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Extremism & Terrorism in 2019

On Plugged In…
Terror at a US Navy Base.
3 American sailors shot dead…
8 officers injured…
In an attack by a radicalized Saudi officer…

The Pentagon suspends training…
for Saudi military personnel…
and the Kingdom promises to crack down on radicals

But is it enough to stop future attacks?
and what will it mean…
for US Saudi relations?

And later…
An American graduate student is released…
In a prison exchange deal with Tehran…
But the family of an FBI agent…
held hostage in Iran for nearly 13 years…
Is still waiting…
An update on American prisoner Bob Levinson.

But first…
Terrorism & Violent Extremism in 2019

Hello and welcome to Plugged in.
I'm Greta Van Susteren.

Islamic State may be on the run but extremist ideology is not.

After the December 6th deadly shooting on a US Navy base in Florida, the Pentagon suspended operational training for all Saudi military students.

The shooting... by a radicalized officer in the Saudi military has once again put the spotlight on…
US - Saudi relations.

As the US Naval Air Station in Pensacola struggles to recover from the deadly shooting…
the Pentagon announced it is grounding hundreds of Saudi military students training in the U.S, and halted operational exercises, including firearms training.

The move is part of a "safety stand-down" after a Saudi Air Force lieutenant shot and killed three people at the base, December 6th.

(President Donald Trump)
“I spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia. They are devastated in Saudi Arabia.”

Critics pounced on President Donald Trump's response as too sympathetic towards Saudi Arabia…
reviving earlier criticism - the president was soft on the Saudi Kingdom’s role in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi (kah-shog-jee) last year at the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

(Gerald Feierstein, Middle East Institute)
“The Trump administration went out on a limb, as you know, to push back against efforts on the Hill (Congress) to restrict U.S. support for the Saudi military, primarily because of the Yemen conflict, but also because of the Jamal Khashoggi murder. And so now, we have this new incident, which is going to revive all of the concerns here in this country about extremism in Saudi Arabia, how reliable is Saudi Arabia as a partner.”

Analysts say it’s a tough call given Saudi Arabia’s large economic footprint in the region.

(Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies)
“The key, however, is that this is an absolutely critical power in terms of its role in the global economy. It is absolutely critical to the stability of the flow of oil and gas out of the Gulf.”

The Saudi’s are also a major buyer of US military hardware and a key player in the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Iran.

(Gerald Feierstein, Middle East Institute)
“The reality is that if Saudi Arabia is going to continue to rely on U.S. military equipment, there are going to be Saudi military students training in the United States. There is no alternative to having them here. And so, this is something that the administration is going to have to address.”

The investigation into the gunman, ((akh-med Mohammed al-Sham-ranee)) Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, continues. A Saudi government report says he may have embraced a radical ideology as early as 2015, before he came to the United States…
prompting calls for tougher vetting of foreign nationals who come to the US for military training.

Later in the program, I will be speaking to the former US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, who is now with the Middle East Institute.

But first - let's get the latest from VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin.

He has been covering the policy and security implications of the Pensacola Naval base shooting.

GVS: Jeff, thanks for joining us. And tell me, tell me just briefly, what are the facts? What happened that day?

JS: Well it was, it took a lot of people by surprise and and it caused quite a bit of alarm because just a few days earlier there had been another shooting at a naval base in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. And so there were lots of questions but the call came in early in the morning, and that there was a shooter on base. It appears that the suspect the shooter, Alshamrani, went on to the base, he brought a Glock nine millimeter pistol that he had bought legally through an exception because he had a Florida hunting license onto the base, went to classroom and began shooting. Three people were killed, another eight were injured. Eventually he was shot and killed by a Florida deputy, who had responded to the scene. And of course, a lot of work has been done by the FBI, also by the Pentagon into what led up to this incident because security measures have been in place for a while to prevent shootings on military bases, especially on US soil. And there were concerns too because foreign students military students like the Saudis who were training at Naval Air Station Pensacola are always vetted to make sure by the State Department, by the Department of Homeland Security, to make sure that they are the highest, highest trained, most qualified students, to get this type of training. So it's raised a lot of concerns.

GVS: Why, why is he, why does the US have these students from Saudi Arabia and I’m asking for other countries to. Is it because the US has sold military equipment to Saudi Arabia and they want to make sure that the people know how to operate like F-15’s? Or is it because, because we're worried about security?

