A New York Times report on Sunday compiled a list of key breakdowns in vetting that allowed Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old Saudi flight student, to enter the U.S. and eventually carry out a deadly shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. in December.
The Times determined at least four vetting lapses identified during a review of government records and interviews with more than two dozen current and former American officials and friends and relatives of Alshamrani. The breakdowns in vetting include failures by both Saudi security officials and U.S. vetting systems.
Alshamrani, a 2nd lieutenant in the Saudi Air Force, came to the U.S. in 2017 for flight training. In December 2019, he opened fire at NAS Pensacola on Dec. 6, killing three sailors and wounding eight more. A month later, on Jan. 13, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr announced some of the initial conclusions of their investigation, in which they had determined Alshamrani held jihadist ties.
Alshamrani was able to enter the U.S. and train at NAS Pensacola despite Saudi vetting systems, a Pentagon and State Department vetting system, and a U.S. military system for tracking insider threats. He also managed to maintain contacts with Al Qaeda members up until the night before the attack, without ever having been detected prior to the attack.
The first vetting breakdown reportedly occurred with Saudi security services. While Alshamrani’s friends and family indicated he and his family were observant Muslims, they were not adherents of a particularly strict sect. Alshamrani, did, however, join Twitter in 2012 when he was 14. He was reportedly active on twitter and first began posting poetry and the Quran.
Around three years later, he started to follow more religious hardline figures. Those figures included, Abdulaziz al-Tarifi and Ibrahim al-Sakran, both Saudis who were jailed in 2016. It was around that time period that Alshamrani’s views began to radicalize, according to an internal Saudi government report obtained by The Times.
By 2015, Alshamrani reportedly had his first contact with operatives from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It was unclear from the report which party initiated the contact.
Alshamrani’s online behavior might have disqualified him, but he was not stopped by Saudi officials when he joined the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh. Saudi officials did not have access to Alshamrani’s cell phone at that point in time, but should have been aware of his online presence, according to Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a security research organization.
It was from the Saudi flight academy that Alshamrani was selected as one of two students among his class of several hundred to receive flight instruction in the U.S.
Though the phone Alshamrani was connected to American cellular networks, digital surveillance systems also failed to detect his activity. State Department and the Pentagon vetting systems, which can access vast U.S. intelligence and law enforcement data, also failed to detect Alshamrani’s activity, forming another vetting lapse.
“The Department of Defense has been overly reliant on the vetting conducted by the Department of State,” Garry Reid, the Pentagon’s director for defense intelligence said in a March Senate hearing.
A third security lapse occurred on the U.S. end. A Pentagon system, developed after the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting and the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting, was implemented to monitor for potential insider threats. That vetting system failed to identify Alshamrani as a potential threat. The system reportedly only focused on monitoring U.S. service members, failing to include the roughly 5,000 international military students training in the U.S. alongside U.S. service members.
In late January, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he ordered more extensive vetting for foreign military students. He said students would see their social media accounts vetted and that they would be under “continuous monitoring” while in the U.S.
Alshamrani’s repeated communications with Al Qaeda members also managed to evade U.S. and Saudi officials, forming the fourth major security lapse in systems meant to detect terrorist activity.
“He continued to confer with his AQAP associates right up until the end, the very night before he started shooting,” FBI Director Chris Wray said in January.
Numerous smaller security lapses also occurred. Alshamrani was allowed to travel back to Saudi Arabia during a school break and returned to the U.S. in February 2019 to resume his studies in the months leading up to the deadly shooting.
In July, Alshamrani was also allowed to obtain a hunting permit which he then used to obtain a Glock 45 9mmpistol and an extended magazine.