FILE - U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, July 15, 2019.
FILE - U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, July 15, 2019.

WASHINGTON - Twenty-one Saudi military trainees are being sent home following a probe into a deadly shooting at a Florida Naval base that was carried out by a Saudi air force cadet, Attorney General William Barr announced Monday.

The investigation was launched after Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force training at at Naval Air Station Pensacola, killed three U.S. servicemen and injured eight others in a classroom on the base Dec. 6.  

While investigators found no evidence that Alshamrani was affiliated with a terrorist group, they learned that the cadet had posted anti-American and anti-Israel content on social media in the lead up to the shooting, including a message posted Sept. 11 that said "the countdown has begun." 

"This was an act of terrorism," Barr said at a press conference at the Justice Department. "The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology."

The subsequent probe of hundreds of Saudi military trainees in the United States, joined by Saudi authorities, uncovered that 17 others had posted jihadi or anti-American comments on social media, while 15 others had some form of child pornography in their possession, Barr said.

Those Saudi nationals have been disenrolled from their training curriculum in the U.S. military by Saudi Arabia after Saudi authorities  "determined that this material demonstrated conduct unbecoming an officer in the Saudi Royal Air Force and Royal Navy," Barr said at a press conference.

The U.S. Department of Defense, which runs the training program, agreed with the Saudi decision, an administration official said.

The investigation is ongoing, with U.S. authorities working with their Saudi counterparts to "determine whether there are any co-conspirators," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

FILE - The main gate at Naval Air Station Pensacola is seen on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola, Florida, March 16, 2016.

 

Neither the extremist content nor the child pornography was sufficient evidence to prosecute the Saudi nationals. However, Saudi Arabia has pledged to return any of the cadets to the United States should U.S. authorities decide at a later date to charge them, Barr said, praising Saudi Arabia for its unprecedented cooperation during the investigation.

Twelve of the 21 Saudis were based in Pensacola, while the nine others were stationed in bases in Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma, a senior law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

During the investigation, law enforcement agents retrieved two Apple iPhones that belonged to Alshamrani, one of which carried a bullet hole caused by Alshamrani during the shooting. The FBI has been unable to unlock the phones and Apple has not offered to help despite a court order, Barr said.

"This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause," Barr said.

During the press conference, Barr's third since taking the helm of the Justice Department less than a year ago, the attorney general defended the controversial Jan. 3 strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

"I believe the president clearly had the authority to act as he did on numerous different bases," he said, citing escalating Iranian attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East.