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After Florida shooting, US grounds Saudi pilots, restricts military training

The suspension will affect nearly 900 Saudi students across the country, the Defense Department said Tuesday.

By: New York Times | Miami | Published: December 11, 2019 9:00:02 am
Pensacola Shooting, Florida shooting, US navy base shooting, us saudi ties, saudi arabia on us navy shooting, saudi aviation students FILE- In this Jan. 29, 2016 file photo shows the entrance to the Naval Air Base Station in Pensacola, Fla. (AP Photo/Melissa Nelson, File)

Written by Patricia Mazzei and Eric Schmitt

The Pentagon has suspended operational training for all Saudi military students in the United States, indefinitely halting flight instruction, firing range training and all other operations outside the classroom in the wake of a shooting last week at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida by a member of the Saudi Royal Air Force.

The suspension will affect nearly 900 Saudi students across the country, the Defense Department said Tuesday. Classroom teaching, including language courses, will continue while Pentagon leaders review vetting procedures for all foreign military trainees. An estimated 5,200 international students in the United States will be covered by the security review.

The “safety stand-down” was issued pending the results of an FBI investigation into the shooting Friday that left three young sailors dead and eight other people wounded. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose congressional district includes Pensacola, had called for a review of foreign military programs and their screening process.

The suspension of operational training for hundreds of Saudi military students is an extraordinary rebuke by the Pentagon, especially at a time when President Donald Trump has tamped down suggestions that the Saudi government must be held to account on an array of recent issues.

Even before the shooting Friday, the White House had been fighting efforts in Congress to cut military aid to the Saudis, a reflection of anger over the continuing war in Yemen and the brutal killing in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist who had been granted legal residence in the United States.

U.S. intelligence findings closely tie Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, to the killing.

Senior Defense Department officials, speaking to reporters in a hastily organized conference call Tuesday night, insisted that suspending operational training for students from Saudi Arabia — the only country singled out for a broader review of security procedures governing the international military students — would be short-term and would not upset the strategic relationship between the two countries.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper called his Saudi counterpart, Khalid bin Salman, to discuss the new limitations on Saudi military students, who are now essentially restricted to classroom training like English language courses.

It was unclear whether the review of security and vetting procedures means that federal investigators have found something troubling or whether it was merely a precautionary measure.

Lawmakers praised the Defense Department’s action on the Saudi trainees.

“At this point, suspending training just makes sense,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former Pentagon official. “We have to maintain the utmost, serious security standards — and obviously something has gone deeply awry.”

The Navy had announced earlier Tuesday that about 300 Saudi aviation students would be grounded at three bases in Florida. The Pentagon later released a memo from David Norquist, the deputy secretary of defense, clarifying that the suspension would apply to 852 Saudis enrolled in all military training programs.

The memo described Saudi Arabia an “essential partner” that is working closely with the United States to investigate the shooting.

“The Department has trained more than 28,000 Saudi students over the life of our security cooperation relationship without serious incident,” Norquist wrote.

He gave military staff members 10 days to complete a review of policies for vetting foreign students and granting access to U.S. military bases, although the Saudi operational suspension will most likely last longer.

He said the leadership of the various branches of military service “may take additional security measures as they see fit.”

The latest orders came as investigators released new details about how the 21-year-old gunman, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, had acquired the weapon used in the shooting.

The gunman legally purchased the Glock 45 9 mm handgun in late July, shortly after he had obtained a state hunting license, the FBI said Tuesday.

Alshamrani was issued a hunting license July 11, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nine days later, he purchased the handgun at a federally licensed firearms dealer in Florida.

The ability for a foreign military student to legally buy a gun has come under scrutiny after Friday’s attack. The gunman used an extended magazine and had four to six other magazines in his possession when he was killed by a sheriff’s deputy, a person familiar with the investigation has said.

Those who travel to the United States on a nonimmigrant visa, as the gunman did, are prohibited under federal law from having a weapon or ammunition. But the law also lists several exceptions, including one for those holding a valid hunting license.

Alshamrani may have qualified to legally buy a gun under other exceptions as well, according to the FBI’s Jacksonville field office, which is leading the investigation.

Other exceptions are included in the law for accredited representatives of foreign governments, distinguished foreign visitors designated by the State Department, and foreign law enforcement officers of a friendly government entering the United States on official business.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, called the exceptions a “loophole” in federal gun laws that should be closed.

“I’m a big supporter of the Second Amendment, but the Second Amendment applies so that we the American people can keep and bear arms,” DeSantis, a former Navy prosecutor, said at a Sunday news conference in Pensacola. “But it does not apply to Saudi Arabians.”

Much remains unknown about the gunman and his motive, although the FBI is treating the shooting as a presumed act of terrorism. Investigators have received information that Alshamrani was active on social media. Although they have not released any specifics, the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi activity online, found a Twitter account with a name matching the gunman’s criticizing the United States as “evil.”

The Pentagon heightened security reviews at bases around the country Monday, citing the two shootings that occurred last week on military bases, in Pensacola and at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii. In the Pearl Harbor attack, the gunman fatally shot two shipyard workers before killing himself.

On Tuesday, Thomas Modly, the acting Navy secretary, awarded posthumous “wings of gold” to the three Pensacola victims, proclaiming Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson a naval aviator and Airman Mohammed Haitham and Airman Apprentice Cameron Walters naval aircrewmen. Five of the injured had been sent home from the hospital by Monday, with the three remaining patients in stable condition.

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