U.S. Officials: More Than 20 Saudi Students To Be Expelled In Wake Of Fla. Shooting

Jan 12, 2020
Originally published on January 13, 2020 4:34 am

Updated 8:38 p.m. Sunday ET

The Trump administration is planning to announce on Monday that more than 20 Saudi students receiving military training in the United States will be sent back to their home country, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The expulsions come in the wake of a Pentagon review of the Saudi officer who opened fire last month at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., leaving three young sailors dead and wounding eight others.

Earlier reports indicated that about 12 Saudi trainees would be kicked out of the country. However, those reports did not include Saudis who will be expelled from military bases other than Naval Air Station Pensacola, according to the U.S. officials who spoke to NPR on the condition of anonymity.

The Saudis who will be removed from the country raised a number of concerns among federal investigators, the officials said.

Some Saudi trainees failed to alert authorities about the shooter's extremist leanings. Investigators believe the gunman and other Saudi trainees watched videos of other mass shootings at a party before the attack.

Some Saudis are being expelled because they viewed child pornography, according to the officials. Other Saudi officers in the U.S. were involved in extremist online chat rooms, according to one of the officials.

The shooting prompted the Pentagon to suspend operational training of all Saudi Arabian military students in the U.S. indefinitely, as federal investigators conduct a security review of the some 850 military students in the U.S. from Saudi Arabia.

The Justice Department, which has been investigating the incident as an act of terrorism, is planning on Monday to publicly announce the Saudi removals and the results of its criminal investigation into the Pensacola shooting.

In Saudi Arabia, news of the expulsions is expected to be greeted as unwelcome news, according to Daniel Byman, a Middle East expert and professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

"They don't like public embarrassment. So having have these individuals be expelled, having it make the news, is not something the Saudi regime wants," Byman said.

The expelling of the Saudi students arrives amid heightened tensions in the region following the American drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani.

Byman said pushing out the students could make a precarious situation with Iran even more uncertain.

"If there's going to be efforts to do diplomacy with Iran, no matter which direction the United States wants to go in, Saudi Arabia is going to be important for that," according to Byman.

Authorities identified the victims of the December attack in Pensacola as Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, of Enterprise, Ala.; Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Ga.

Some members of Congress used the incident to renew attention on foreign military exchange training programs, which bring thousands of students from dozens of countries to be taught at U.S. bases.

Top military officials view the programs as a way to boost relationships with foreign militaries and to increase the sharing of intelligence around the globe as a national security measure.

When asked on Fox News Sunday about the move to kick out Saudi trainees, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, are exhibiting caution in the aftermath of the bloody rampage.

"I think we're being very careful. Obviously, Pensacola showed that there had been errors in the way that we vetted, and out of an abundance of caution Secretary Esper has taken these actions to protect our service men and women," O'Brien said.

The Saudis set to be expelled from the U.S. are not accused of aiding the 21-year-old Saudi gunman who carried out the attack, according to CNN, which first reported Saturday night that more than a dozen Saudi servicemen would be removed from the country.

Federal investigators believe the Saudi gunman, who legally purchased a handgun before the shooting, acted alone and was not part of a larger network. A sheriff's deputy shot and killed him.

Shortly after the shooting, an account linked to the gunman surfaced showing vitriolic posts on social media criticizing American foreign policy and military action, saying the country had become "a nation of evil."

The Department of Justice, Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all declined to comment on the pending announcement about the Saudi students being expelled.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two U.S. officials have now confirmed to NPR that more than 20 Saudi students in the U.S. for military training are getting sent home after a security review. That review took place after a deadly rampage last month that was carried out by a Saudi flight trainee at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla. Here's more from NPR's Bobby Allyn.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: After a Saudi national shot and killed three young sailors at a naval base in December, all Saudi officers studying in the U.S. came under the microscope. There are 850 of them. Federal authorities suspended their training in order to conduct the investigation. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien says the expelling of the students back to Saudi Arabia shows the Trump administration is being extra vigilant about possible insider threats. He was talking to "Fox News Sunday."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

ROBERT O'BRIEN: I think we're being very careful. Obviously, Pensacola showed that there had been errors in the way that we vetted.

ALLYN: The Saudis who are being expelled raised a number of concerns among investigators. One U.S. official told NPR some of the Saudis are being removed because they viewed child pornography. Other Saudi trainees failed to alert authorities about the shooter's extremism, and some of them were involved in extremist online chat rooms. That's according to a second U.S. official. In Saudi Arabia, this will likely come as unwelcome news. That's according to Daniel Byman. He's a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a Middle East expert.

DANIEL BYMAN: They don't like public embarrassment. So having these individuals be expelled, having it make the news is not something that the Saudi regime wants.

ALLYN: The expelling of the Saudi students arrives just as the region is on edge following the American drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani. Byman says expelling the students could make a precarious situation with Iran even more uncertain.

BYMAN: And if there's going to be pressure on Iran, if there's going to be military strikes on Iran, if there's going to be efforts to do diplomacy with Iran, no matter which direction the United States wants to go in, Saudi Arabia is going to be important for that.

ALLYN: Some members of Congress have been calling for a review of how the U.S. screens foreign nationals before they train alongside American military personnel. Pentagon officials value these military exchange programs because they help the U.S. better coordinate with armed forces abroad. But the shooting has amplified scrutiny on who the U.S. allows into these programs. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was interviewed Sunday on CBS' "Face The Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

MARK ESPER: I've signed out directives that address enhanced screening of all of our foreign students, that address credentialing going forward, weapons policies, etc. So we're doing everything we can.

ALLYN: The Saudi who carried out the Pensacola rampage was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy. A Twitter account that has been linked to the shooter included posts criticizing the U.S.'s support of Israel and accusing American foreign policy of being anti-Muslim. Justice Department officials say they will provide the results of their probe into the Pensacola Naval base shooting later today.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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