About a "dozen or so" Saudi nationals in training at Naval Air Station Pensacola who knew the apparent perpetrator of a mess shooting earlier this month are under the control of the FBI amid an ongoing investigation, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday.
"Of the dozen or so that were immediate friends, acquaintances etc. of the alleged killer, the FBI -- the Department of Justice -- has control of them on the base," Esper said at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
He did not discuss and was not asked whether the friends of 21-year-old Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, were in physical custody of the FBI or had been segregated from other students on the base.
Esper was pressed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, whose district includes Pensacola, on whether Saudi officials and the Saudi Embassy had access to the friends of the shooter and to other Saudi nationals in training at the base.
Esper said he wasn't sure, but believed that a Saudi commander involved in the foreign nationals training program had access to about 140 Saudi nationals who were among a total of 272 students from foreign militaries training at Pensacola. Esper said he would get back to Gaetz with a more definitive answer.
Currently, about 850 Saudis are among a total of more than 5,000 students from foreign militaries in training alongside U.S. troops in a variety of specialties at bases nationwide, according to the Defense Department.
While multiple investigations proceed into the Dec. 6 shootings, Saudis on the base will be limited to classroom training, Esper said, adding that the limitation would continue "until we can do expedited vetting of all Saudi students here in the U.S."
Esper said he had spoken Tuesday with the Saudi deputy defense minister on the urgency of increased vetting, adding that "he fully supports this." In addition, the Saudi official said the kingdom was conducting its own "parallel vetting" of all Saudi students in the U.S., Esper said.
At a news conference Sunday, Rachel Rojas, the FBI agent in charge of the Jacksonville, Florida, field office, said the investigation was proceeding on the presumption that the shootings at Pensacola were an act of terrorism.
"We work, as we do with most active shooter investigations, with the presumption that this was an act of terrorism," Rojas said.
The FBI's interest in Alshamrani's Saudi acquaintances suggests that investigators are seeking to learn whether they had foreknowledge of the attacks, or assisted him. The shooter was killed in an exchange of gunfire with Escambia County sheriff's deputies.
Investigators are also looking into how the shooter obtained and brought onto the base the Glock .45 9mm handgun used to kill Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, of Enterprise, Alabama; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia.
Rojas said Sunday that the handgun was legally purchased, but did not disclose details on the buy.
On Tuesday, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly approved the posthumous award of Wings of Gold to three aviation trainees whose actions in trying to stop the shooter saved "countless lives," according to Capt. Timothy Kinsella, the Pensacola base commander.
In a statement, Modly said Watson, a recent Naval Academy graduate, was designated as a naval aviator, while Haitham and Walters were designated as naval air crewmen in honor of their heroism.
Shortly after the shootings, the SITE Intelligence Group and the Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitor jihadist activities, both cited Twitter postings to an account under the name of Alshamrani, a common name in Saudi Arabia, that included anti-American statements.
"I'm not against you for just being American," the posts said, according to SITE. "I don't hate you because your freedoms, I hate you because every day you supporting, funding and committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity."
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that a Saudi analysis of the Twitter account thought to be Alshamrani's indicated that he was exposed to and embraced radical ideology as early as 2015.
The analysis obtained by the Post showed that Alshamrani ascribed to the "extremist thought" of four clerics described as radicals, the newspaper reported.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.