JS: Well, there are a couple of reasons why. One is that often times when the US sells military equipment to an ally or to another country, part of the deal includes training on that equipment. Overall, there are about 5000 military students in the US from foreign countries training at various bases. And that includes Saudi Arabia. But also, the US has long viewed whether it's training in the US, or training overseas, through the various combat and commands like AFRICOM, CENTCOM and others that this training is valuable to teach US standards of combat to forces that the US, those who we might work with in the future.

GVS: As a consequence of shooting, the training has now been suspended. Is it suspended, only to Saudi nationals or is it everyone that it's a foreign national?

JS: There are about 5000 students but only about 500 or 600 Saudi students are right now, not training. The standdown has been for the Saudi students only. While Saudi Arabia does some more investigation, while the FBI, which has a lead continues to investigate this case - other students, as of right now, as best we understand from the Pentagon, are still training. At the same time, the Pentagon has taken some additional steps, they've increased vetting for any new students that want to come train in these military programs in the US, they are looking more carefully at their backgrounds there. They're not describing the details of how they're doing this vetting, but they're working more closely with the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security to look at their backgrounds, to make sure somebody who might be a little bit iffy doesn't get through.

GVS: The number of Saudi nationals on 911 who flew those planes - and actually Americans, you know, their antenna went up and was so unnatural. Is there something that was missed? And should this have been picked up, he was radicalized in 2015 like it was suggested, and the radicalization would that have suggested something like this?

JS: It's tough to say and that's one of the things that investigators will be looking at. One of the things that was noted is that some of the intelligence firms, the independent private intelligence firms they found on his social media accounts, several quotes; a last will and testament if you will, that he posted that included some quotes from Osama Bin Ladin, which raise questions. Did he have some affinity or some sort of connection to al Qaeda? And terrorism experts were looking at that. And it's tough to say. Could he have been motivated by just personal grievances, or a sense of what he saw as an injustice by US involvement elsewhere the world? It's possible. Could he be affiliated with al Qaeda, or even ISIS? That's possible too. What a lot of people forget is Islamic State, just as much as al Qaeda, will quote Osama bin laden as a premier jihadi. So there are lots of things that they're looking at, trying to determine what exactly motivated somebody. And among the things that counter-terror officials have warned for a number of years now, the time that it takes to radicalize somebody especially if they have any inclinations can be very, very quick. It could be that this is somebody who came over, had a little bit of a grievance for the United States but something happened. Maybe he was in contact with somebody, we don't know, but that pushed him over the line.

GVS: All right, you say that he posted a last will and testament and quoted Osama bin Laden. It makes a big difference in my mind, whether he posted it the day before he went on this, on the base killing people, or if he did it six months ago or three months ago or a year ago when people, who I assume should be protecting people here in the United States, would have had time to notice.

JS: It seems that the social media post that was found and that's been cited in the press was posted either the day before or the morning of…

GVS: So close to the incidents…

JS: Close to the incident There was also a talk that they were investigating that perhaps he had hosted a get together with some other students and looking at films and video that's been posted online of other shootings…

GVS: In relation to the shooting when? Was that…

JS: It would have been within a couple of days of when the shooting took place.

GVS: So it seems to, it seems to appear Saudi investigation picked up steam just prior to the shooting and it has not necessarily been, there were not a lot of clues before that?

JS: Not necessarily. As far as we, as far as we know. Again, sometimes the difficulty is that people have multiple social media accounts. They have multiple ways that they post online, various names. So, you know, you can look under somebody's own personal social media account and not find anything. It may have an alter ego and another persona line under which they're posting this - and look, if he was in contact - if anybody is in contact with other terrorist groups, cells, planners - chances are that they're trying to take some security precautions so there could be communications that wouldn't be popping up immediately.

GVS: Briefly what training was he getting? Was he getting trained to be a pilot? And how far along was he in his training?

JS: I don't know how far along, he was in his training although he'd been in the US since about 2017. But he was getting Air Force training as part of a contingent of Saudi officers who are now confined to quarters at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

GVS: Is there an upset with Saudi, Saudi Arabia? Because we have now suspended the training?

