WASHINGTON (AP) — Just months after senior U.S. officials delivered substantial military aid to Saudi Arabia to counter threats from Iran, America’s relationship with the kingdom is being tested by a Saudi Air Force student’s shooting spree at a Navy base in Florida.
Even as President Donald Trump and other top officials spoke about the continued U.S. commitment and relationship with its Mideast ally, investigators were exploring why the pilot trainee and three others watched videos of mass shootings in the days before he fatally shot three people at Naval Air Station Pensacola and wounded several others.
“I spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia. They are devastated in Saudi Arabia,” Trump told reporters Saturday as he left the White House on a trip to Florida. He said the king “will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly.”
U.S. defense and military leaders attending a security conference in California played down any initial impact on U.S.-Saudi ties.
Asked about any potential effect on military relations, Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday said, “We have strong military-to-military ties.” He added, “That’s the basis of our relationship with the Saudis. I don’t see this undermining” the military-to-military relationship.
In remarks at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley,, Esper was asked on Saturday whether he can say definitively that the shooting at Pensacola was terrorism. “No, I can’t say it’s terrorism at this time,” he said. Asked whether he would now hesitate to send American forces to Saudi Arabia, he said, “No, not at all.” He said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have shared security interests, especially with regard to Iran.
When Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, was asked whether the shooting gave him reservations about sending Marines to Saudi Arabia, he said no.
“All of us have forces in other countries, and theirs in ours,” Berger said. “Reservations sending Marines or service members to other countries or to Saudi Arabia? No, not at all.”
Saudi leaders were quick to make calls to American officials, expressing condolences and outrage over the killings. Saudi King Salman called Trump soon after the news broke Friday. In a statement, the Saudi Embassy said the king “affirmed that the perpetrator of this heinous crime does not represent the Saudi people, who count the American people as friends and allies.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Saturday that he had just talked to Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Saud “”who expressed his condolences and sadness at the loss of life in the horrific attack.”
The shooting, raised uneasy parallels to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when many of the al-Qaida-linked hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvania countryside were Saudi citizens who had flight training in the U.S.
The suspected Pensacola shooter, identified by U.S. officials as Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was a member of the Saudi Air Force and was attending pilot training at the base. The officials provided his name on condition of anonymity because it has not yet been released publicly. Three people were killed in the shooting, and eight were injured, including two sheriff deputies. One of the deputies shot and killed Alshamrani.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press on Saturday that Alshamrani hosted a dinner party earlier in the week where he and three others watched videos of mass shootings. And one of the three students who attended the dinner party videotaped outside the building while the shooting was taking place, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity after being briefed by federal authorities. Two other Saudi students watched from a car, the official said.
The official said 10 Saudi students were being held on the base Saturday while several others were unaccounted for.
U.S. officials at the security forum in California were careful not to draw any broader conspiracy or terrorism-related links to the shooting.
Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, was asked about unspecified reports that the Saudi shooter may have been part of a “sleeper cell.” He said he had not seen any such reports. He said the shooting was under investigation, and “at this point it is too early, in my opinion … to draw those types of conclusions.”
The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. As of this week, there are more than 850 Saudis in the United States for various training activities. They are among more than 5,000 foreign students from 153 countries in the U.S. going through military training.
“This has been done for many decades,” Trump said Saturday. “We’ve been doing this with other countries, foreign countries. I guess we’re going to have to look into the whole procedure. We’ll start that immediately.”
The Trump administration has also been aggressively helping Saudi this year, sending Patriot missile batteries, dozens of fighter jets and hundreds of troops there in the wake of attacks on the kingdom that officials blame on Iran.
In October, Esper visited Prince Sultan Air Base to see one of the batteries and talk about efforts to get other allies to contribute to the defense of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region to counter threats from Iran.
But the kingdom’s reputation is still damaged after 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 Oct. 2, 2018, as his fiancée waited outside the diplomatic mission.
Khashoggi, long a royal court insider, had been in self-imposed exile in the U.S. while writing critically of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the oil-rich nation’s King Salman.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Simi Valley, California, and Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington in Pensacola, Florida, contributed to this report.