Written by Frances Robles, Eric Schmitt, Patricia Mazzei and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs
As federal authorities worked Saturday to piece together clues to last week’s attack at a Florida military training base, new details emerged about the gunman, a Saudi trainee who had apparently shown videos of mass shootings at a dinner party the night before.
Several days earlier, the gunman and three other Saudi military trainees visited New York City, including several museums and Rockefeller Center, according to a person who was briefed on the investigation but not authorized to speak publicly.
Investigators were seeking to determine whether the New York trip was a tourist excursion — foreign students often take recreational trips — or whether there were other motives. They also hoped to learn whether the group met with other people during the trip.
The 24-year-old gunman, identified as 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, did not appear to have any ties to international terrorist groups, said a senior American official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about investigators’ findings.
The Friday morning attack in a classroom building at the Pensacola Naval Air Station left three service members dead and eight others injured. The gunman, armed with a 9 mm handgun and several extra magazines, was killed by a sheriff’s deputy.
Authorities offered no details about the mass shooting videos said to have been shown at Alshamrani’s apartment, nor did they confirm a report that a Twitter account with a name matching the gunman’s had posted shortly before the shooting a screed criticizing the U.S. as “evil” and quoting Osama bin Laden.
The report, from the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi activity on the internet, said the posting had criticized America’s “invasion” of many countries and its support for Israel.
Several other Saudis on the Pensacola base, which hosts some 200 foreign military trainees, were detained for questioning after the shooting. One of them, who had been at the scene of the shooting with two others, had recorded the chaos in front of the classroom building where the shooting took place. He later told investigators the three of them just happened to be there at that time, were caught up in the moment and he had wanted to record it, said the person briefed on the investigation.
Some of the Saudis were detained in order to make sure every last trainee from that country was accounted for on the base, according to a senior U.S. official. Some Saudis at bases in Oklahoma and Louisiana who had entered the country on the same flight as the gunman earlier this year were also investigated, the official said. No ties to the suspect or to terror groups were found.
The FBI office in Jacksonville has declined to characterize the nature of its investigation, but a local member of Congress said it clearly appeared to be a terrorist attack.
“I said it was terrorism because it was a premeditated terrorist attack and more than one person was involved,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican whose congressional district includes Pensacola and has been kept abreast of the investigation. “The filming and potential attempts at publication show that this was an attack intended for theatrical effect to terrorize. It is the definition of terrorism.”
Witnesses described a chaotic scene after Friday’s shooting. The classroom building was covered in broken glass, shell casings and obvious signs of horror.
One of the wounded, Ryan Blackwell, a Navy airman and assistant high school wrestling coach, told the Pensacola News Journal that he was at his office on the first floor of the classroom building when he heard gunshots in the hallway. He and his colleagues closed the door and took cover. The gunman shot through the door.
Blackwell said he had shielded a woman with his body. All three airmen in the office were shot, he said, with Blackwell wounded in his right arm and pelvis. He and his colleagues were able to open a window and run out, he said.
“We could have been three more casualties if we didn’t escape,” he said.
At a vigil for the shooting victims at the Olive Baptist Church Saturday, Chief Deputy Chip W. Simmons of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office said he had visited one of the two deputies who were injured while confronting the gunman and that he was in good spirits.
He recounted the shock Friday morning of hearing the two words law enforcement officials have come to dread over the police radio: “Active shooter.” Usually, he said, that is followed up with the reassuring word of a false alarm. “I never heard that,” Simmons said. “The closer I got to NAS, the more gunshots I heard on the radio.”
Then he heard another, even more dreaded phrase: “Officer down.” And then: “‘Another person down, two officers down. Get rescue.’ How much rescue do you need? ‘As many as you can bring.’”
One of the two injured deputies from the sheriff’s office was released from the hospital Saturday. The other had been released Friday.
Authorities by Saturday evening had not officially released the victims’ names, but family members said Joshua Kaleb Watson, a 23-year-old rifle team captain, was among the dead. Adam Watson, his older brother, wrote in a Facebook post that Joshua “saved countless lives today with his own.”
“After being shot multiple times he made it outside and told the first response team where the shooter was and those details were invaluable,” he wrote. “He died a hero and we are beyond proud but there is a hole in our hearts that can never be filled.”
Watson’s father, Benjamin Watson, told The Pensacola News Journal that his 23-year-old son was shot five times. He had reported to the base two weeks earlier for flight training.
The Tampa Bay Times identified a second victim as Mohammed Haitham, a 19-year-old airman from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Questions swirled both in the community and in Washington about the thoroughness of the review that the U.S. conducts before foreign trainees are invited onto military bases.
Alshamrani’s training with the U.S. military began in August 2017 and was scheduled to finish in August 2020, Pentagon officials said Saturday.
After his initial arrival in the country, Alshamrani attended language school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. There, he took classes in English, basic aviation and initial aviation training. During school breaks, the lieutenant would return home to Saudi Arabia, Pentagon officials said.
When he came back to the U.S. this February, friends and colleagues noticed that Alshamrani, who was Muslim, had become more religious, said a person briefed on the investigation.
It was not immediately known what he did between February and last week, when he signed into his new training unit in Pensacola. He had been living in the Pensacola area for some time before that, said the person briefed on the inquiry.
Abbas Musa, the imam at the Al Islam Dawah mosque in Pensacola, said he did not recognize the shooting suspect, and said news of the attack had made his skin crawl. “What in the world would trigger you to do something like that?” Musa said. “It makes you sick. We reject it.”
At the apartment building where public records suggest the gunman may have lived, in unincorporated Escambia County, several neighbors said they did not know him. Landlords often offer short-term leases to people participating in Navy training at the base and there is a high amount of turnover, they said.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Saturday that he had directed the Pentagon to look at vetting procedures for foreign nationals who come to study and train with the U.S. military.
The Department of Defense has 5,181 foreign students from 153 countries in various training programs. Acceptance requires screening for each applicant before acceptance, including running searches for evidence of drug trafficking, support of terrorist activity, corruption or other criminal conduct.
President Donald Trump said before flying to South Florida Saturday evening that the government would immediately look into “the whole procedure” of accepting foreign military trainees. King Salman of Saudi Arabia, he added, “will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones” of those killed and injured in the attack.
“I think they’re going to help out the families very greatly,” Trump said.
Members of the community who gathered for Saturday’s vigil prayed for the two deputies injured while stopping the gunman, along with others injured in the gunfire.
Mike Dimick, the military pastor at Olive Baptist Church, said he had spoken with one of the injured deputies, a 24-year-old military reservist who was shot in the arm. The young man, whom he declined to name, had reminded Dimick about a conversation they had a year ago in Bible study. An 18-year-old trainee at the base had said she was frightened because she felt the location made them a target.
“He said, ‘Every time I put on my uniform and drive by the base, I think of her, and here I am, a first-responder there,’” Dimick said.
The officer was doing well, Dimick said, but seemed solemn because of “the things he has seen.”