
Normally, nonresidents are not permitted to buy firearms in the US, but Alshamrani exploited an exception that allows foreigners to buy guns for “hunting,” he said.
Bowditch said that Alshamrani had 180 rounds of ammunition and multiple magazines, including a high-capacity magazine, which some US states have sought to ban or tightly control in the wake of mass shootings.
Barr said that the shooting “perfectly illustrates” why US law enforcement should be able to demand cellphone makers’ cooperation to unlock smartphones in appropriate circumstances.
“We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks,” he said.
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