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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Still More to Dissect in Pensacola Shooter’s Motive, Access to Weapon

Ahmed Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force, opened fire in a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola last Friday, killing three and wounding eight. He was shot by the sheriff’s deputies who responded to the incident. Alshamrani was a part of the contingent of over 5,000 foreign students from 153 countries in the United States currently attending Department of Defense (DoD)-sponsored training. [i]

The attack marked the third deadly attack at a U.S. military facility in a week, following incidents in Virginia and Hawaii. Several days into the investigation, law enforcement authorities have yet to confirm whether the deadly Florida shooting was an act of terrorism, though have been continuing to work under the “presumption that it was an act of terrorism.” [ii] The attack has already been labeled an act of terrorism by several congressional officials.  [iii] National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien stated, “I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but it appears that this may be someone that was radicalized, whether it was here or it’s unclear if he’s got any other ties to other organizations.”[iv] Ten Saudi students[v] were being held on the base. Six were detained after the attack[vi], while  several others remain unaccounted for.[vii]

Law enforcement officials and investigators are striving to determine Alshamrani’s motivations for the attack. Details that have emerged indicate that he had posted anti-U.S. comments online before the attack, that he and other fellow Saudi students hosted a dinner party earlier in the week to watch videos depicting mass shootings, and that at least one of the Saudi students connected with the shooter video recorded the attack and that two other Saudi students watched the attack as it unfolded from a car. The shooter had also visited New York City days prior to the attack. Authorities are currently investigating whether the visit was connected to the attack.[viii]

Alshamrani purportedly posted a manifesto on Twitter just before the shooting and had denounced the United States “as a nation of evil.”[ix] While his tweets could not be linked to any known extremist or terrorist group, they did reflect core viewpoints of Osama bin Laden, namely his anti-U.S. sentiments and repeated demands for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia.[x] Preliminary investigations suggest that the Twitter account, now suspended by Twitter, belonged to the shooter. Saudi authorities are also investigating whether the gunman was radicalized during a trip back to the Saudi Kingdom last year. [xi]

While no apparent links to any terrorist group have been found to date, [xii] in exploring possible links to terrorism one must be careful not to discern terrorism (jihadi) links based solely on the assumption that Alshamrani had expressed pro-jihadi sentiments online or that he and his fellow countrymen had watched mass shooting videos before the attack. One must clearly examine the shooter’s psychological profile, potential personal grievances (e.g. his record of achievement, or lack thereof, as a Royal Saudi Air Force trainee at the base, etc.) or any other non-political reasons leading to his violence.[xiii]

As more details surrounding the circumstances of the attack are likely to emerge in the coming days, one must avoid premature or faulty conclusions. While some have already taken the debate to social media to advocate for restrictions on student visas for foreigners, the evidence suggests that the attacker was more likely on A-2 visa, which (similar to A1) is granted to foreign officials to engage in official government activities in the United States. There are also others who seem quick to err on the side of immigration debate by comparing the attacker to 9/11 hijackers, who supposedly were here in the United States on a student visa. In fact, only one of the 9/11 hijackers came to the U.S. on a student visa — most arrived on either tourist or business visas. [xiv]

Several sources suggest that the Pensacola shooter had purchased a firearm legally from a dealer[xv] in the United States.[xvi] The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) cited exceptions for weapons purchases in the case of “nonimmigrant aliens” who come from “a friendly government entering the United States on official law enforcement business.”[xvii] Another ATF regulation governing purchases by those with a non-immigrant status in the United States says they “are prohibited from shipping, transporting, receiving, or possessing a firearm or ammunition,” noting exceptions in the instances of individuals “with a valid hunting license or permit, and those who were admitted for lawful hunting or sporting purposes.”[xviii]

Some argue that the shooter apparently had a hunting license, which allowed him to purchase a firearm.[xix] While a plausible scenario, hunting with a handgun (Glock 9mm, in his case) is highly unusual, as it is not specifically designed for hunting purposes. In addition, getting a hunting license without being able to purchase a firearm initially also raises a red flag. Clearly, further investigations are needed to determine the criteria that allowed the shooter to purchase a firearm. It remains to be seen whether other restrictions may have been applicable at the time of purchase under the Gun Control Act of 1968 (as amended) or if the weapon was acquired illegally. Other questions to consider include when the purchase was made to gain insights into possible motivations. Recent evidence indicates that he had purchased the murder weapon back in April of this year. [xx]

Undoubtedly, the attack on U.S. servicemen at the Pensacola Navy base by a Saudi trainee was tragic and unfortunate. The value that such training programs bring to the U.S. military and its foreign counterparts must also be acknowledged, however. As some experts have noted, “training foreign militaries is an important form of American soft power and a way to advance U.S. security objectives.” [xxi]  Such programs remain one of the most effective professional networking opportunities to enhance future partnerships and common efforts. This is not to suggest, however, that precautions and amendments to current vetting processes involving foreign beneficiaries of U.S. training programs should not be warranted.

