WASHINGTON (Middle East Eye) -- Top U.S. defense and military officials on Saturday reaffirmed America’s continued commitment to the relationship with Saudi Arabia after a Saudi air force student’s shooting spree at a navy base in Florida, the Associated Press said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and others attending a security conference in California played down any initial impact on U.S.-Saudi ties. President Donald Trump described a conciliatory conversation with the Saudi king.
Still, the shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola is testing the allies’ ties just months after the Trump administration delivered substantial military aid to Saudi Arabia.
Esper said on Saturday that he had directed the Pentagon to look at vetting procedures for foreign nationals who come to the United States to study and train with the American military, the New York Times reported.
The suspected Pensacola shooter, identified by U.S. officials as Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was a member of the Saudi air force attending pilot training at the base. U.S. officials provided his name on condition of anonymity because it has not yet been released publicly. Three people were killed in the shooting, and eight were wounded, including two sheriff’s deputies. One of the deputies shot and killed Alshamrani.
Investigators were exploring why the pilot trainee and three others watched videos of mass shootings in the days before the Pensacola shootings, AP said.
An initial survey found no apparent connections between Alshamrani
and any foreign militant group, though an anonymous U.S. official cautioned that the investigation was still in its early stages and no conclusions had yet been reached, the Washington Post said.
The SITE Intelligence Group cited a Twitter account with a name matching the gunman that had posted a "will” calling the United States a "nation of evil” and criticizing its support for Israel, the New York Times said.
The shooting raised uneasy parallels to the attacks of 11 September 2001, when many of the Al-Qaeda-linked hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Centre, Pentagon and Pennsylvania countryside were Saudi citizens who had flight training in the U.S.
A U.S. official told the Associated Press on Saturday that Alshamrani hosted a dinner party earlier in the week where he and three others watched videos of mass shootings.
One of the three students who attended the dinner party videotaped outside the building while the shooting was taking place, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity after being briefed by federal authorities. Two other Saudi students watched from a car, the official said.
The official said 10 Saudi students were being held on the base on Saturday while several others were unaccounted for.
The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. As of this week, there are more than 850 Saudis in the United States for various training activities. They are among more than 5,000 foreign students from 153 countries in the U.S. going through military training.
The Trump administration has also been aggressively helping Saudi Arabia this year, sending Patriot missile batteries, dozens of fighter jets and hundreds of troops there in the wake of Yemen’s retaliatory attacks on the kingdom.
The kingdom’s reputation is still damaged after the killing last year of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi intelligence officials and a forensic doctor killed and dismembered Khashoggi on 2 October 2018, as his fiancee waited outside the diplomatic mission.
Khashoggi, long a royal court insider, had been in self-imposed exile in the U.S. while writing critically of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, son of the oil-rich nation’s King Salman, who was blamed in a UN report for Khashoggi’s slaying, which the Saudis have vigorously denied.