WASHINGTON – A shooting by a Saudi pilot on a Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, in December was an act of terrorism motivated by “jihadist ideology,” Attorney General William Barr said Monday.

The Justice Department’s findings were announced about a month after the Saudi pilot, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani,fired on service members at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

The 21-year-old shooter, who was part of a U.S. training program for the Saudi military, was killed in the rampage Dec. 6 that killed three American service members and injured eight others.

Investigators found that on Sept. 11 last year, the shooter posted on social media that “the countdown has begun.” He visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City over Thanksgiving weekend, and he posted “anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages” on social media two hours before the attack, Barr said. 

Days after the attack, the Navy grounded more than 300 Saudi nationals who were training to be pilots. Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist ordered Defense intelligence officials to review and strengthen vetting procedures.

The remains of Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, fatally shot at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, are transferred at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Dec. 8, 2019. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)

Alshamrani began his three-year course in August 2017 with English, basic aviation and initial pilot training.

He was one of 5,180 foreign students, including 852 Saudi nationals, from 153 countries in the USA for military training. Many operate U.S. military hardware that foreign governments buy from the United States. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest customer for arms, and many of those are American-made. 

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said Monday there was “no indication” that others were involved in the attack. No single ideology is believed to have motivated the assault, Bowdich said, but the shooter posted messages echoing the teachings of al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Barr debunked reports that the shooter was accompanied by Saudi cadets. The Saudi cadets happened to be in the area and took videos of the chaos. They cooperated with investigators, Barr said. 

Saudi Arabia ordered its trainees to cooperate with the investigation, Barr said. Although there’s no evidence that members of the Saudi military training in the USA were involved in the attack or had advance knowledge of it, Barr said investigators learned that 21 trainees expressed derogatory sentiments about the United States. Many of them posted anti-American messages on social media. 

The 21 trainees will not face charges, but Saudi Arabia removed them from training, Barr said, after finding their conduct to be “unbecoming” of an officer. The trainees went back  to Saudi Arabia on Monday.

Barr praised American military members who responded during the shooting and helped victims. Sgt. Ryan Maisel and Staff Sgt. Samuel Mullins, both U.S. Marines, were outside the building when they heard gunfire and ran inside to confront the shooter. Barr said the two were armed with only a fire extinguisher they pulled off a wall. The two  performed CPR on victims.

Navy Airman Ryan Blackwell was shot five times. “Yet Ryan still managed to jump on top of a fellow sailor to keep her from being shot. He further assisted other students and helped them escape, while taking additional fire from the shooter,” Barr said. 

Blackwell was shot in the right arm and pelvis, and his intestines were severed by ricocheting bullets. 

‘He just shot through the door’: Injured airman describes Pensacola Navy base shooting

The shooter had two iPhones that were damaged during the attack. Investigators fixed them but have been unable to unlock them. Apple has not given investigators “substantive assistance” to unlock the phones, Barr said. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the shooter had “deep-seated hatred for the United States,” which needs to make sure foreign nationals are vetted.

Foreign military trainees are vetted before traveling to the USA. U.S. Embassy personnel research databases for activities such as support for terrorism, drug trafficking, corruption and other criminal behavior. Travel orders are denied to those who fail to pass the screening.

Contributing: Ryan Mills, Pensacola News Journal

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