Saudi’s Terrorist Massacre at Florida Naval Base Highlights the Weakness of U.S. Vetting

Attorney General William Barr and FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich announce the findings of the criminal investigation into the shootings at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, January 13, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuter)Though the shooter acted alone, the U.S. is expelling 21 Saudi trainees for newly uncovered jihadist social-media content and contact with child pornography.

The Justice Department has concluded that the deadly mass-shooting attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola in early December, carried out by a Saudi Air Force trainee, was an act of terrorism. Though Lieutenant Mohamed Saeed al-Shamrani, who was killed during the attack, was determined to have acted alone, the United States is expelling 21 other Saudi military trainees after the FBI’s investigation uncovered jihadist rhetoric and child pornography on their social-media accounts.

Attorney General Bill Barr announced the terrorism finding and the expulsions at a Justice Department press conference on Monday afternoon. The attorney general’s remarks demonstrate that longstanding national-security challenges continue to vex U.S. law-enforcement officials. Most significant is the problem of vetting foreigners, including the thousands of foreigners enrolled in training programs run by our armed forces, for anti-American ideology.

Such an ideology is sharia supremacism, commonly distinguished from Islam, the religious creed adhered to by over 1.5 billion people globally, through the use of “radical Islam,” “political Islam,” and similar labels. The ideology’s goal is the imposition of a fundamentalist construction of Islamic law (sharia). Though it is derived from Islam, sharia supremacism is far from the only way of interpreting Islam. In the West, it is not a majority interpretation of Islam, though it has influential backers. The most extreme form of sharia supremacism is jihadism, which advocates the use of force when necessary to establish and further the imposition of sharia, as well as to “defend” Islam when it is deemed to be under attack (which, in the view of jihadists, is more or less always).

It is thus inevitable that a certain unknown percentage of Muslims are or will become sharia supremacists, and a certain unknown but smaller percentage of sharia supremacists are or will become jihadists.

Consequently, it has long been known that our capacity to protect America from jihadist attacks hinges on our ability to discourage the infiltration of the political ideology that fuels them, which would necessitate vetting for sharia supremacism and jihadism when foreign Muslims seek to enter the United States. Nevertheless, though the Constitution would not prevent such vetting (there being no constitutional right for an alien to enter the U.S.), our laws, guidelines, and political conditions have made it practically impossible to bar foreigners from entering the United States on ideological grounds. Instead, we draw the line at violence: If it can be shown that an alien has ties to a known terrorist group, or has engaged in terrorist activities, that alien may be denied entry.

The inadequacies of this approach are obvious, and the Pensacola attack brings them into sharp relief.

Despite the extensive catalogue of ideologically driven terrorist attacks committed by Muslims in the U.S. and against U.S. targets over the last 30 years, our government has generally taken the public position that violent jihad has nothing to do with Islam (except in court prosecutions, where prosecutors commonly prove intent and motive by showing the nexus). We have been cowed into the concession that it would be “Islamophobic” bigotry to vet Muslim aliens for sharia-supremacist ideology. Indeed, we have even taken the nonsensical position that sharia — the fundamentalist interpretation of which is authoritarian, discriminatory, and violent — is completely compatible with the Constitution.

Government officials do not wish to be perceived as oblivious to terrorist threats. Having straitjacketed themselves, officials delegate to third parties responsibility for some semblance of vetting. These include our “partner” governments, such as the Saudi regime, which was given responsibility for “vetting” the Saudi cadets in Florida.

Of course, Saudi Arabia is the cradle of sharia supremacism, and the regime enforces sharia-supremacist strictures on Saudi society. While there are signs of reform, the kingdom is not close to being a liberal democracy. For decades, our government has considered the regime a strong American ally even as Saudi society has reliably produced anti-American jihadists (not least, 15 of the 19 suicide-hijackers who carried out the 9/11 atrocities). To rely on the Saudi government for assurance that its aliens seeking entry do not have sharia-supremacist sympathies is like asking the Muslim Brotherhood for guidance on what counterterrorism instruction our law-enforcement officers should receive (which, naturally, Washington has also done).

In his December 6 attack, Shamrani killed three members of our Navy: Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21. Eight others were wounded before Shamrani was finally taken down by a deputy sheriff. At Monday’s press conference, Barr said that investigators had concluded it was a terrorist act because it was motivated by “jihadist ideology.”

This conclusion is amply supported by Shamrani’s social-media accounts, which were replete with claims that American policies are anti-Islamic, favor the invasion of Muslim countries, and persecute Muslims. At least some observers said that Shamrani had become more sullen and reclusive after a visit back home to Saudi Arabia shortly before he returned to the base and carried out the attack, which would have been a bigger bloodbath had it not been for acts of heroism by American military officials on the scene.

There had been early reports that other Saudi cadets may have been complicit in the attack and recorded it pursuant to a plan. As is often the case in terrorist incidents, these first reports proved to be wrong. Barr explained that Shamrani acted alone. It turned out that some Saudis were on the scene at the time and, as commonly occurs these days, took out their cellphones to record some of the commotion when it started. These cadets, at the urging of their government, were completely cooperative with investigators, and no conspiracy was found.

But here is the kicker: The investigation turned up evidence that 17 other Saudi cadets had social-media accounts containing jihadist or otherwise anti-American content. Moreover, 15 Saudi cadets “had had some kind of contact with child-pornography.” (There is overlap in these two groups.) Tellingly, the AG asserted, “The relevant U.S. Attorneys’ Offices independently reviewed each of the 21 cases involving derogatory information and determined that none of them would, in the normal course, result in federal prosecution.” So why is our government expelling 21 Saudi cadets? Because the Saudi government decided to take action.

Barr elaborated that the regime decided this conduct was unbecoming of officers in the Saudi air force. Therefore, it “dis-enrolled” them from the U.S. training. With the enrollments retracted, there is no reason for these foreigners to be here, so they’ve been sent packing.

Let’s put the child-porn issue aside. The bottom line is that we have 17 Saudi cadets getting valuable military training at a U.S. naval base who had jihadist and other anti-American materials on their social-media accounts. Yet, because possession of such materials is not a crime per se, we apparently would not have expelled them from our country. At least ostensibly, they have been expelled because the Saudi government objected to their continued presence.

Of course, there are always political considerations at the intersection of law enforcement and international relations. The Trump administration considers Saudi Arabia to be an important counterterrorism ally. The administration knows that the American public, familiar for decades with the double-game the Saudis play — propagating sharia supremacism while condemning the jihadism it inevitably spawns — tends not to be thrilled by our “alliance” with Riyadh. By portraying the Saudi regime as fully cooperative in a terrorism investigation (they haven’t always been) and unwilling to countenance any hint of jihadism, the Trump administration, like previous administrations, can offer the rationalization that the Saudis are not the problem but part of the solution.

That is, maybe if the Saudis hadn’t cooperated, we would have expelled the cadets anyway, even though their conduct was not violent and did not establish criminal liability.

Still, how do we not notice that the years — the decades — go by and nothing changes? We don’t vet for sharia supremacists, or we trust a sharia-supremacist regime to do the vetting for us, and eventually there is a mass-murder attack. We investigate and, as night follows day, we find not just that one trainee sent to us by the sharia-supremacist regime is a jihadist terrorist, but that others are engaged in jihadist social-media chatter as well.

And the beat goes on . . .

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