WASHINGTON — The U.S. sent home 21 Saudi military students following an investigation into a 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 were removed had jihadist 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 21-year-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 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 shortcomings in the screening of cadets. Monday’s resolution singled out misconduct by individual students but also allows for continued training of pilots from Saudi Arabia, an important ally in the Middle East.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gave complete and total support for our counter-terrorism 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 to send back anyone the U.S. later determines should face charges.
Separately, the attorney general on Monday asked Apple to help extract data from two iPhones that belonged to the gunman, including one that authorities say Alshamrani damaged with a bullet after being confronted by law enforcement.
Law enforcement officials left no doubt that Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology, saying he visited a New York City memorial to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and posted anti-American 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. Alshamrani, who also traveled back and forth between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., was undergoing flight training at Pensacola, where foreign military members routinely receive instruction.