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Shooter At Naval Air Station Pensacola Was A Saudi National

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is the starting point for Rachel Rojas of the FBI in Pensacola, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL ROJAS: We are, as we do in most active shooter investigations - work with the presumption that this was an act of terrorism.

INSKEEP: The presumption - the bureau's special agent in charge was talking about an attack inside a U.S. military base. A gunman opened fire at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. He was a member of Saudi Arabia's air force. And authorities say he killed three people on Friday. Now, first, reports are often murky or just wrong after an incident like this. The passage of a few days gives better perspective. So let's work through what's known with NPR's Greg Allen, who's on the line. Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Basic question first - what was this Saudi air force officer doing on a U.S. base?

ALLEN: Well, you know, this is a longstanding program. For many decades, the U.S. has trained foreign military on its military bases. And it's not just Saudi Arabia. It's many countries. The idea behind this is that it helps build closer ties with military abroad, professionalizes them. And a lot of people have spoken up in favor of this in the in the wake of this shooting. But one of the - the shooter here, the gunman, was one of a number of Saudis who was training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. There's a bunch of other Saudis on the base still. The FBI says none of them have been detained. There've been no arrests. And the FBI says the Saudi commanding officer on the base has restricted the trainees to some parts of the base. And they're all cooperating with investigators at this point.

INSKEEP: OK, so one individual definitely of interest. And who was he, exactly?

ALLEN: Well, his name is Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who's a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force. More than that is not really being disclosed at this point by the FBI. They say they have not yet determined a motive for the gunman. As you say, they're pursuing it as if it can be terrorism to keep that avenue open. Other U.S. officials, though, seem ready to say this was terrorism, and that's an attack that was based on ideology. Among them was Robert O'Brien, the president's national security adviser, who said yesterday he thought that the gunman had been radicalized.

INSKEEP: What verified information is there about his actions leading up to the shooting and during the shooting?

ALLEN: Well, we know he was in the country for a few years. And he received training here in Pensacola and also at other military bases, including language training elsewhere. And he'd been back to Saudi Arabia in the meantime. But there's a lot that the FBI won't say about all the reports that are out there. People are getting these from sources. So we'll stick with what we can confirm this point. Right before the shooting, there was a post on a Twitter account that's been - has the same name as - last name as as the gunman. And that Twitter account accused America of crimes against Muslims. Officials won't - Twitter later took that account down. And officials won't confirm whether that has any link - really was his account or not. But it does raise some questions.

INSKEEP: And one of those questions, of course, is the motive. Another is whether that motive would be described as terrorism. We heard the FBI special agent speak of a presumption that it's terrorism. But she says we would presume all the time that it's terrorism. What about this other question of whether this particular shooter acted alone?

ALLEN: Right. Well, that's one of the questions that they're looking at. At this point, they have - like I say, have made no arrests. They say they have no reason to believe there's any threat of another attack here. So they don't believe - they've not indicated they believe there's anyone else involved in this case at this point. We know that he legally purchased a 9 mm handgun in Florida. They wouldn't give us any details about that. Yesterday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis raised questions about that, calling that a federal loophole. Why should Saudi Arabians be able to buy guns here? - he thought - he asked. And he also wants them to vet foreign nationals better and, you know, ensure safety of those on military bases.

INSKEEP: OK. Greg, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Allen.

Now, what are the implications of an attack like this? Juliette Kayyem joins us next. She is a longtime specialist in homeland security and was a top official at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. Good morning.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's it tell you when an attack like this comes on a military base, which sounds like it ought to be secure?

KAYYEM: It ought to be secure. And they're secure on the perimeter, whether it's fencing or walls. They definitely have military police. But we have federal prohibitions against people being armed on military facilities. So in many ways, it is not surprising to me that it was a sheriff's deputy - someone from the outside who came and ultimately killed Mohammed Alshamrani.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a really valuable detail here. You have hundreds or even thousands of people on a base who know how to use firearms, but they keep them all in the lockers - except specified times. Right?

