Pentagon set to ramp up student vetting after Pensacola shooting

Foreign military students in the United States will face new restrictions after the shooting at a Florida naval base in December.

al-monitor Saudi Arabia Defense Attache Maj. Gen. Fawaz al-Fawaz and his embassy staff and other officials arrive to meet with the Saudi students who remain restricted to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola base, by their Saudi commanding officer, in Pensacola, Florida, US, Dec. 9, 2019.  Photo by FBI Jacksonville/Handout via REUTERS.
Jack Detsch

Jack Detsch


Topics covered


Jan 17, 2020

The Pentagon will place new restrictions on foreign military students training in the United States after a Saudi aviation student killed three and wounded eight in a shooting at a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, last month.

Changes include implementing a biometric identification system that will control on-base access for foreign students, and new restrictions on possessing firearms imposed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a senior defense official said today.

Officials also said they will add additional visa requirements to help US authorities track down students who go absent from bases, though screening will vary depending on the installation and the military service involved. The Pentagon will provide overall guidance on implementing the new measures.

“Everything we’ve been putting in place is applied to our own service members,” a senior defense official said. “We will be looking at a compilation of available data on a near real-time basis.”

The Pentagon does not plan to kick out any more foreign military students after booting 21 Saudi trainees following the December attack, which the Justice Department determined was an act of terror. Mohammed Alshamrani, whom the Trump administration believes was motivated to attack by jihadi ideology, bought a handgun used to kill three US service members after obtaining a Florida hunting license.

Though the United States determined that the expelled students had “derogatory material” in their possession, none of the cases were deemed worthy of federal prosecution, but civilian service chiefs and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency deemed that the students failed to meet standards for students participating in US military training programs. Pentagon officials said they have seen no evidence to indicate a larger ring or conspiracy around Alshamrani.

But it’s not clear whether the new vetting procedures will satisfy Trump allies who criticized the Pentagon after the deadly shooting in December, which led the Defense Department to institute a brief operational pause for Saudi students in the United States.

“At some point there’s only so much of this that we’re going to be able to take — where the kingdom tells us there’s some quirky part of the royal family that’s off doing some different thing,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who represents the district where the shooting took place, told Defense Secretary Esper at a hearing last month. “These Saudi students, they’re connected folks when they end up in Pensacola.”

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