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Pensacola shooting by Saudi national raises new questions about US-Saudi alliance

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. (Ron Przysucha/U.S. State Department)
December 10, 2019

The shooting by a Saudi military trainee at a Pensacola naval base, which left three people dead and eight more wounded, is likely to further damage America’s already fraught relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday that he spoke with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, “who expressed his condolences and sadness at the loss of life in the horrific attack.”

But condolences may not be enough as the FBI investigates the shooter’s motivations, including allegations that he posted anti-American sentiments on social media before the rampage.

The FBI identified the shooter as Mohammed Alshamrani. He was one of 852 Saudi nationals in the U.S. for military training provided under a security cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Alshamrani was shot and killed by a local deputy sheriff Friday. The Navy identified his victims as Airman Mohammed Hathaim, 19, from St. Petersburg, Florida; Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, Alabama; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, from Richmond Hill, Georgia.

The FBI is examining tweets that Alshamrani may have posted on Friday morning, railing against the United States for its support of Israel and for purported crimes against Muslims, including the detention of suspects in Guantanamo Bay.

“Because he was a Saudi, there is a rush to assume a jihadi link – a predilection that is particularly strong given the important role Saudis played in perpetrating the 9/11 attacks,” Daniel Byman, a counter-terrorism and Middle East expert with Georgetown University, wrote in an analysis just after Friday’s incident.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were Saudis, and the kingdom continues to come under scrutiny as a source of funding for international terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda.

The murders in Florida come at an already tense moment in U.S.-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia’s role in the 2018 slaying of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist, remains a festering wound in the alliance.

And the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which the U.S. has supported through military intelligence and weapons, has stirred outrage on Capitol Hill.

“All of the negative aspects of US-Saudi relations are going to come back into focus,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who also served in numerous other diplomatic posts, including in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.

“The administration’s been doing its best to dampen down (criticism of Saudi Arabia) and promote the idea of close ties,” said Feierstein, now a senior vice president at the Middle East Institute in Washington. But Florida’s attack “is going to make all of those arguments a lot harder.”

The Saudi government has taken steps since the 9/11 attacks to prevent money laundering and other crimes that enable terrorism financing, but serious gaps remain, according to a 2018 report by the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body.

And while Saudi rulers have successfully promoted a more moderate form of Islam, among other important steps, “this remains very much a work in progress,” Feierstein said.

Byman noted that the Saudi government has an incentive to crack down on extremist groups “because it sees them as a threat to the kingdom’s own security.”

In the Florida case, “what we need immediately from Saudi Arabia is information,” he wrote in his analysis. “Answering the question of terrorist intent may require interviews with those who knew the pilot, any writing or social media posts he left as a record, and similar data that might help us understand what was behind the violence.”

But Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has already labeled the incident a “planned terrorist attack” and questioned the program that allows Saudi military students to come to the U.S.

“This event demonstrates a serious failure in the vetting process and in the way in which we invite these people to our community,” Gaetz also said on Twitter.

And Florida’s GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis called on the Saudi government to compensate the victims of Friday’s shooting. “They’re going to owe a debt here,” DeSantis said during a news conference Friday.

The State Department did not respond to questions Saturday about how the Pensacola shooting would affect U.S.-Saudi relations or what Pompeo is doing to ensure the kingdom cooperates with the FBI probe.

President Donald Trump said that King Salman of Saudi Arabia is “devastated” by the shooting and wants to help the families.

“We’re finding out what took place, whether it’s one person or a number of people,” Trump said before leaving the White House on Saturday for a fundraiser and Israeli-American Council event in Florida. “And the king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly. He’s very, very devastated by what happened and what took place.”

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. also condemned the attack. “As a daughter of a former U.S military-trained pilot, this tragedy is especially painful,” Reema Bandar Al-Saud wrote on Twitter. “The Saudi people are united in their condemnation of this crime. We stand in solidarity with our American friends during these difficult times.”

Saudi’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, has denied he ordered Khashoggi’s killing. But lawmakers and U.S. intelligence officials have concluded he was complicit, and a United Nations report similarly found there was “credible evidence” that bin Salman masterminded the slaying.

Trump has worked to shield the kingdom’s leaders from repercussions for Khashoggi’s death. He vetoed legislation that would have barred U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as a bill that would have halted U.S. military support for a Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.

Critics pounced on Trump’s initial response to Friday’s shooting, in which he touted the Saudi king’s condolence.

“A Saudi military officer commits a terrorist act on a U.S. military base in apparent conjunction with others and the @POTUS meekly reads a letter of apology from the Saudi king? What’s up with THAT?” David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist and commentator, tweeted on Saturday.

Even before Friday’s attack, lawmakers in both parties were outraged by Khashoggi’s gruesome killing and Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the Yemen war, which has killed thousands of Yemenis and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official for near eastern affairs, said the Pensacola shooting will be “layered on top” of other damaging Saudi actions in recent years, including the torture and trials of women’s rights activists in the kingdom.

Those incidents “have all broken trust between Riyadh and its patrons in Washington – especially but not exclusively on Capitol Hill,” Wittes wrote in an assessment of the shooting on U.S.-Saudi relations. Her take was paired with Byman’s.

“This horrific attack in Florida will remind Americans that the kingdom – while reforming in some significant ways – remains rooted in an extreme religious-political ideology,” Wittes said.

“We don’t yet know the full story of what motivated this Saudi officer to open fire on his classmates in Pensacola,” Wittes added. “But the event instantly challenges those, whether in the Trump administration or in the private sector, who have been seeking to brush aside concerns about the kingdom’s trajectory. It will sharpen questions on Capitol Hill about why the United States government is training Saudi pilots whose bombing raids harm civilians in Yemen.”


© 2019 USA Today