How Was the Pensacola Attacker Admitted to the U.S.? And How Did He Have a Gun?

By Dan Cadman on December 9, 2019

By now most everyone in the United States is aware of the attack that took place at the U.S. Naval Air Station (NAS) in Pensacola, Fla., on Friday December 6, leaving four dead (including the shooter who was killed by responding officers) and several more wounded.

The attacker was a Saudi Arabian second lieutenant, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who was at NAS Pensacola for flight training. Training of foreign military is described as one of the "core missons" of that facility.

Media reports tell us that the dead suspect had posted anti-American screeds calling the country "evil", and that prior to the attack he hosted a dinner party in which his guests were entertained with video clips of previous mass terror attacks. The FBI is said to be investigating whether the attack was terror-related. That's a bit like investigating whether a catastrophic gale force wind-and-water event in the Gulf of Mexico is a hurricane.

Reports also tell us that in the hours following the attack, six more suspects, presumably also Saudi military training at the NAS, were detained — dare I suggest that they might have been the guests at his infamous dinner? — of whom three were alleged to have video-recorded his attack.

In the aftermath, the area's congressman, Rep. Mattt Gaetz, suggested that foreign military should undergo extreme vetting before being allowed to enter and train in the United States, and Florida Sen. Rick Scott demanded that there should be a full review of the programs under which foreigners are trained on military bases.

Many people will likely think that the "extreme vetting" proposal is already in place, at least from the Trump administration onward, since that phrase was coined by Donald Trump and the need for visa vetting, along with many other immigration-related enforcement proposals, formed one of the core messages of his presidential campaign. Very informed readers will even know that visa security oversight was placed in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which also established DHS visa security screening offices. Written right into the law was the obligation to open the first of these visa security units (VSU) in Saudi Arabia. They were initiated at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah in 2003.

So what went wrong?

At least a part of the problem is built right into the way in which our armed forces accept foreign military — often bright young officers at the beginning of their careers, or sometimes experienced noncoms — for specialized training in the United States.

Depending on the slots for these programs, and military support agreements that exist between the United States and other nations, candidates are nominated for approval within the Department of Defense (DOD) by the military attaché at the relevant U.S. embassy, in this case Riyadh, after consultation with that government's military establishment, which puts forward the names to begin with. Once approved, these candidates are on the fast track for visas. The attaché provides the approved list to consular officials for issuance of visas. What's more, despite their lowly ranks and status within their own military, these candidates are routinely granted diplomatic A-2 visas by agreement between the Departments of Defense and State. I concede that I don't know this as fact; the Pentagon has been tight-lipped in the matter; but years of experience tell me that this was almost certainly the case.

While I will not say that these candidates go completely unvetted — that would be manifestly untrue — it is, however, equally true that diplomatic visas are not exposed to the level of scrutiny to which other visas are subjected. Our own military apparatus is extremely sensitive about this for a variety of reasons good and bad, ranging from insistence by U.S. military attachés that this is their turf and their nomination lists must go forward without exception or interference, to fear of damaging relations with the host government's military. I have personally observed this phenomenon, more than once, from my time as a DHS attaché abroad, including at the embassy in Riyadh, where I was a part of the team that established the first VSU. Thus, under current procedures the whole question of "extreme vetting" is short-circuited from the start.

I don't suggest that we should not help train and mold future generations of foreign military officers; that is patently in the nation's self-interest. But it's time to take the suggestions of Gaetz and Scott seriously and closely examine and reform the processes, if not the underpinnings, of the way our military accepts foreign trainees. There should also be serious questions raised about the propriety of granting diplomatic visas, and of how carefully this tranche of recipients are scrutinized.

This would be particularly appropriate in a country like Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Wahhabism, which in turn has been the inspiration of many of the most violent Islamist terrorism movements of the past several decades. We should not accept nominations at face value and assume that these candidates aren't themselves adherents to this severe form of Islam, which often enough manifests itself in extremism and virulent anti-American hostility.

There is another, final wrinkle to this particular case worth examining. It has to do with the handgun used by Alshamrani in his attack. As a matter of official DOD policy, members of the U.S. military may possess or carry such weapons subject to approval of the base commander. Apparently, the commander at NAS maintains a "weapons free" zone at the entire facility, so possessing one on base is against regulations. Of course, complying with such regulations is only for the law-abiding. A man planning a terrorist attack, or indeed any kind of criminal activity, won't be worried about such niceties. Thus, while he wasn't concerned with the regulations, others more scrupulous and law-abiding who might have stopped him before his murderous spree if they had been carrying a weapon were in no position to do so.

But how did a Saudi national end up in possession of a handgun? Some media outlets are claiming it was obtained legally, although they're apparently at sea as to the reasons, which unlikely had anything to do with "valid hunting licenses" or "official law enforcement business" since Alshamrani was a soldier, not a cop or security officer. (See here, here, and here.)

In this regard, the A-2 diplomatic designation again rears its ugly head. Federal law, at 18 U.S.C. 922(g) prohibits aliens unlawfully in the United States, and even nonimmigrant aliens, from transporting, procuring, or possessing a firearm. Unfortunately, there is an exception built into the statute, at subsection (y)(2)(B), which makes it lawful to own a weapon if the alien is:

(B) an official representative of a foreign government who is—

(I) accredited to the United States Government.

Alshamrani was exactly such an "official representative".

The exception written into the law at 18 U.S.C 922(y)(2) is a clear example of the rule of "unintended consequences", to which I often refer. There's strong reason to doubt whether Congress, when it wrote this legislative exception for "official representatives", had in mind the thousands of foreign military trainees in the United States who are granted diplomatic visas simply as an accommodation to the intra- and inter-governmental niceties between DOD, DOS, and foreign nations. This must change.