On December 6, 2019, a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force, Mohammed Alshamrani, committed what the FBI is investigating as an act of terrorism when he opened fire in a classroom at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. Three were killed and eight were wounded in that incident. Alshamrani's actions underscore the need for more vetting of all foreign nationals coming to the United States, and at the same time the logic of the president's much-criticized travel restrictions.
As Reuters reported:
Alshamrani was on the base as part of a U.S. Navy training program designed to foster links with foreign allies. He had started training in the United States in 2017 and had been in the Pensacola area for the past 18 months, authorities said.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (my old boss when he was chairman of the National Security Subcommittee at House Oversight and Government Reform, and a former naval officer himself) spoke for many when he stated: "There is a lot of frustration in our state over this. ... You have foreign military personnel coming to our base. They should not be doing that if they hate our country."
My colleague Dan Cadman posits that Alshamrani entered on an A-2 nonimmigrant visa, a fact that has not been officially confirmed, but one that definitely makes sense under Department of State policy. Specifically, 9 FAM 402.5-5(J)(4)(U) states:
Civilians accepted by any of the U.S. military service academies may be classified as F-1 students. They are required to present Form I-20 and pay the SEVIS fee. Military personnel coming to the United States for education or training at any armed forces training facility are to be classified as foreign government officials and issued A-2 visas.
And, as State Department's Consular Affairs website explains:
To qualify for an A-1 or A-2 visa, you must be traveling to the United States on behalf of your national government to engage solely in official activities for that government. The specific duties or services that will be performed must be governmental in character or nature, as determined by the U.S. Department of State, in accordance with U.S. immigration laws.
Flight training would definitely appear to fall within that designation, as an "official activity" for the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is not a new program — my father trained co-belligerent pilots in Texas during World War II as part of the Army Air Corps, and there are currently "5,181 foreign students from 153 countries ... in the United States for military training, including 852 Saudis," according to Pentagon spokesman Chris Garver.
What is clear, however, is that Alshamrani was traveling on a nonimmigrant visa to the United States, and therefore would have been subject to vetting prior to being issued his visa and prior to his admission to this country.
The Telegraph (UK) has reported that he expressed animus against the United States immediately before that shooting on Twitter, announcing: "I'm against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil." He continued: "I'm not against you for just being American, I don't hate you because your freedoms, I hate you because every day you supporting, funding and committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity." He apparently also quoted the late Osama bin Laden (founder of the terror group Al Qaeda, who was killed by SEAL Team Six in May 2011 at his hideout in Abbotabad, Pakistan), and "Alshamrani reportedly held a dinner party in the days before the shooting, at which he and three others watched videos of mass shootings."
Appropriately, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has indicated that the United States will be reviewing its vetting procedures in light of the Pensacola incident, stating: "Are we screening persons coming to make sure they have their life in order, their mental health is adequate?" I would take that one step further, and make sure that individuals with access to sensitive areas in the United States have not been radicalized, either before or after they enter this country.
As importantly, however, Alshamrani's case makes clear the challenges that face the State Department's consular officers in screening aliens before they enter this country. As I stated in testimony at a September hearing before the House of Representatives' Committee on the Judiciary on the latest iteration of the president's travel restrictions, our ability to vet foreign nationals is only as good as the information that the United States government is able to access and review on those individuals.
In Alshamrani's case, those consular officers would, logically, have had access to a significant amount of information about the second lieutenant. Saudi Arabia has been a partner with the United States government in the war on terror, but that relationship is complicated, as Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institute explained in 2016. In any event, it is not in Saudi Arabia's interest to have its personnel attack Americans on U.S. soil, or to send radicalized officials to this country. The kingdom depends to a large degree on the United States for its protection, and for the protection of vessels carrying its most vital commodity, oil.
Saudi Arabia would also have a strong interest in ensuring that its military personnel, and in particular its pilots, have continued access to the best military training available, to protect that government against threats both from within and outside the kingdom. Incidents like the killings at Pensacola complicate that access.
Finally, the Saudis would (again, logically), have a strategic interest in vetting recruits in its armed forces. The current rulers of the kingdom face internal turmoil and dissent, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported earlier this year:
Since 2017, security forces have detained dozens of activists, Islamist figures, and journalists, also announcing various charges against some well-known public figures, including prominent clerics, human rights advocates, and women's rights campaigners.
Security forces monitor and tightly limit political and social activism in a domestic security environment that has been defined since the mid-1990s by persistent terrorist threats and to a lesser extent since 2011 by anxiety about potential unrest and economic stagnation.
The last thing that the country's rulers would want is highly trained military opponents in their midst.
Again, it is possible that Alshamrani was thoroughly vetted by Saudi authorities, that the kingdom made all of its information about him available to our State Department officers before he was issued a visa to come to the United States, and that he became radicalized here. He would not be the first.
As a notable example, in 2011, the Washington Post wrote about "Egyptian exchange student Sayyid Qutb," who was at a church dance in Colorado in the late 1940's when he heard the jazz song "Baby, It's Cold Outside", which he viewed "as a moral indictment of the West". He later returned to Egypt with disdain for the United States, and "emerged as the intellectual godfather of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood."
That raises a different issue that the United States must face as it grants visas to millions of foreign nationals annually; CRS reports that more than 80,000 visas were issued to Saudi nationals in 2018 alone. Tracking those individuals is impossible in a free society like the United States.
Again, however, Alshamrani is an individual about whom the State Department would have known almost everything before it issued him a visa to the United States, and still he committed an atrocity with terrorist overtones. How much less would the United States government know about a national of Iran, "the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism" with which the United States has no diplomatic relations, or Somalia, which faces constant internal threats after two decades of having, in essence, no government at all?
It is no wonder that the administration issued PP 9645, to limit the entry of nationals of those and five other countries to the United States, notwithstanding the objections of 46 "former national security, foreign policy, intelligence, and other public officials who have worked on security matters at the senior-most levels of the U.S. government."
In any event, it would be a mistake and a disservice to his victims to view Alshamrani's actions in a vacuum, as a one-off attack by a disturbed individual. The United States government, and in particular State Department, should use this incident to review and reinforce its visa-vetting processes. There was an intelligence failure somewhere along the way that needs to be plugged. And fast.