WASHINGTON, DC - A large number of service members from the Saudi Arabian military who had been training with U.S. forces in the United States, have been kicked out of the training programs, and ordered back to Saudi Arabia.
There are approximately 850 Saudi military trainees involved in training courses at a number of military bases across the U.S.
Beyond the Saudis, there are thousands of allied pilots and other military personnel receiving training on military bases throughout the United States.
The dramatic expulsion follows a review of the training of foreign forces in the country, which was ordered after a second lieutenant in the Saudi Arabian military, involved in flight training at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, Mohammed Alshamrani, initiated a mass shooting at the base.
Alshamrani shot eleven U.S. sailors, killing three of them (pictured), and wounding 8.
"This was an act of terrorism," U.S. Attorney General William Barr told a press conference on Monday.
"The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology. During the course of the investigation, we learned that the shooter posted a message on social media on Sept. 11 of last year that said: "the countdown has begun."
"Over Thanksgiving weekend, he visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. He also posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli, and jihadi messages on social media, and did so two hours before his attack at the naval base."
"Early reports indicated that the shooter arrived at the site, accompanied by other Saudi cadets, who took video of the attack as it unfolded. These reports turned out not to be accurate. The shooter arrived by himself. Other Saudi cadets happened to be in the area and, after the attack began, they took some videos of the resulting commotion. They fully cooperated in the investigation, as did the other Saudi cadets who were interviewed by the FBI at Pensacola and at additional bases across the country," said Barr.
"After Alshamrani entered the building and cased the facility, he proceeded to walk around shooting down his unarmed victims in cold blood."
"During and after this heinous attack, there were many specific acts of courage, and I want to draw special attention to two U.S. Marines: Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Maisel and Staff Sgt. Samuel Mullins," said the attorney general.
"They were outside the building when they heard gunfire and, although unarmed, they ran into the building to confront the shooter. Their only weapon was a fire extinguisher that they had pulled off the wall as they ran toward the gunfire. Who but the Marines?"
"Although they were unable to engage the shooter, they helped save many lives by performing CPR and other medical aid on the victims," Barr said.
"I would also like to mention the heroic acts of Navy Airman Ryan Blackwell. The shooter shot Airman Blackwell five times, yet Ryan still managed to jump on top of a fellow sailor to keep her from being shot. He further assisted other students and helped them escape, all while taking additional fire from the shooter. Airman Blackwell's heroic acts also saved countless lives that day."
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gave complete and total support for our counter-terrorism investigation, and ordered all Saudi trainees to fully cooperate. This assistance was critical to helping the FBI determine whether anyone assisted the shooter in the attack," said Mr Barr.
"While there was no evidence of assistance or pre-knowledge of the attack by other members of the Saudi military (or any other foreign nationals) who are training in the United States, we did learn of derogatory material possessed by 21 members of the Saudi military who are training here in the United States."
"Seventeen had social media containing some jihadi or anti-American content. However, there was no evidence of any affiliation or involvement with any terrorist activity or group. 15 individuals (including some of the seventeen just mentioned) had had some kind of contact with child pornography. While one of these individuals had a significant number of such images, all the rest had one or two images, in most cases posted in a chat room by someone else or received over social media," said the U.S. attorney general.
"The relevant U.S. Attorneys offices independently reviewed each of the 21 cases involving derogatory information and determined that none of them would, in the normal course, result in federal prosecution."
"However, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia determined that this material demonstrated conduct unbecoming an officer in the Saudi Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and the 21 cadets have been dis-enrolled from their training curriculum in the U.S. military and will be returning to Saudi Arabia (later today)," said Mr Barr.
"The Kingdom has assured me that it will review each of these cases under their code of military justice and criminal code. The Kingdom has also agreed that we will have full access to anyone we want to interview in Saudi Arabia and any documents relevant to our investigation. Indeed, it has already been providing documents. Further, the Kingdom has assured us that, if we later decide to charge any of those being sent back to Saudi Arabia in connection with this counterterrorism investigation, it will return them for trial."
"We appreciate Saudi Arabia's cooperation in this case," he said.
"Finally, I want to address an issue regarding the shooter's phones."
"The shooter possessed two Apple iPhones," said Mr Barr.
"Within one day of the shooting, the FBI sought and received court authorization based on probable cause to search both phones in an effort to run down all leads and figure out with whom the shooter was communicating."
"During the gunfight with first responders, the shooter disengaged long enough to place one of the phones on the floor and shoot a single round into the device. It also appears the other phone was damaged," the AG said
"Our experts at the FBI crime lab were able to fix both damaged phones so they are operational."
"However, both phones are engineered to make it virtually impossible to unlock them without the password. It is very important to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died," Mr Barr said.
"We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter's iPhones. So far Apple has not given us any substantive assistance. This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause. We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks."
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich, who spoke alongside the attorney general at Monday's press conference, called the investigation incredibly complex. it involved hundreds of FBI personnel, including the Jacksonville Field Office, and dozens of partner agencies and entities. The FBI, he said, conducted more than 500 interviews and collected more than forty-two terabytes of digital media in an effort to determine if Alshamrani was acting alone.
So far, we have not identified any solid evidence that the shooter acted with any co-conspirators or that he was inspired by a specific group, Bowdich said. The shooters social media posts suggested he harbored anti-U.S. military and anti-Israel sentiments.
The shooting lasted about 15 minutes, and Naval Security Forces intervened about eight minutes after the first shots. Alshamrani was killed by law enforcement officers at the scene, where the FBI found a lawfully purchased semi-automatic handgun, several ammunition magazines, and about 180 rounds of ammunition.
The FBI deputy director supported the attorney-general's call for cooperation from technology companies. Even with a court order, to date we cannot access the contents of the two phones that the attorney general referred to in this investigationand countless other investigations, he said. We want to work together with private sector companies so that we can lawfully access the evidence and information we need to keep our country and its citizens safe.
Were not trying to weaken encryption, he added. After all, data security is a central part of our mission."
Alshamrani started his training in August 2017 as part of a three-year program. He was taking classes in basic aviation, initial pilot training and English, according to a spokesperson for the assistant to the Secretary of Defense.