JS: Look, in Congress there have been calls for an investigation into this. There have been calls in Congress for looks at the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. There's been a lot of lawmakers who are upset at the way that Saudi Arabia has used US weapons and even US guidance as it’s prosecuted its war in Yemen. There have been complaints that it continues to hit civilian targets that the US training is designed to help Saudi Arabia avoid. At the same time, the Secretary of Defense and even the president of the United States has said repeatedly, “Saudi Arabia is a key ally with mutual interests” in terms of combating terrorism, but also in terms of containing Iran. So there are a lot of, there's a lot of push and pull in terms of the relationship with Saudi Arabia. And it looks like from the administration's point of view, the relationship will continue for now - though there are lawmakers who are saying this needs to be looked at further.

GVS: Jeff, thank you. Jeff Seldin, VOA national security correspondent.

Europe is not immune to extremist ideology.
Just a week before the Florida attack, a 28-year old man - who received early release after having been convicted and imprisoned in 2012 for plotting to blow up the London Stock exchange fatally stabbed two people - and seriously injured three others near the famed London bridge.

The killer, Just like his victims had just attended a conference on prisoner rehabilitation.
The killer was also wearing a fake suicide jacket.

Our correspondent - Henry Ridgwell Reports from London.

I'm at London Bridge in the center of the British capital and it was at the end of this bridge where on the 29th of November the latest Islamist inspired terror attack took place. Usman Khan who had been attending a conference on prisoner rehabilitation stabbed to death two young people who were also at that conference, before he was overpowered by members of the public and shot dead by police. Khan had been jailed in 2012 for his part in a plot to recruit and train Jihadists in a madrasa in Pakistan to then come back and carry out the terror attacks in the West. And that underlines the enduring threat that security services here believe terrorist cells based in the Middle East, still pose here in Europe. And there are particular fears that following the defeat of Islamic State in Syria, they no longer have territory of their own, instead they are looking to carry out more terror attacks in the West. We are in fact just yards from where another terror attack took place in 2017 when four attackers inspired by Islamic State killed eight people. The focus here in Britain though in recent years has been very much on the threat posed by far right terrorism, following, for example, the high profile attack on the lawmaker Joe Cox in 2016; the attack on a synagogue in Halle, in Germany and the attack on the mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand. And some terror analysts here fear that the focus has been taken away from that threat that Islamic terrorism still poses. But it's clear that security services here have to deal with multiple threats now. That growing far right terror threat, alongside the enduring Islamist terror threat. And that fed very much into the recent election campaign with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledging to overhaul sentencing guidelines in the wake of the terror attack here at London Bridge. Usman Khan though had taken part in courses in rehabilitation courses, and yet still carried out that attack. That underlines really the task at hand for security services, both here in Britain, but across Europe.

According to my next guest, dealing with elements of radical ideology while maintaining good relations with the Saudi kingdom is a tough but necessary balancing act.

Gerald Feierstein is a former US Ambassador to Yemen.

He was principal deputy for Near East Affairs at the US State Department.

In 2016, Ambassador Feierstein retired from US foreign Service and is currently Senior Vice President for the Middle East Institute in Washington.

