Investigation Broadens in Shooting at Naval Air Station in Pensacola

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Sunday, December 8, 2019 at 1:53 pm

PENSACOLA, Fla. (The Washington Post) – FBI officials broadened their probe Saturday into the deadly shooting rampage at a Navy flight school here amid reports that several of the gunman’s Saudi compatriots took video footage as the attack was underway.

The shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola was labeled an act of terrorism by congressional officials, even as investigators continued to explore why a Saudi military student blasted his way through a classroom building early Friday, killing three people and wounding eight. The gunman, identified as Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, was shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy.

The FBI confirmed Saturday that Shamrani, a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Saudi air force, was the shooter. Shamrani was a student naval flight officer, the FBI said.

Law enforcement officials combed through the shooter’s belongings and social media accounts on Saturday while questioning six other Saudi nationals, at least some of them fellow students in the same Navy flight training program. Three of the Saudis were said to have taken cellphone video at the scene, according to a U.S. official familiar with investigation. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing probe.

The FBI declined to offer a motive for the attack, and it was unclear Saturday whether any of the Saudis questioned knew of the gunman’s plans. Officials said they were investigating claims, first reported by the Associated Press, that Shamrani showed videos of previous mass shootings at a dinner party he hosted in the days before the attack.

There also was no official confirmation of a possible link between Shamrani and a Twitter account that surfaced Friday bearing the same name and containing a note in English criticizing U.S. support of Israel and accusing Washington of “funding crimes against Muslims.”

The user of the account, which Twitter suspended Friday, did not express an allegiance to any particular terrorist group. Law enforcement officials were investigating the possibility that Shamrani was self-radicalized.

Several members of Congress said the attack was terrorism and demanded stricter screening of the hundreds of foreign nationals who travel to the United States every year for military training.

“This was a planned terrorist attack, and the shooter wasn’t alone,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose district includes Pensacola, said on Twitter. Gaetz said he received a call of condolence from the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, and “expressed in the strongest possible terms that we expect to conduct our investigation with full cooperation and no interference from the Kingdom.”

The incident – with its eerie echoes of Sept. 11, 2001, when a mostly Saudi team of al-Qaida terrorists received flight training in the United States and then crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon – threatened to further erode U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, which have been under exceptional strain since the killing of Saudi national and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year. But White House and Defense Department officials stressed Saturday that they did not think the attack would harm ties between Riyadh and Washington. In remarks to reporters on Saturday, President Donald Trump described Saudi leaders as “devastated” by the killings in Florida.

The FBI has taken the lead in the case as authorities look into Shamrani’s past and possible motives. The bureau’s Jacksonville branch said the inquiry remains “active and still very fluid.” A formal determination of whether to classify the attack as terrorism was being reviewed, said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

An initial survey found no apparent connection to a foreign terrorist group, though the official cautioned that the investigation is in its early stages. There also were no firm indications so far of a conspiracy, the official said, adding that the shooter may have been self-radicalized.

The Navy on Saturday evening identified the three sailors killed as Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21. All three were students.

“The sorrow from the tragic event on NAS Pensacola will have a lasting impact on our installation and community,” Capt. Tim Kinsella, the base’s commanding officer, said in a statement. “We feel the loss profoundly and grieve with the family and friends of the deceased.”

“The sailors that lost their lives in the line of duty showed exceptional heroism and bravery in the face of evil,” Kinsella added. “When confronted, they didn’t run from danger; they ran towards it and saved lives. If not for their actions, and the actions of the Naval Security Force that were the first responders on the scene, this incident could have been far worse.”

As the probe of the shooting progressed, family members and local officials provided initial accounts of the dead and wounded, as well as details of how the gunman was confronted and killed.

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