Trump, Saudi Arabia stay close after Pensacola shooting
President Donald Trump appears to be maintaining his support of Saudi Arabia in the wake of a deadly shooting at a US naval base allegedly perpetrated by a Saudi national — a crime the FBI presumes is an act of terrorism.
Last Friday, Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force and a student naval flight officer, opened fire in a classroom building at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, killing three sailors. Alshamrani was killed after two deputies exchanged gunfire with him.
Alshamrani’s motive for the attack is still undetermined, but the FBI is operating with “the presumption that this was an act of terrorism,” as they do in most similar cases.
The kingdom is often slow to offer official responses, especially on a Friday, which is considered the holiest day of the week in Saudi Arabia. But the same day of the shooting, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud spoke to Trump over the phone. He also quickly instructed his own security services to cooperate fully with US investigators. Lawyers from Saudi Arabia have also been sent to Florida.
Trump relayed that the king’s Friday message to him was that “the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.”
And on Sunday, Trump spoke to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. According to the White House’s readout of the call, the prince “reiterated Saudi Arabia’s commitment to working with the United States to prevent a horrific attack like the Pensacola shooting from ever happening again. The President thanked the Crown Prince for Saudi Arabia’s assistance with the investigation and continued partnership.”
Adding to the Saudi response, a high-ranking Saudi defense attache is also traveling to Pensacola to meet with US officials involved in the shooting probe as tension between the countries is rising over the continued restriction to the base of up to a dozen Saudi nationals, a person familiar with the case said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday confirmed one or two Saudi nationals filmed the Pensacola attack. It is not clear why they were filming it, he said. Esper said some Saudi friends of shooter Alshamrani were detained after the incident, and that one or two of those friends filmed the attack.
The Saudi nationals have been generally cooperating but have made requests to leave their confinement on the military base. The FBI said Sunday that they have been restricted to base by their Saudi commanding officer.
Questions still remain about what they knew about the shooter, and whether they had any advance knowledge that an attack was coming, the source familiar with the case said.
Despite major incidents seeming to highlight rising tensions in the last two years, leaders of the allied nations have appeared to stay close.
Trump maintained support of Saudi Arabia even as details of the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi emerged. Khashoggi was allegedly killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by men with close ties to the highest levels of the Saudi government and bin Salman.
Although the CIA has concluded that the crown prince personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Trump signaled he would not take strong action against Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, or its crown prince, despite pressure at home and internationally.
And throughout his presidency, Trump has also highlighted his bond with the Saudis and praised their purchase of US weapons.
Many of the weapons systems the kingdom purchases are made in the USA, from fighter jets to helicopters to machine guns. In recent years, the purchases have increased significantly as Saudi Arabia is now the world’s third-largest defense and security spender, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
CNN has previously reported that some of these American-made weapons have been transferred to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions at war in Yemen — in violation of their agreements with the United States.
Congress has tried to ban these types of weapons sales. Trump has vetoed these efforts.
CNN’s David Shortell, Nic Robertson, Jay Croft, Nicole Chavez, Steve Almasy and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.