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21 Saudi Trainees Withdrawn After Investigation Into Pensacola Naval Base Shooting


Attorney General William Barr said today Saudi Arabia is recalling 21 of its military trainees from the United States. Now, this follows a federal investigation into a shooting last month. A Saudi trainee killed three U.S. sailors at a naval air station in Florida.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here in the studio to talk more. Welcome back, Ryan.


CORNISH: One of the big questions about the shooting was whether the gunman had any connection to a terrorist group. What did the Justice Department have to say about that?

LUCAS: So the FBI deputy director, David Bowdich, said today that the main question that they have been trying to answer is exactly that - whether the shooter was acting alone. The FBI has been investigating this for the past month. It's a large investigation. The bureau has interviewed more than 500 people so far. And it's also a complex investigation. Remember, this has an impact on U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia at a tense time in the Middle East.

Now, Bowdich said that so far, the FBI has not identified any coconspirators. So in other words, at this point, everything points to the shooter having acted on his own, having acted alone. On top of that, Bowdich says the gunmen held anti-American and anti-Israeli views, but he said that he wasn't inspired by any specific jihadist group.

CORNISH: In the meantime, any new details about the attack?

LUCAS: Yes. The attorney general, William Barr, said that the gunman had posted a message on social media on September 11 of last year. That message read, quote, "The countdown has begun." And then over the Thanksgiving weekend, the shooter visited the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

And then there were some details from the day of the shooting itself, including that the shooter had two iPhones, one of which the attorney general said that the shooter placed on the floor during the attack and shot a single bullet through it. The other phone was also damaged. Those phones are both locked. They are encrypted. And this is now a major point of contention for the Justice Department. It wants Apple's help getting into those phones. The FBI has already sent a letter requesting the company's help. Barr doubled down on that today.


WILLIAM BARR: It is very important for us to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died. We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter's phones. So far, Apple has not given any substantive assistance.

LUCAS: Now, this is a very similar fight to one that the FBI got into a couple years ago with Apple over trying to get the company to crack into a phone that belonged to one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

CORNISH: Given that, what is Apple saying in response?

LUCAS: So Apple has said that it has already given investigators all of the relevant data that it has in its possession and that it will continue to support the investigation.

CORNISH: This shooter in Pensacola was one of a number of Saudi military trainees in the United States. We only heard about 21 of them being recalled, right? Aren't there a few hundred? What's going on?

LUCAS: So there are about 850 Saudi military trainees in the U.S. in all. So in this investigation, the FBI interviewed the Saudis who had had contact with the gunman. And in doing that, investigators uncovered derogatory material, they say, related to 21 of these Saudis. The attorney general said 17 of those individuals had social media that contained jihadi or anti-American content, but he said there was no evidence of affiliation or involvement in terrorist activity. Now, 15 of these 21 Saudi cadets being expelled had contact with child pornography. One of them, the attorney general said, had a lot of images. But Barr said none of these Saudis were being charged. Here's what he said.


BARR: The relevant U.S. attorney's offices independently reviewed each of the 21 cases involving derogatory information and determined that none of them would, in the normal course, result in federal prosecution.

LUCAS: Barr also said that the Saudi government decided that the conduct of these cadets was unbecoming of a member of the Saudi military, so they were being disenrolled from this training program with the U.S. military and being sent back to the kingdom.

CORNISH: What does this shooting and this outcome mean for the dynamic between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

LUCAS: Well, the relationship between the U.S. and the kingdom is important for both countries. Barr made that clear today. He stressed that the Saudis had cooperated fully with this investigation. And look; the U.S.-Saudi relationship has weathered rocky periods in the past. The biggest example is probably the 9/11 attacks, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. More recently, of course, there's the Saudis' killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was a Washington Post contributor. The relationship has endured despite those rocky periods.

CORNISH: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks for your reporting.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.