U.S. Naval Base Shooter Investigated for Possible Terrorism Links

Florida Senator Rick Scott unequivocally says attack, carried out by a Saudi student, is a terrorist act regardless of his reasons

The Associated Press
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Tribute to the victims of a deadly shooting on the U.S. navy base, Pensacola, Florida, December 6, 2019
Tribute to the victims of a deadly shooting on the U.S. navy base, Pensacola, Florida, December 6, 2019Credit: MICHAEL SPOONEYBARGER/ REUTERS
The Associated Press

U.S. officials investigating the deadly attack by a Saudi aviation student at a naval air station in Florida were working Saturday to determine the motives for the deadly attack.

An aviation student from Saudi Arabia opened fire in a classroom at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on Friday morning, killing three people. The assault, which prompted a massive law enforcement response and base lockdown, ended when a sheriff's deputy killed the attacker. Twelve people were hurt in the attack, including the two deputies, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said.

Family members on Saturday identified one of the victims as a 23-year-old recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who alerted first responders to where the shooter was even after he had been shot several times.

“Joshua Kaleb Watson saved countless lives today with his own," his brother Adam Watson wrote on Facebook. “He died a hero and we are beyond proud but there is a hole in our hearts that can never be filled."

A U.S. official speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity said 10 Saudi students were being held on the base Saturday, while several others were unaccounted for.

They said the shooter had hosted a dinner party earlier in the week where he and three others watched videos of mass shootings.

One of the three students who attended the dinner party videotaped outside the building while the shooting was taking place on Friday, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity after being briefed by federal authorities. Two other Saudi students watched from a car, the official said.

Florida U.S. Senator Rick Scott issued a scathing statement calling the shooting an act of terrorism “whether this individual was motivated by radical Islam or was simply mentally unstable."

Scott added that it was “clear that we need to take steps to ensure that any and all foreign nationals are scrutinized and vetted extensively before being embedded with our American men and women in uniform.”

However, a national security expert from the Heritage Foundation warned against making an immediate link to terrorism.

Charles "Cully" Stimson cautioned against assuming that “because he was a Saudi national in their air force and he murdered our people, that he is a terrorist."

The shooter was a member of the Saudi military who was in aviation training at the base, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news conference. DeSantis spokesman Helen Ferre later said the governor learned about the shooter's identity from briefings with FBI and military officials.

During a news conference Friday night, the FBI declined to release the shooter's identity and wouldn't comment on his possible motivations.

“There are many reports circulating, but the FBI deals only in facts," said Rachel L. Rojas, the FBI's special agent in charge of the Jacksonville Field Office.

Earlier Friday, two U.S. officials identified the student as a second lieutenant in the Saudi Air Force, and said authorities were investigating whether the attack was terrorism-related. They spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose information that had not yet been made public.

President Donald Trump declined to say whether the shooting was terrorism-related. Trump tweeted his condolences to the families of the victims and noted that he had received a phone call from Saudi King Salman.

He said the king told him 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."

The Saudi government offered condolences to the victims and their families and said it would provide “full support” to U.S. authorities investigating the shooting.

DeSantis said Saudi Arabia needed to be held to account for the attack.

“Obviously, the government ... needs to make things better for these victims," he said. “I think they’re going to owe a debt here, given that this was one of their individuals.”

The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. The shooting, however, shined a spotlight on the two countries' sometimes rocky relationship.

The aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy arrives for exercises at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, U.S. March 17, 2004
The aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy arrives for exercises at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, U.S. March 17, 2004Credit: US NAVY/ REUTERS

The kingdom is still trying to recover from the killing last year of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi intelligence officials and a forensic doctor killed and dismembered Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, just as his fiancée waited outside the diplomatic mission.

One of the Navy's most historic and storied bases, Naval Air Station Pensacola sprawls along the waterfront southwest of the city's downtown and dominates the economy of the surrounding area.

Part of the base resembles a college campus, with buildings where 60,000 members of the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard train each year in multiple fields of aviation. A couple hundred students from countries outside the U.S. are also enrolled in training, said Base commander Captain Tim Kinsella.

The base is also home to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team, and includes the National Naval Aviation Museum, a popular regional tourist attraction.

All of the shooting took place in one classroom and the shooter used a handgun, authorities said. Weapons are not allowed on the base, which Kinsella said would remain closed until further notice.

The shooting is the second at a U.S. naval base this week. A sailor whose submarine was docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, opened fire on three civilian employees Wednesday, killing two before taking his own life.

Comments