June 8, 2020 | The Hill

Pensacola shooter’s al Qaeda link underscores need to hold Saudis to account

June 8, 2020 | The Hill

Pensacola shooter’s al Qaeda link underscores need to hold Saudis to account

Excerpt

Five months after a Saudi military trainee killed three U.S. service members at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla., the Department of Justice announced on May 18 that the gunman was no lone wolf terrorist, but in fact an al Qaeda sleeper agent. Almost 20 years after radicalized Saudis made up 15 of the 19 hijackers that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, the revelation underscores the extent to which the United States is still living with the dangerous legacy left by Riyadh’s decades-long support for Islamic extremism. Pressing Saudi leaders to re-double their efforts to clean up that legacy remains an important U.S. interest.

Following a lengthy effort to break into the shooter’s two phones, the FBI found conclusive evidence that Mohammed Al-Shamrani, a lieutenant in the Saudi air force, had links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stretching back to at least 2015 — years before he entered the United States. Indeed, Al-Shamrani joined the Saudi military with the expressed purpose of committing an attack. He was in regular contact with AQAP right up until the night before the shooting, discussing his plans and tactics and assessing how many people he could kill.

That an individual with such extensive links to al Qaeda could have made it into an elite military training program, much less shown up on U.S. shores already bent on murder, is deeply disturbing. Even more so given that investigators discovered after the attack that an additional 17 Saudi military cadets in  the U.S. had extremist materials on their phones and had to be sent back home.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president’s national security adviser. Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Persian Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.

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Issues:

Al Qaeda Gulf States Jihadism Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy