TALLAHASSEE — The deadly shooting at a U.S. Navy base in Florida by a Saudi military trainee places new strain on America’s especially thorny relationship with the kingdom, a key ally in confronting Iran that is also still accused of stoking militancy in the region.
The shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on Friday left four dead, including the gunman, who authorities said was a Saudi national attending flight training and was killed by sheriff deputies arriving on the scene.
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Capt. Timothy Kinsella, commanding officer at the Pensacola naval base, said at a news conference that the shooting occurred in a classroom building on the base, which has long hosted international students from allied militaries. “We have students from several different countries that come here,” Kinsella said.
The tragedy also marked the third deadly attack at a U.S. naval facility in a week after incidents in Virginia and Hawaii. But the Saudi link gave a new dimension to the violence as lawmakers labeled it terrorism and demanded accountability.
“This was not a murder. This was an act of terrorism,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter. The base is in Gaetz‘s congressional district and employs 16,000 military personnel and 7,400 civilians.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he told President Donald Trump that “the government of Saudi Arabia needs to make things better for these victims.”
“They are going to owe a debt here given that this was one of their individuals,” DeSantis told reporters.
Trump later tweeted that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud called to express his “sincere condolences.”
“The King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people,” Trump wrote.
But even as additional details of the shooter’s identity were still being learned, others worried the tragedy is a stark reminder of the testy relationship between the United States and its longtime military ally, including the sustained pressure in Congress to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the slaughter of civilians in Yemen’s civil war, often using America-made weapons.
Saudi Arabia was home to the 15 of the 19 hijackers who committed the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, which sparked the U.S.-led war on terrorist groups like al-Qaida and then the Islamic State. And despite some reforms, it remains an Islamic theocracy that espouses a version of Sunni Islam that is still seen as a force for radicalism in the region.
“I was not surprised because this is the culture of the Saudi Army,” said Ali Ahmed, a Saudi analyst in Washington who was stripped of his citizenship due to his outspoken criticism of the regime. “They teach ISIS, Al Qaeda literature in the Saudi military,” he added, including that singles out Christians and Jews as enemies.
“I thought they removed these things, but they didn’t,” added Ahmed, who has also visited numerous U.S. military bases to share insights on the region.
The shooting comes as the U.S.-Saudi military alliance is under renewed pressure.
After the Khashoggi killing and Saudi air strike on a bus in Yemen that killed dozens of children, the Trump administration suspended U.S. military air-to-air refueling flights for Saudi warplanes fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
But earlier this year, as Iranian military forces threatened commercial shipping, downed a U.S. drone, and struck Saudi oil facilities with drones and cruise missiles, the Pentagon deepened its involvement in the kingdom by deploying more U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.
Of some 14,000 U.S. reinforcements the Pentagon has sent to the Middle East since May to deter Iran, about half have headed to military bases in Saudi Arabia and nearby countries in the Persian Gulf region, including the reopening of a major air base that the Pentagon had abandoned after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Then in September, after the Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities, another deployment brought the total number of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to 3,000, according to the Pentagon. That included the deployment of two fighter jet squadrons, three Army units equipped with Patriot and THAAD air-defense missiles and radars, and an Air Force headquarters wing.
Small detachments of U.S. Army Special Forces have also deployed to Saudi Arabia’s southern border in recent years to help target Houthi missile launch sites across the border in Yemen.
The training of foreign military personnel is commonplace in the United States, where dozens of allied countries send their soldiers, pilots and support personnel for combat training and advanced education in military science.
“The way that program works is that the foreign government has to certify that these are the best of their best, that these are their future generals and admirals and senior military officials for their countries,” Gaetz explained. “The U.S. State Department does a scrub on those prospective trainees, and after that they matriculate into the program.”
In the Pensacola shooting, four people, including the gunman, were confirmed dead and several others have been hospitalized. The deputies arriving first at the scene were among the eight people injured. One was shot in the arm and another in the knee. Both are expected to survive their injuries, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said.
The shooting was the third attack at a Navy facility in a week. A Navy master-at-arms is dead after a gate runner struck a security vehicle entering Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Va., on Nov. 30.
On Wednesday, two civilian employees of the Defense Department were killed by a shooter at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, near Honolulu. The shooter, an active-duty sailor, took his own life.
“These acts are crimes against all of us,” acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said in a statement. “Our prayers are with the families of the fallen and with the wounded. It is our solemn duty to find the causes of such tragic loss and ceaselessly work together to prevent them.“
Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.