In the three months since Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani shot and killed three U.S. Navy personnel and wounded eight others at the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Pensacola, Florida, there have been several different reactions in both the United States and around the world to this horrible incident. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy did not overreact and endorse any of these extreme positions.
For me, the story hit close to home. As someone who went through pre-flight training, after being commissioned in the Navy, and later became an instructor at the pre-flight school at NAS, Pensacola, I was not only shocked but saddened by the killings. Moreover, as someone who not only taught dozens of for foreign officers from around the globe, but actually invited them to my home during the five years I was an instructor at the Naval War College, I was concerned by the fact that the murderer was one of the over 5,000 foreign military personnel currently here in the U.S. for training. During my time on active duty, I actually flew with Japanese naval officers teaching them how to conduct anti-submarine warfare operations, (something my commanding officer who was a WWII veteran in the war in the Pacific felt uncomfortable doing) never worrying about my safety. I know that if I ever had to go back on active duty and become involved in training foreign military officers again, I would not feel compelled to buy a gun or refuse to invite foreign military officers to my home.
But others have reacted differently to the Pensacola shooting. Some have argued that this proves that the Saudis are murderers and that none of them should be allowed to attend military training in this country ever again. Those holding this position point to the killing, obviously ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul; the fact that 15 of the 19 attackers on 9/11 were Saudis; and the continued killing of thousands of civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led Coalition. In fact, immediately after the Pensacola shooting, the Pentagon suspended operational training for the nearly 900 Saudi military personnel in this country.
For many, this view gained credibility when Qassim al-Rimi, the founder and leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) publicly claimed responsibility for the Florida shooting shortly before he was killed by a U.S. drone in late January.
Moreover, after a month-long investigation by the FBI of all of these Saudi students, on January 13, the Justice Department removed 21 Saudi officers from the program and sent them home. While the majority of these officers were stationed in Pensacola, nine came from three other U.S. bases. The FBI investigation found that 17 of the deportees had posted Jihadi or anti-American content and 15 had engaged with child pornography. While the Saudi government found the material embarrassing for its officers, Attorney General Bill Barr admitted that none of the conduct warranted federal prosecution or that any of the 21 deportees had cooperated with the killer.
Others have argued that we should not even continue to allow more than 5,000 troops from over 150 countries currently training in the U.S. to remain here. Supporters of this view believe, given this high number, it is impossible to adequately vet them in order to ensure that none of them pose a threat to U.S. security. Moreover, the supporters of this position point out that many of those the U.S. trains, even if they do not directly threaten American security, they do not embrace American values when they return to their native countries, but instead use the skills they develop here to overthrow their own governments, commit atrocities, or crush democratic movements. For example, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who took power in a military coup in 2013, graduated from the Army War College in 2006.
A third group, which includes President Donald Trump, contends that what the U.S. needs to do is to change policies that exist at the vast majority of military bases that prevent men and women in uniform from carrying their own guns on the base. Those holding this viewpoint believe that if the naval personnel killed and wounded by the Saudi lieutenant had access to their privately owned weapons, they could have protected themselves and their colleagues from the killer.
But none of these proposed solutions deals with the real problem: U.S. gun laws are not tough enough, and therefore, they allow people, including non-citizens in this country, to purchase guns legally. The weapon that the Saudi officer used to kill and wound his victims was arguably legally purchased from a gun store right near the naval base because he had acquired a hunting license using a false address. This is something that tens of thousands of people in this country can also do for no good reason.
There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia had a role in the attacks of 9/11 and the murder of Khashoggi. It is also responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in Yemen and surely al-Rimi had a role in radicalizing the Saudi lieutenant, directly or indirectly. However, before the killing in Pensacola, more than 28,000 Saudi military personnel have gone through training in the U.S. without threatening or undermining U.S. security. In 2019 alone, there were almost 1,700 Saudi military personnel be trained in this country.
Of course, some of the thousands of foreign troops who have trained in this country have used their skills to do unspeakable things when they return home, but the number is comparatively small. Moreover, prior to this incident none of them has committed murder on a U.S. base. In fact, the shootings on American bases are committed primarily by U.S. military personnel.
The deadliest mass shooting at a military base came in November 2009 at Fort Hood in Texas when a U.S. army officer, Major Nidal Hasan, killed 12 soldiers and one civilian. Four years later, at the same base, an enlisted soldier, Specialist Ivan Lopez, killed three soldiers and wounded 12. Both Hasan and Lopez legally purchased their murder weapons at the same gun shop near Fort Hood.
A review of media reports by the New York Times found approximately 30 shootings and other violent episodes took place at military bases since 2009. The Pensacola shooting was at least the seventh shooting at a U.S. military base in 2019. Actually, two days before the killing in Pensacola, an American sailor killed two shipyard workers and wounded another before killing himself, at the naval shipyard in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Even though men and women in uniform cannot carry their own concealed guns on base, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in 2016 that there is already adequate law enforcement to respond to shootings on bases. For example, civilian police officers responded within eight minutes to Hassan’s attack.
Fortunately, the Navy did not respond to the Pensacola shooting by ending the training of foreign military personnel, including those from Saudi Arabia. In fact, its leaders correctly recognized the benefits of this program. This training improves the capabilities of allied nations, enables us to establish contacts that allow us to work together on and off the battlefield, and establishes an appreciation for American values. As Defense Secretary Mark Esper put it, even after the Pensacola shooting, “The Foreign Military Training Program is a critical long-term investment that makes for great partnerships.” The Navy resumed its flight training program for Saudi students in late-February.
Still, as Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien acknowledged, the U.S. needs to improve the process by which it vets and monitors anyone who comes here from another country for military training, just as it vets those who ask to join the U.S. military. It also needs to better track the effectiveness of these programs and make it more difficult for the trainees to obtain fire arms while they’re in the United States.
As I reflect on what happened in Pensacola, I know I am more concerned about the people in this country who use legally purchased firearms to attack our schools, synagogues, mosques, churches, and military bases, killing and wounding hundreds every day. Until we get stricter gun laws, including expanded background checks and red flag laws, these killings will not stop.