KAYYEM: Exactly. So we do have military police. So you can imagine sort of you have your outside perimeter. But because he's the equivalent of an insider threat - right? - he comes and goes because he's badged, because he is a student there. So he was able to bring a gun in. And the real question is, of course, his lawful purchasing of a gun. He was here on what's called a nonimmigrant visa. That applies to these military liaison programs. Federal loophole allows people here on a military nonimmigrant visa to purchase guns lawfully. That's a loophole that ought to be looked at given the circumstances of this case.

INSKEEP: Would people in these military liaison programs be, in some way, vetted by U.S. security authorities before being let into the United States?

KAYYEM: Absolutely. There's a vetting process done by the Department of Defense. It looks at three major categories - drug use, mental stability or instability and then, of course, ties to terrorism. That vetting goes at the process of entry into the United States. And, of course, you know, we work with a country like Saudi Arabia to learn more about him. That vetting is not recurring. And so once he's in, he's in.

So we're both dependent on Saudi Arabia in terms of the information they give us about that individual and then just an assumption that his mental status, his radicalization or whatever else remains the same. And so I think one of the big questions coming out of this is, should that vetting process be recurring by the Department of Defense? And a similar question is, did Saudi Arabia pick up on anything about him - 'cause he is going back home at various times - that they ought to have alerted us to?

INSKEEP: Just to clarify both things you're saying there, the question about it being recurring is important because he came three years ago.

KAYYEM: Three years ago.

INSKEEP: So somebody checked him out three years ago. Who knows what was happening with him?

KAYYEM: Exactly. A lot can happen in three years. I think the assumption that it was terrorism, as the FBI's saying, is right, just given his background, given that it was a military facility and given, of course, some of the reporting that Greg was talking about potential radicalization. But, you know, that is - a lot can happen to a person in three years. And so you want to find out whether their motivation was caused by either radicalization process, co-conspirators or whether it was something totally different.

INSKEEP: OK. It's easy to make assumptions because he was Saudi, because a lot of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, just to give an example. But we don't want to make assumptions here. What are the legitimate questions worth asking Saudi authorities?

KAYYEM: So I think, you know, look. Saudi Arabia has its interest right now. We've certainly seen it played out politically, right? They have two interests. One is to essentially make this case go away. They don't want it to disrupt the geopolitical relationship with the United States. The second is they want to protect this military liaison program. It is incredibly beneficial to them. They represent about 20 percent of a program that brings in 5,000 military professionals to be trained by the United States.

But there are questions regarding this program, and those questions are America's interests - those aren't Saudi Arabia's interests - questions about the vetting process, whether it should be recurring, whether there are mechanisms in place at these facilities so if a teacher or an administrator or a colleague sort of thinks that someone has gotten radicalized or something's off with them - that there's processes that they can notify higher-ups at the Pentagon. Those kinds of questions are ones that, outside of politics, outside of a criminal investigation, have to happen.

I mean, in my field, you know, unfortunately, bad things happen. We know that. It's government's responsibility, its sort of solemn obligation to find out why that bad thing happens so that you can do better next time and minimize the likelihood that it happens. And I think, again - and I think that's the obligation we have to these young men who died.

INSKEEP: In a sentence or two, the Saudis have said they'll cooperate. Have they been cooperative historically?

KAYYEM: So the cases differ. I mean, I think in financial cases and smuggling cases, we have a formalized legal attache process. We have FBI agents in Saudi Arabia. Those are pretty rote. This one is different. It's why people like me have been critical of sort of President Trump seeming to sort of replicate the sort of apologies that we're hearing from Saudi Arabia. He was paid for by the Saudi government. He is a member of their military. So we'll see what comes in the weeks to come.

INSKEEP: Juliette Kayyem of Harvard, thanks so much.

KAYYEM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.