Riyadh will withdraw its cadets receiving military training in US following an investigation into a Saudi officer's fatal shooting of three Americans at a naval base that US Attorney General William Barr branded "an act of terrorism."
The US is sending home 21 Saudi military students following an investigation into the deadly shooting last month by one of their fellow trainees at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, an attack that Attorney General William Barr said was an "act of terrorism" driven by some of the same motivations of the September 11 plot.
The trainees who are being removed had "jihadist" or anti-American sentiments on social media pages or had "contact with child pornography," including in internet chat rooms, officials said.
None is accused of having had advance knowledge of the shooting or helped the 21-year-old gunman carry it out.
The Justice Department reviewed whether any of the trainees should face charges, but concluded that the conduct did not meet the standards for federal prosecution, Barr said.
Saudi trainees told to fully cooperate
The December 6 shooting at the base in Pensacola in which Saudi Air Force officer Mohammed Alshamrani killed three US sailors and injured eight other people, focused public attention on the presence of foreign students in American military training programmes and exposed flaws in the way cadets are screened.
Despite the misconduct, US officials have said they want to continue training pilots from Saudi Arabia, an important ally in the Middle East.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gave complete and total support for our counter-terrorism investigation, and ordered all Saudi trainees to fully cooperate," Barr said. "This assistance was critical to helping the FBI determine whether anyone assisted the shooter in the attack."
Barr said the kingdom has agreed to review the conduct of all 21 to see if they should face military discipline and send back anyone the US later determines should face charges.
Cadet motivated by militant ideology?
Law enforcement officials left no doubt that Alshamrani was motivated by militant ideology, saying he visited a New York City memorial to the attacks of September 11, 2001, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and posted anti-American and anti-Israeli messages on social media just two hours before the shooting. Last September 11, Barr said, Alshamrani posted a message that said: "The countdown has started."
Officials had earlier said that Alshamrani hosted a party before the shooting, where he and others watched videos of mass shootings. The gunman had also apparently taken to Twitter before the shooting to criticise US support of Israel and accuse America of being anti-Muslim, another US official told The Associated Press last month.
On the morning of December 6, the gunman walked into a building on the grounds of the Navy base and shot his victims "in cold blood" as Marines who heard the gunfire from outside yanked a fire extinguisher off the wall and rushed to confront him.
Alshamrani, who was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the rampage at a classroom building, was undergoing flight training at Pensacola, where foreign military members routinely receive instruction.
The December shooting raised questions about how well international military students are screened before they attend training at American bases. Some lawmakers, including a top Republican ally of President Donald Trump, have called for Saudi Arabia to be suspended from the American military training programme.
Trump called for the programme to be reviewed. But Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said the programme needed to be re-evaluated after the attack.
National security advisor Robert O’Brien said in an interview on Fox News that the shooting "showed that there had been errors in the way that we vetted" the students. The actions being taken by the Justice Department and Defense Department to remove the Saudi students are to "protect our servicemen and women," he said.