[i] Cohen, Z., & Starr, B. (2019). “ Here is what we know about the US military’s program to train foreign troops,” CNN, available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/06/politics/us-military-foreign-training-program-explainer/index.html
[ii] https://www.npr.org/2019/12/08/786089099/fbi-is-investigating-pensacola-shooting-as-terrorism
[iii] Strickland et al. (2019). “ Investigation broadened in Pensacola Navy base shooting,” The Washington Post, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2019/12/07/pensacola-shooting-shooter-updates/
[iv] Quinn, M. (2019). “ Pensacola shooting ‘ appears to be a terrorist attack, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien says, “ CBS News, available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/national-security-adviser-robert-obrien-pensacola-shooting-face-the-nation/
[v] Fedschun, T. (2019). “ Missing Saudi servicemen lined to NAS Pensacola shooting accounted for; gunman made prior reported trip to NYC,” Fox News, available at  https://www.foxnews.com/us/missing-saudi-servicemen-nas-pensacola-shooting-fbi-new-york-city-trip
[vi] See, for example, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/us/pensacola-florida-navy-shooting.html
[vii] LET. (2019). “ Sources: Manhunt underway for missing Saudi students after shooting at Pensacola naval base,” available at https://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/manhunt-underway-for-missing-saudi-students-after-pensacola-shooting/
[viii] Bacon, J., & Robinson, K. (2019). “ FBI investigating Pensacola rampage as act of terrorism: Saudi student recorded attack,” USA Today, available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/12/08/pensacola-shooting-killer-showed-mass-shooting-videos-dinner-party/4373963002/
[ix] Allen, N. (2019). “ Saudi gunman called US ‘nation of evil’ before Florida shooting, monitoring group says,” The Telegraph, available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/12/07/saudi-soldier-kills-four-wounds-eight-us-naval-base-shooting/
[x] Stanglin, D., & Blanks, A. (2019). “ FBI investigates tweets purportedly from suspect in NAS Pensacola shooting that killed 3,” USA Today, available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/12/07/pensacola-shooting-saudi-student-tweets-fbi-investigating-ter/4364451002/
[xi] Malsin, J., & Ramey, C. (2019). “ Saudis investigate if Pensacola gunman was radicalized in trip back to Kingdom, “ The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-authorities-investigating-if-pensacola-gunman-was-radicalized-in-kingdom-last-year-11575824003
[xii] Almasy, S. et al (2019). “ Investigator’s haven’t found links between Pensacola gunman and terror groups, sources say,” CNN, available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/07/us/pensacola-naval-station-shooting-saturday/index.html
[xiii] Byman, L. D., & Wittes, C. T. (2019). “ The Pensacola attack by a Saudi pilot: Implications for US-Saudi ties,” Brookings, available at  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/12/06/the-pensacola-attack-by-a-saudi-pilot-implications-for-us-saudi-ties/
[xiv] See, for example, https://www.factcheck.org/2013/05/911-hijackers-and-student-visas/
[xv] Burke, M., & Williams, P. (2019). “ Saudi Air Force member who killed 3 at U.S. Navy base had watched mass-shooting videos,” NBC News, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/saudi-air-force-member-who-killed-3-u-s-navy-n1097641
[xvi]Chavez, N., Almasy, S., & Starr, B. (2019). “ The Pensacola gunman bought his weapon legally, sources say, “ CNN, available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/08/us/pensacola-naval-station-shooting-sunday/index.html
[xvii] Mark, M. (2019). “ The Pensacola Navy base shooter reportedly used a loophole to buy his gun legally, “ Business Insider, available at https://www.businessinsider.com/pensacola-naval-base-shooter-bought-gun-legally-loophole-2019-12
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] Burke, M., & Williams, P. “Saudi Air Force member who killed 3 at U.S. Navy base had watched mass-shooting videos.”
[xx] Daly, M. (2019). “ Did Navy base shooter Mohammed al Shamrani have murder on his mind in April, “ The Daily Beast, available at https://www.thedailybeast.com/pensacola-navy-base-shooter-mohammed-alshamrani-began-gun-buying-process-in-april?ref=scroll
[xxi] Byman, L. D., & Wittes, C. T. “ The Pensacola attack by a Saudi pilot: Implications for US-Saudi ties.”
Ardian Shajkovci
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with field research experience in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, and Jordan), Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, and Central Asia. He is co-founder and director of recently initiated American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research center predominantly focused on the domestic aspects of terrorism-related threats. Past positions include Research Director and Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and positions and consultancies with domestic and international organizations. Homeland security, disengagement from terrorism, violent extremist and terrorist group media communication strategy and information security, messaging and counter-messaging, and the strengthening of resilience to violent extremism and terrorism through application of the rule of law represent some of the areas of research interest. Ardian obtained his PhD. in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. in Public Policy and Administration, from Northwestern University, and a B.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University.

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