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Saudi Arabia-US relations tested by Pensacola naval base shooting

Saudi authorities are reportedly investigating whether shooter may have been radicalised during trip back to kingdom that began late last year
The US has long had a robust training programme for Saudis, providing assistance in the US and in the kingdom (AFP)

US lawmakers called for a halt to Saudi military training after a Saudi air force student's shooting spree on Friday at a navy base in Florida.

The suspected Pensacola shooter, identified by US officials as Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was a member of the Saudi air force attending pilot training at the base.

Three people were killed in the shooting and eight were wounded, including two sheriff’s deputies. One of the deputies shot and killed Alshamrani.

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican whose Florida district includes the Pensacola base, called for the military training programme to be halted "until we are absolutely confident in our vetting program".

The shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola is testing the allies' ties just months after the Trump administration delivered substantial military aid to Saudi Arabia to counter threats from Iran.

Following the killings, US defence and military officials on Saturday reaffirmed America's continued commitment to the relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to reports.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper and others attending a security conference in California played down any initial impact on US-Saudi ties, the Associated Press reported, while President Donald Trump described a conciliatory conversation with the Saudi king.

Esper said that he had directed the Pentagon to look at vetting procedures for foreign nationals who come to the United States to study and train with the American military, the New York Times reported.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called Trump on Sunday and expressed his condolences and support for the families of the victims. The crown prince also assured Trump that Saudi authorities would offer their absolute cooperation with the US and provide all necessary information.

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Saudi authorities are investigating whether Alshamrani may have been radicalised during a trip back to the kingdom that began late last year, Saudi officials told the Wall Street journal.

They are trying to determine how the suspect spent his time and whom he contacted during his trip. He returned to training in the US this February, they added. Saudi authorities said they didn’t suspect Alshamrani of any criminal or extremist activity before the shooting.

US authorities are investigating the shooting as an act of terrorism, federal officials said on Sunday. Rachel Rojas, special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Jacksonville, Florida, said the terrorism probe allowed authorities to use certain investigative techniques, the WSJ reported.

“Our main goal, right now, is to confirm whether he acted alone, or was he part of a larger network,” Rojas said.

Investigators were also exploring why the pilot trainee and three others watched videos of mass shootings in the days before the Pensacola attack, AP said.

Early stages of investigation

An initial survey found no apparent connections between Alshamrani and any foreign militant group, though an anonymous US official cautioned that the investigation was still in its early stages and no conclusions had yet been reached, the Washington Post said.

The SITE Intelligence Group cited a Twitter account with a name matching the gunman that had posted a "will" calling the United States a "nation of evil" and criticising its support for Israel, the New York Times said.

The Times added that the account could not be independently verified and law enforcement officials did not confirm that it was connected to the gunman.

Still, the shooting raised uneasy parallels to the attacks of 11 September 2001 when many of the al-Qaeda-linked hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Centre, Pentagon and Pennsylvania countryside were Saudi citizens who had flight training in the US.

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A US 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.

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 on Saturday while several others were unaccounted for.

Alshamrani had been in the US since 2017 for a training programme that a Pentagon spokesman said he was scheduled to complete next August, WSJ reported.

Rojas said the pistol he used - a Glock 9mm handgun that can be paired with a magazine holding 33 rounds - was legally purchased by the shooter somewhere in Florida, Reuters reported. According to US regulations, it is legal for a foreigner in the US on a nonimmigrant visa to buy a gun if certain conditions are met.

The US has long had a major training programme for Saudis, providing assistance in the US 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 US going through military training.

The Trump administration has also been aggressively helping Saudi Arabia 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, which denies involvement.

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 2 October 2018, as his fiancee waited outside the diplomatic mission.

Khashoggi, long a royal court insider, had been in self-imposed exile in the US while writing critically of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - son of the oil-rich nation's King Salman - who was blamed in a UN report for Khashoggi's slaying, which the Saudis have vigorously denied.