Last week when the horrible events in Pensacola, Florida played out, many Americans were shocked to find out that the perpetrator was a supposed ally of the U.S.. Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year old Saudi second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force went on a shooting rampage on the base. He opened fire inside a classroom at the naval base, killing three and wounding 10 others, including two sheriff’s deputies, before one of the deputies killed him. He was a naval flight officer student of Naval Aviation Schools Command at the base.
Alshamrani used a legal loophole — a hunting license exemption — to purchase a firearm legally. Foreigners can legally purchase a firearm in the state of Florida providing they are in possession of a valid hunting license or are a representative of a foreign government or law enforcement agency. According to FBI Special Agent Rachel Rojas, who is leading the investigation, this is how Alshamrani purchased the Glock pistol used in the shooting.
The FBI published a warning nearly six months ago on May 22, cautioning business owners that foreign nationals or violent extremists may be using this loophole to purchase firearms and ammunition. It added that “terrorist organizations, including ISIS, have encouraged Westerners to exploit perceived gaps in gun laws to conduct mass casualty shooting attacks in their home countries,” which is sadly exactly what happened in this case.
Later, reports stated that Alshamrani tweeted anti-U.S. material, just prior to the shooting, about the U.S./Israel relationship and accused the United States of being anti-Muslim. What isn’t known, however, is whether the statements were his or he copied them from somewhere else.
Immediately, social media erupted with many politicians calling for tighter vetting for foreign nationals coming to the U.S. for training. While many other social media users asked, “why were U.S. troops training terrorists in Pensacola.”
Among those who called for tighter vetting was Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who spoke at a news conference shortly after the incident and said the shooter left a long social media trail and had a “deep-seated hatred of the United States.”
“To have this individual be able to take out three of our sailors, to me that’s unacceptable,” the governor added. He said that better vetting would have prevented the attack and that “you have to take precautions to protect the country.”
Some politicians questioned whether the United States should be hosting any training at all. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) called for a review of all U.S. military programs that train foreign nationals, stating that “there is no reason we should be providing state-of-the-art military training to people who wish us harm.”
However, when it comes to foreign nationals, while this incident highlights a failure in the vetting process, that process has been going on for many years and has been highly successful in vetting foreign candidates. It has also created lasting relationships that were forged by the foreigners’ service in this country. And we’ve built extensive defense partnerships through the years with programs such as these.
Prospective candidates to be trained on U.S. soil and learn to use U.S. tactics and hardware are extensively screened both by their respective countries and by the United States. These candidates are generally considered the “best and brightest” of their respective countries. Most are being groomed to become their next generals and admirals.
Most people don’t know how many foreign military students train in the United States on a daily basis: Currently there are 852 other Saudis inside the United States going through some sort of military training. Additionally, there are nearly 5,200 foreign military students from 153 different countries right now inside the U.S.
When going through the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) at Ft. Bragg, NC, we had allied officers and NCOs from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, U.A.E., Israel and Turkey. Our own deployments took us to several foreign countries to train with their military forces. That type of rapport building was invaluable to both sides.
A good example of this rapport occurred several years later, during a pre-deployment site survey in Paraguay with my team’s Intell sergeant. We had to brief the Chief of Staff of the Paraguayan military to get his blessing. We came to find out that he was a graduate of West Point and was the roommate of General Wayne A. Downing, the Commanding Officer of USSOCOM. When he learned that General Downing had briefed us before our trip, he immediately gave us the green light for all training we wished to do. This set up a very positive long-term relationship with the unit involved.
Given the number of foreign nationals that are training in the U.S. now and have in the past, the system has worked remarkably well. This is the first such incident that has taken place. In the past, the U.S. has not only allowed single allied soldiers into our country; we’ve brought in entire units for training as well.
Alshamrani was an outlier in this entire bloody spectacle. Did someone “drop the ball” on his vetting as several members of Congress have stated? Possibly not. Reports are surfacing that Alshamrani may have been radicalized when he returned to Saudi Arabia for a visit. FBI investigators are also looking into a few of his fellow students with whom he watched a video of mass shootings at his home just prior to the incident at Pensacola — one of whom allegedly filmed the incident from outside the building where the shooting took place.
Can we do better in the vetting process? Of course. We can always look at how things are being done and tweak the system so that we can do our best to prevent this sort of incident from happening again. But outliers such as Alshamrani will sometimes slip through the system’s cracks.
One thing that can’t happen is for the entire program to be shut down as some are calling for. Knee jerk reactions need to be avoided at all costs. The U.S. has to analyze this latest development very carefully and deliberately.
Saudi Arabia, as well as several other countries, have been very valuable allies in the War on Terror. These programs, which bring in allied students to train here and learn our values, aid not just in the defense of their own countries, but that of the United States as well. And the system works both ways: U.S. troops are regularly able to train overseas with our allied counterparts.
These programs are vital to our national security and must continue.