Last week Royal Saudi Air Force 2LT Mohammed Alshamrani killed three people and wounded eight others in a terrorist attack at Pensacola Naval Air Station. He was killed by a sheriff’s deputy in response. The gun he used was legally purchased using a hunting license. The FBI had previously warned about this loophole for foreign nationals. He had been in the United States since 2017, receiving both English language and flight and weapons training, with brief returns to the Saudi Arabia for leave.
Why was he here? While Saudi Arabian military personnel have been receiving training in the United States since at least 1991 (I attended the Armor Officer Basic Course with a Saudi officer in 1994), they and other foreign soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines receive training through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. (IMET training is approved by the State Department and administered by the Department of Defense.) The Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s site lists the aims of such military training for foreign nationals as:
Train future leaders
Create a better understanding of the United States
Establish a rapport between the U.S. military and the country’s military to build alliances for the future
Enhance interoperability and capabilities for joint operation
Focus on professional military education
Allow countries to use their national funds to receive a reduced cost for other DoD education and training
Provide English Language Training assistance
Such training would require vetting of personnel both by the US and presumably by the sending nation. According to an archived report on the Federation of American Scientists:
all IMET applicants are screened rigorously for health problems, human rights violations, and other potential problems. If an applicant satisfies all screening requirements, an Invitational Travel Order (ITO) is issued. Once they arrive in the United States, each new International Military Student (IMS) is assigned an International Military Student Officer (ISMO), who is responsible for coordinating logistics associated with the student’s arrival, monitoring their academic progress, and arranging Department of Defense Informational Program (DoDIP) activities, which seek to expose foreign military students to American culture, values and institutions.
One would assume that procedures are similar today. But the Saudis are now claiming that Alshamrani spouted extremist views on social media before he even attended training beginning in 2017. The size of the Shamrani tribe, however, perhaps obscured his identity.
Several fellow Saudi students were observed filming the shootout. It remains unclear at this time whether that footage was taken out of some morbid curiosity or whether it was meant as propaganda of the deed material. (While Alshamrani had lodged a complaint about being called “pornstache” by an instructor which would offend a strictly observant Muslim, more importantly he tweeted shortly before the attack about his opposition to US military presence in Muslim lands and for its support of Israel.) Regardless, in response to this attack the US military halted the training of 850 Saudi students while a security review is being undertaken. This is completely warranted.
The mixed signals that the Trump administration has shown to Riyadh do complicate matters. On the one hand, we rail against foreign terrorism while, on the other hand, we turn a blind eye on the Jamal Khashoggi murder. As the stated aims of the IMET program make clear, such programs should help build goodwill toward the US. But if the students have made no visible statements or have no past of extremism, there is not much that can be done in terms of preemptively screening them out from such training.
Some might equate this situation with the so-called “green on blue” attacks of Afghan or Iraqi soldiers attacking US troops overseas. But this situation is very different from those because in some of those cases the soldiers’ families were being threatened and there was no issue of them being armed openly. Tightening loopholes on gun laws for non-residents such as the hunting exemption used by Alshamrani would be a useful step in this regard, but in the current political climate where any perceived hindrance of Second Amendment rights seems like a third rail, it might not be possible.
As much as we improve our vetting processes it is still possible that those who wish us harm can slip through. Our access to information and intent is far from the level of omnipotence. Clearly some sort of reckoning has to happen in US policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in this administration or the next. This is not to say that we need to scuttle relations with Riyadh, but we can also no longer afford to turn a blind eye on malfeasance whether direct or indirect in nature. But in the main, I believe that programs such as IMET probably do foster better relations with students from more austere political climates and show that the majority of Americans are good and decent people. If such investments overtime allow the loss of less American blood and treasure overseas, then that is certainly a good thing, even if this case has produced tragedy.