The Saudi Royal Air Force lieutenant who shot to death three U.S. sailors Friday at Naval Air Station Pensacola is believed to have accused the U.S. of being anti-Muslim on Twitter before the attack, which the FBI says is being investigated as an “act of terrorism.”
Investigators are trying to determine whether the Saudi shooter had been radicalized and whether he acted on his own or as an operative of a group, but the FBI agent leading the probe downplayed the notion that the attack was indicative of an immediate threat to communities near or on the military base in the Florida Panhandle.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Rachel Rojas did assert, however, during a Sunday news conference that “we are, as we do in most active-shooter investigations, work with the presumption that this was an act of terrorism.”
Authorities revealed details of an aggressive combing of the shooter’s social media. The FBI identified the shooter as 21-year-old Mohammed Alshamrani, 21, a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force and a visiting student at the base’s Naval Aviation Schools Command.
Members of foreign militaries routinely receive instruction at the command, and investigators were believed to be questioning other Saudi students about possible involvement in the planning of Friday’s attack.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that investigators had homed in on a Twitter account tied to Alshamrani and that the shooter apparently went on the social media platform shortly before Friday’s shooting to blast U.S. support of Israel and accuse America of being anti-Muslim.
U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the news agency that authorities believe the gunman made social media posts criticizing the U.S. under a user handle similar to his name but that federal law enforcement officials were still investigating whether he wrote the words or just posted them.
Investigators also believe the gunman visited New York City, including Rockefeller Center, days before the shooting and were working to determine whether the trip may have had any link with Friday’s attack.
The latest revelations were announced Sunday after White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien took to the airways to assert that Friday’s shooting in Florida appeared to have been a terrorist attack.
“I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but it appears that this may be someone that was radicalized, whether it was here or it’s unclear if he’s got any other ties to other organizations,” Mr. O’Brien said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The national security adviser said he had not seen evidence that the shooting was part of a broader plot but stressed that Alshamrani “may very well have, have said some things on Twitter that suggest he was radicalized.”
“He went out and, and killed a number of Americans,” Mr. O’Brien said. “So, my point is it looks like terrorism. We’ll have to see what the FBI investigation shows, what his motivations were.”
Saudi authorities gave no immediate comment to the latest twists in the case, although Mr. O’Brien said Riyadh has “promised full cooperation with the investigation, [and] we’re going to take them at their word.”
U.S. authorities said a Saudi commanding officer attached to Saudi Royal Air Force students participating in training at Naval Air Station Pensacola had ordered all students from the country to remain at one location at the base Sunday.
The FBI’s Ms. Rojas told reporters that “there are a number of Saudi students who are close to the shooter and continue to cooperate in this investigation.” She said the “Saudi government has pledged to fully cooperate with our investigation.”
The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. More than 850 Saudis are in the United States for various training activities. They are among more than 5,000 foreign students from 153 countries going through military training in the U.S.
In the wake of Friday’s attack in Pensacola, President Trump ordered a review of policies governing foreign military training in the United States.
Reports on Saturday said authorities had accounted for 10 Saudi students at Pensacola base and the whereabouts of several others were unknown. Ms. Rojas sought to clear up speculation Sunday by asserting that all international students at the base had been accounted for.
She said no arrests had been made despite reports that at least three other students may have known of Alshamrani’s plan to carry out Friday’s attack days in advance.
Authorities said Alshamrani carried out the shooting in a classroom with a Glock 9 mm weapon. It was not clear Sunday when the gun was acquired, although Ms. Rojas said it was purchased legally in Florida.
A U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity said Alshamrani hosted a dinner party last week where he and three others watched videos of mass shootings.
The official told The Associated Press that while Friday’s shooting was underway, one of the three students who attended the dinner party recorded video outside the classroom building where the attack took place and that two other Saudi students watched the shooting from a car.
Alshamrani wounded two sheriff’s deputies, one in the arm and one in the knee, before one of them killed him. Eight others were hurt. Both deputies were expected to survive.
Family members and others identified the three dead as Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, a 23-year-old graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida, who joined the Navy after graduating from high school last year; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia.
Two days before the attack in Pensacola, an American sailor opened fire at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii, killing two Department of Defense workers and wounding a third.
The Navy Times reported Friday that the Hawaii shooter had been identified as Machinist’s Mate Auxiliary Fireman Gabriel Antonio Romero.
Investigators are reported to be searching for a motive in the shooting but have described it as a “senseless act of violence.” They think Romero acted alone and that there was no indication he was a domestic terrorist.
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