GVS: Ambassador Feierstein, nice to see you sir.
GF: Pleasure to be with you.
GVS: Ambassador, how do you describe the current relationship that the United States and the Trump administration has with Saudi Arabia?
GF: Well it's been very close, it's been very close historically. There were some bumps in the road during the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has really gone very far to try to repair those bumps and to build a very strong relationship based on a similar outlook on the region, as well as recognition of Saudi Arabia's importance in the global economy.
GVS: It’s somewhat in contrast, is it not, the Trump administration relationship with Saudi Arabia, with that of Congress? Because there's been a dispute over whether US arms have been used to bomb civilians in Yemen, where of course, you were the ambassador.
GF: Right. And so, there have been two big issues in the US Saudi relationship in recent years that have created problems. One, as you say, was the war in Yemen, and a sense that the Saudis have not exercised appropriate controls to ensure that there's a limitation on civilian casualties, and how they prosecuted that war. And then the other one of course, was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was resident here in the United States, who was brutally murdered by Saudi operatives in Istanbul.
GVS: The American citizen can pick up the paper and they'll see that 911 - there were so many Saudi nationals flying those planes. They'll read about Khashoggi of course, the murder of that reporter. They’ll read about what happened in Pensacola or hear about that shooting. We're selling an awful lot of arms to Saudi Arabia, they know that Congress has met the Trump administration, are taking issue with it. You know, how do you explain that it's important to the people reading all that that it's important that the US and Saudi Arabia have a good relationship, and is it?
GVS: Well, this has been a problem historically that that at one level everybody understands how important Saudi Arabia is. It’s the world's largest exporter of oil, the role that it plays in international energy markets is critical for the stability of the global economy, including the US economy. People understand that and yet in many ways, they see Saudi Arabia is a very alien society is a society that doesn't share very many common values with the United States with the American people. And frankly speaking, we haven't done a very good job over the years of explaining why it is that we should, we should develop this relationship, we should pursue this relationship with the Saudis.
GVS: It's awfully big business these arms. I mean it's a tremendous amount of money that the buyer, you know, buying these weapons from the United States. You know we're energy independent now so it's less of an oil dependence on Saudi Arabia. So, you know, what about that, all the money that’s spent?
GF: Well it's a bit of a misnomer to say that because we produce enough energy to supply ourselves that we are not still tethered to the international energy market. If there is a, a cut off-off Saudi oil to Japan or to Western Europe or to China, that will certainly have implications for American consumers as well. So you can't say that that we're immune from problems in the global market. Beyond that, and I think part of the problem is that the American people, while they understand that there is a lot of money that changes hands, that the Saudis spend a lot of money in the United States, people aren't necessarily moved by dollar figures. They want to understand what it is that makes this a valuable partnership. What are the values that we're pursuing? What are the objectives that we're pursuing? Our national security, our policy in the region, for almost the entire period since the end of World War Two has really focused on the relationship with the Saudis.
GVS: Are they honest brokers with the United States the Saudis?
GF: Well they have been for the most part. We have worked very closely with them on energy. We've worked very closely with them on, on some of the critical regional issues over the years: on Afghanistan, they were strong partners, in Syria they've been good partners, and of course with this administration they have looked to the Saudis to be good partners also in pushing for progress on the Israeli - Palestinian account.
GVS: I can't let you leave without asking about Yemen as an aside. What's your assessment of the civil war in Yemen?
GF: Well, interestingly, I think I'm a little bit optimistic at this point, in the sense that the Saudis themselves seem to have come to the conclusion that they need to figure out how to get out of this conflict. And so we've seen a couple of developments over these last couple of months. One, trying to work out an arrangement between the government, the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi government, and some of their, their elements in the South. And then also the Saudis opening a dialogue with the Houthis. And both of those are good, positive signs that perhaps we're going to be seeing a political push to resolve the conflict.
GVS: And I suppose I've neglected, we’re running out of time, to mention that Saudi Arabia and the United States have a common interest in trying to contain Iran. And it’s devious, whatever, anyway...
GF: Absolutely.
GVS: Ambassador nice to see you. Thank you, sir.
GF: It was great to see you.
GVS: Gerald Feierstein, Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute. Thank you, sir.

It would be next to impossible to discuss US relations with Saudi Arabia without mentioning Iran.

Despite renewed prospects for dialogue between the United States and Iran, following a surprise prisoner exchange deal earlier this month - one American family is still waiting for the release of their loved one...

It has been almost 13 years since Robert Levinson, a former federal agent disappeared in Iran. He had traveled to Kish Island in 2007 for an investigation. Shortly after his disappearance, Iran state-run TV confirmed Levinson had been captured by Iranian security forces. Since then, Tehran has repeatedly denied involvement in Levinson's disappearance, leading to speculation that he was either tortured, or worse – dead. US officials believe Iranian intelligence officials know more than they are letting on. But despite the family's appeals for assistance from three different administrations, Bob Levinson's family has learned little from us Iranian officials about his whereabouts or his medical condition. His family worries he may be in poor health. If he's still alive, Bob Levinson will be 72 in March. He is now the longest held American prisoner in Iran.

Levinson's family says they have no intention of giving up.
I spoke with Christine Levinson about the toll her husband's disappearance has taken on their family and more...

(Christine Levinson Interview)
CL: I have always believed since day one that Iran knows exactly where he is. There was a Press TV report in April of 2007, that indicated that he was in the hands of Iranian authorities and would be released soon. But of course, that didn't happen.

GVS: Well it seems quite mysterious that all these years later, there's still no definitive information. but there are there are rewards out there for it.

CL: Yes, yes. Um, several weeks ago the department of justice instituted a $20 million reward for the safe return of Bob Levinson. And that's in addition to the $5 million reward that is already offered by the FBI.

GVS: He disappeared back in March of ‘07. And then about the day after he disappeared, there was a document that's titled, or described as an arrest order, dated March 8, refers to a Robert Anderson. Do you believe that to be Robert Levinson?

CL: I do, I do.

