Officials are investigating the motive behind a shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola early Friday by a Saudi aviator in training, who purportedly authored a series of tweets expressing hatred of the United States.
The shooter pulled out a handgun in a classroom at the Florida Navy base and opened fire, killing three people and injuring eight others before a deputy fatally shot him, authorities said.
While the FBI has not yet confirmed whether it’s investigating terrorism as a motive for the attack, Pensacola’s congressional representatives have characterized the incident as an “act or terrorism.” U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, however, said Saturday that it was too soon to rule the shooting an act of terrorism.
The shooting happened just two days after a U.S. Navy sailor shot three people and then killed himself at Pearl Harbor.
Navy Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said it has been “a devastating week for our Navy family.”
Here’s what we know.
Who was the NAS Pensacola shooter?
The FBI identified the shooter late Saturday night as Mohammed Alshamrani, 21, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force who was a student naval flight officer at the Naval Aviation Schools Command.
Why was a Saudi national at NAS Pensacola?
He was one of 852 Saudi nationals in a training program that invites the “best of the best” from foreign allies’ militaries to receive training in the U.S. He began his three-year course in August 2017 with English, basic aviation and initial pilot training.
About 5,180 foreign students from 153 countries in the United States participate in the program. Many of those students operate U.S. military hardware that foreign governments buy from the United States. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest customer for arms, and many of those are American made.
FBI investigating motive, tweets
Hours before the shooting, tweets purportedly written by the suspect railed against the United States for its support of Israel and for stationing troops at bases in Saudi Arabia.
The tweets are addressed to “O American people” and outline what the author said is a hatred of the United States for crimes against Muslims, including the detention of suspects in Guantanamo Bay.
‘O American people’:FBI investigating tweets purportedly from suspect
The FBI is working to confirm that the tweets came from the Saudi military trainee and has not yet confirmed whether it’s investigating terrorism as a motive for the attack.
Also investigating are the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Department of Defense and other national, state and federal agencies.
What does this mean for US-Saudi relations?
The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. The shooting, however, shined a spotlight on the two countries’ sometimes rocky relationship.
President Donald Trump, who spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia shortly after the shooting, said the monarch called the attack “barbaric.”
The Saudis “are devastated,” Trump said Saturday. “The king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones.”
“Obviously, the government of Saudi Arabia needs to make things better for these victims,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a press conference. “They’re going to owe a debt here.”
In a Twitter post Friday, Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., expressed her “most sincere condolences” to the American people.
“As a daughter of a former U.S. military trained pilot, this tragedy is especially painful. The Saudi people are united in their condemnation of this crime,” she wrote.
Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who was the keynote speaker at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California on Saturday, said at the event that he had no qualms about deploying troops in the Arabian Peninsula following the incident, stating that “Saudi Arabia is a long-standing partner” with whom the U.S. shares security interests in regard to Iran.
He also said it was vital that U.S. troops are there to reassure and assist allies, and deter “malign behavior” from Iran.
More than a year ago, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. His remains have yet to be found, but a United Nations report concluded that there was “credible evidence” that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman masterminded the killing.
‘Serious failure’ in vetting foreign military students
Esper said Saturday that he had ordered a review of the Department of Defense’s security and vetting policies.
“Yesterday, I directed that we look at our security precautions across the services in all of our installations and bases and facilities to make sure that we’ve got the appropriate degree of security to protect our service members and their families and our communities,” he said. “That’s underway.”
At the same time, he said that he also “directed that we look at our vetting procedures for all the many foreign nationals that come, for good reason, to our country to train.”
“As you may or may not know, anybody who comes to the United States to train is, or should be, vetted by the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and then ultimately, us, so we need to re-look at all that,” he said.
The move comes as Pensacola’s congressional representatives are calling for a better vetting process for training foreign military members on U.S. bases.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., on Friday called for a full review of the programs that train foreign nationals.
