Five months after a Saudi military trainee killed three U.S. service members at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla., the Department of Justice announced on May 18 that the gunman was no lone wolf terrorist, but in fact an al Qaeda sleeper agent. Almost 20 years after radicalized Saudis made up 15 of the 19 hijackers that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, the revelation underscores the extent to which the United States is still living with the dangerous legacy left by Riyadh’s decades-long support for Islamic extremism. Pressing Saudi leaders to re-double their efforts to clean up that legacy remains an important U.S. interest.
Following a lengthy effort to break into the shooter’s two phones, the FBI found conclusive evidence that Mohammed Al-Shamrani, a lieutenant in the Saudi air force, had links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stretching back to at least 2015 — years before he entered the United States. Indeed, Al-Shamrani joined the Saudi military with the expressed purpose of committing an attack. He was in regular contact with AQAP right up until the night before the shooting, discussing his plans and tactics and assessing how many people he could kill.
That an individual with such extensive links to al Qaeda could have made it into an elite military training program, much less shown up on U.S. shores already bent on murder, is deeply disturbing. Even more so given that investigators discovered after the attack that an additional 17 Saudi military cadets in the U.S. had extremist materials on their phones and had to be sent back home.
Quite properly, immediate attention turned to the issue of vetting and how well the Saudis had been scrutinized before gaining admittance to these exclusive training efforts. Is vetting primarily a Saudi, U.S., or shared responsibility? What exactly is done to screen for extremist sympathies? What procedures are in place to monitor candidates once in the United States?
Just three months before Al-Shamrani’s attack, on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, he ominously posted on social media that “the countdown has begun.” Why wasn’t that picked up by anyone? The Department of Defense is reportedly working to review and revise its vetting and monitoring procedures procedures — a process that should extend to all foreign programs and nationals, not just the Saudis. But Congress clearly has an important oversight role to play in getting to the bottom of what went wrong and ensuring that necessary changes are implemented — without jeopardizing a program that has largely served U.S. interests well by strengthening military-to-military relations with international partners.
The Pensacola attack should also raise concerns about the vetting procedures for the approximately 70,000 Saudi students that are regularly enrolled at U.S. universities. If an al Qaeda sleeper agent could so easily evade the screening process for an elite military program where security is presumably at its highest, what risks are being run in its much larger civilian counterparts?
Beyond the narrow issue of vetting lies the broader problem of Saudi Arabia’s historical role as proselytizer-in-chief of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative religious ideology that has set so many young Muslims on the path toward violent jihad. To his credit, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, declared in 2017 that the kingdom was returning to “moderate Islam.” Since then, he’s declawed the dreaded religious police, jailed radical preachers, and implemented far-reaching reforms, including all-important efforts to empower women. By most accounts, the Saudis are now largely out of the business of pouring resources into spreading Wahhabism abroad as well.
But the Frankenstein’s monster that they did so much to create lives on. That’s why it’s important that the Saudis be pressed to do everything in their power to help fight the legacy threats that their previous policies left behind. The fact is that Al-Shamrani was a teenager in high school when he succumbed to al Qaeda’s siren song, imbibing the hate-speech that still lingers today in Saudi textbooks — more than a decade after Riyadh first promised Washington that they’d be excised. Alas, as documented in a recent report, the kingdom’s texts still truck in hate-filled passages that refer to Jews and Christians as “the enemies of Islam and its people.”
In the wake of Pensacola, Attorney General William BarrBill BarrClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Milley moved to limit Trump military strike abilities after Jan. 6, Woodward book claims: report MORE has consistently praised the Saudis for being fully cooperative in the investigation. Senior Saudi officials immediately condemned the attack and ordered their security services to give the FBI any assistance it needed.
That’s all good and represents a dramatic reversal from the denial and deflection that characterized the Saudi reaction to 9/11. But it’s important that the Saudis follow through with action. There’s no doubt a lot they could learn by conducting a deep dive into Al-Shamrani’s life, including interviews with his family, friends, and acquaintances — whose initial response to the shooting implausibly maintained that there were never any indications of Al-Shamrani’s radicalization. Indeed, rather than having to wait four months for FBI engineers to hack Al-Shamrani’s phones to discover his al Qaeda connections, one might have hoped that a vigorous Saudi investigation would have already uncovered such links.
As impressive as some Saudi reform efforts have been, their commitment to reverse the damage done by decades of radical proselytizing remains a work in progress. The attack in Pensacola, with its confirmed links to al Qaeda, is a powerful reminder of the deep stakes Americans have in holding the kingdom to account for combatting the deadly scourge of jihadism.
John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president’s national security adviser. Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Persian Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.