GVS: And it said he's FBI background, maybe CIA in the document. And it says that a military prosecutor ordered his arrest. And the reason you could conclude that is because of a handwritten reply to this arrest record is that correct?

CL: Yes, we believe it indicates that the arrest document is a true document.

GVS: Then, then about two months after this arrest order from the military prosecutor, there's a document dated May 2 2007, in which it appears to show a senior commander at the Kish airbase, an Iranian military facility, asking military prosecutors what to do because Bob Levinson got sick?

CL: Yes

GVS: And you've, have you seen that document?

CL: Yes I have.

GVS: When did you first hear about or see it?

CL: We received both documents at the same time in april 2010.

GVS: Then there was the proof of life.

CL: Yeah.

GVS: And when was that?

CL: November 2010.

GVS: And was that just a photograph of that or did that include a video?

CL: That included a video.

GVS: And what did --what was said on the video? and this was your husband in English.

CL: Yes, it was my husband asking for help, and to be released, that the United States government, working for them should count for something, and he needed to be released.

GVS: Since then, have you heard anything about your husband, any indication that he's alive, actually coming up to October of this year, but any information of proof of life? Anyone spotted him anyone know anything about him?

CL: Well, we also received four pictures of him in an orange jumpsuit same type of jumpsuit they wear in Guantanamo in April of 2011, which would be a year after the 2 documents.

GVS: And is there any reason to believe these documents are doctored or fake or anything?

CL: No

GVS: And that appears to be your husband to you?

CL: Yes, we, we have sent messages back to the emails where these, all these things came from. and we've never gotten any response, we don't know what they're looking for in order to release Bob.

GVS: Iran submitted a document to United Nations. What was that document, and what did it say?

CL: In the United Nations they have an investigative unit that looks into missing persons cases, detainees, various people around the world who are held by governments. We asked them to look into Bob’s case. They asked Iran about it. Iran responded with the fact that they have an open case in the revolutionary court. And that, to me indicates that they have him.

GVS: Is there any indication to you that he is dead or alive? Do you have any information either way?

CL: No, no information either way.

CL: I went to Iran December 2007, and they said they would investigate and let me know what they find out. and of course they never investigated, never told me anything after I saw them.

GVS: Do they respond to any of your inquiries?

CL: No

GVS: Or have you tried to, have you tried--?

CL: Over the years, we have tried to meet with them many times. We have gone to the Iranian mission to the UN and asked them for help. We've, as I said, traveled over to Iran, and we've continued to ask what happened to Bob? both publicly and privately and we have gotten no answers from them, they just Stonewall us. They don't answer.

GVS: Has the Trump administration, have they indicated interest in finding him?

CL: Yes, they have tried very, they've talked to us about it. Right now unfortunately, the relationship is not that good between the United States and Iran, it's non existent.

GVS: And is there a way to describe, you know, the impact on you?

CL: The impact on me is horrible. Every day I wake up wondering where Bob is and what's happening to him. He has never had any contact with anyone, which is against all basic human rights. He's been held captive with no one to speak to. We don't know if he has running water even, or how he's living. We just know that someone knows where he is and how to get him home.

GVS: Are you convinced that our government, and both of us are Americans, that our government has been straight with you?

CL: Yes

GVS: What do you think that the Trump administration could do?

CL: President Trump is a dealmaker, I feel like. and he has already proven that he is excellent at getting hostages released. I feel that if he works, and talks to the Iranians, he can get the job done, finding out what happened to Bob and getting him home to our family.

GVS: Is there anything you want to say to the Iranian people?

CL: I want to say to the Iranian people, please help us. I was there, I know the people are very kind. I know that the Iranian administration is the one, are the ones who have taken Bob. And I believe that they can encourage their government to let Bob come home to his family. How would they feel if it happened to them?

Before we go - an update on a story we covered recently here on Plugged In.

After elections in October, ex-Bolivian president Evo Morales, fled his country of Bolivia.
And now? He is again on the move. This time as a refugee.

Morales is now in Argentina. Argentina granted the former president of Bolivia refugee status.

He had originally fled to Mexico after his surprise resignation following disputed election results.
Morales' arrival in Argentina comes just days after the inauguration of Argentina's new President Alberto Fernandez.

Morales was Bolivia's first indigenous president. He served almost 14 years and was seeking a fourth term as president despite the country's constitutionally mandated term limits.

That's all the time we have for today.
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