“There is no reason we should be providing state-of-the-art military training to people who wish us harm,” Scott said in a press release. “It’s clear that we need to take steps to ensure that any and all foreign nationals are scrutinized and vetted extensively before being embedded with our American men and women in uniform.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., called for “extreme vetting” in the programs.
“This event demonstrates a serious failure in the vetting process and in the way in which we invite these people to our community,” Gaetz said on Twitter.
Congressional representatives cite ‘terrorism’
“Whether this individual was motivated by radical Islam or was simply mentally unstable, this was an act of terrorism,” Scott said.
Gaetz also characterized the shooting as an “act of terrorism.”
“This was not a murder. This was an act of terrorism,” Gaetz said in a TV interview.
Esper, however, said Saturday that it was too soon to rule the shooting an act of terrorism.
“I can’t say it’s terrorism at this time,” Esper said. “I think we need to let the investigators, the FBI, do its work, get us the facts, and we’ll move out from there.”
How did the shooting unfold?
The shooting began around 6:30 a.m. CT and the suspect was stopped by Escambia County sheriff’s deputies, who arrived on scene in less than five minutes, Sheriff David Morgan said. One of the deputies fatally shot the gunman, he said.
Eight patients, including two deputies, were taken to nearby Baptist Hospital. One of the victims died at the hospital, and two died on the base. The shooter also died on the base.
One officer was shot in arm and treated at the hospital. Another was shot in the knee and underwent surgery. On Saturday, one had been released from the hospital, and the other remained in the hospital recovering.
NAS Pensacola shooting:How sheriff’s deputies responded
Who are the shooting victims?
While the names of the victims have not be released by authorities, two of the fatally injured and one of the wounded have been identified.
Navy officials released the names Saturday night of the three aviation students killed in Friday’s shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola.They are:
- Airman Mohammed Hathaim, 19, from St. Petersburg, Florida.
- Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, Alabama.
- Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, from Richmond Hill, Georgia.
“Joshua Kaleb Watson saved countless lives today with his own,” Joshua’s brother, Adam, wrote on Facebook late Friday. “After being shot multiple times he made it outside and told the first response team where the shooter was and those details were invaluable.”
Shooting at Navy base:Shooting victim ‘saved countless lives with his own’
Hathaim joined the Navy in 2018. According to his grandmother Doretha Brady, Hathaim played track and basketball at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg.
Hewas slated to graduate the flight school program on Dec. 19, The Tampa Bay Times reported.
Ryan Blackwell, 27, was injured in the shooting, he told the USA TODAY Network.
A Navy airman and assistant high school wrestling coach, Blackwell was shot in his right arm and in his pelvis. His intestines were severed by ricocheting bullets, he said.
He and two colleagues heard gunshots down the hall and took cover in their office, Blackwell said. The gunman fired shots through the office door, shooting out the glass and spraying bullets inside. All three of the officers, all Navy airmen, were shot.
Blackwell works at the international military training office on the first floor, where he processes paperwork for international students. He said he never saw the gunman’s face during the attack. Afterwards, he was shown a picture of the suspect and said “the face did look familiar.”
“He used to be a student in my office,” Blackwell said of the shooter. “All the international aviation students come through my office.”
What weapon did the gunman use?
An official who was not authorized to speak publicly told USA TODAY that the Saudi national did not use his military-issued service weapon.
He used a handgun, authorities said.
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What is NAS Pensacola?
Located in the far western Panhandle, the Pensacola base employs more than 16,000 military and 7,400 civilian personnel. The base is home of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, and the National Naval Aviation Museum.
Contributing: USA TODAY’s Kevin Johnson and David Jackson reported from Washington; Ryan Mills and Jim Little reported from Pensacola for the Pensacola News Journal.
USA TODAY’s Grace Hauck contributed from Chicago and Doug Stanglin from Washington; Annie Blanks and Kevin Robinson reported from Pensacola for the Pensacola News Journal.