PENSACOLA, Fla. - The Saudi student who fatally shot three sailors at a U.S. naval base in Florida hosted a dinner party earlier in the week where he and three others watched videos of mass shootings, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Officials investigating the deadly attack were working Saturday to determine whether it was motivated by terrorism, while President Donald Trump indicated he would review policies governing foreign military training in the United States.
The Navy on Saturday identified the three victims and hailed them as heroes for trying to stop the shooter and flagging down first responders after being shot.
“The Sailors that lost their lives in the line of duty and showed exceptional heroism and bravery in the face of evil," Capt. Tim Kinsella, the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Pensacola, said in a statement. “When confronted, they didn’t run from danger; they ran towards it and saved lives."
The shooter opened fire inside a classroom at the naval base on Friday, killing three people and wounding two sheriff's deputies, one in the arm and one in the knee, before one of the deputies killed him. Eight others were also hurt. Both deputies were expected to survive.
The official who spoke Saturday said one of the three students who attended the dinner party hosted by the attacker recorded video outside the classroom building while the shooting was taking place. Two other Saudi students watched from a car, the official said.
Ten Saudi students were being held on the base Saturday while several others were unaccounted for, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity after being briefed by federal authorities.
The FBI identified the shooter in a statement Saturday night as Mohammed Alshamrani, 21. Investigators said he was a 2nd Lt. in the Royal Saudi Air Force and was a student naval flight officer of Naval Aviation Schools Command. A U.S. official on Friday said the FBI was examining social media posts and investigating whether he acted alone or was connected to any broader group. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
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Two U.S. officials said Friday that authorities were investigating whether the attack was terrorism-related. They spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose information that had not yet been made public.
In remarks at a gathering of top U.S. defense and military officials on Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked whether he could say definitively that the shooting was an act of terrorism.
“No, I can’t say it’s terrorism at this time,” he said, adding that the investigation needs to proceed. He declined to discuss details of the investigation so far.
Trump also declined to say whether the shooting was terrorism-related. The president tweeted his condolences to the families of the victims on Friday and noted that Saudi King Salman had reassured him in a telephone call that the shooter “in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people."
But in comments echoing those made earlier by Esper, Trump said Saturday that he would review policies governing foreign military training in the U.S.
The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. Currently, 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 in the U.S. going through military training.
“This has been done for many decades,” Trump said. “I guess we're going to have to look into the whole procedure. We'll start that immediately."
Speaking at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, on Saturday, Esper and others downplayed any initial impact on U.S.-Saudi ties.
Asked whether he would now hesitate to send U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia, he said, “No, not at all.” He said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have shared security interests, especially with regard to Iran.
The shooting has shined a light on the sometimes rocky relationship between the two countries, however.
The kingdom is still trying to recover from the killing last year of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi intelligence officials and a forensic doctor killed and dismembered Khashoggi on Oct. 2, 2018, just as his fiancée waited outside the diplomatic mission.
Naval Air Station Pensacola is one of the Navy's most historic and storied bases. It sprawls along the waterfront southwest of the city's downtown and dominates the economy of the surrounding area.
Part of the base resembles a college campus, with buildings where, in addition to foreign students, 60,000 members of the U.S. Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard train each year in multiple fields of aviation.
Kinsella said the base would remain closed until further notice.
Residents of Pensacola mourned the attacks and offered their condolences to affected members of the community.
Family members on Saturday identified one of the victims as a 23-year-old recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who alerted first responders to where the shooter was even after he had been shot several times.
“Joshua Kaleb Watson saved countless lives today with his own," his older brother Adam Watson wrote on Facebook. “He died a hero and we are beyond proud."
Joshua Watson, 23, was one of three sailors killed in the Pensacola shooting.
A second victim was identified as Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida, who joined the Navy after graduating from high school last year, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Haitham's mother, Evelyn Brady, herself a Navy veteran, said the commander of her son's school called her and told her Haitham had tried to stop the shooter.
Friends of 19-year-old Mohammed Haitham say he died trying to stop the shooter. (U.S. Navy)
The former track and field star had been assigned to flight crew training and was looking forward to graduating from the program later this month, Brady said.
“He said he was going to get his flight jacket for Christmas,” she said. “Now that’s not going to happen.”
The Navy identified the third victim as Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia. All three were students at Naval Aviation Schools Command.
The shooting is the second at a U.S. naval base in one week. A sailor whose submarine was docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, opened fire on three civilian employees Wednesday, killing two before taking his own life.
Associated Press reporters Lolita Baldor, Ben Fox and Mike Balsamo in Washington; Jon Gambrell in Dubai; Tamara Lush in Tampa, Florida, and Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.
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