Naval Air Station Pensacola

Base Shooter Visited New York City Before Attack: Official

Investigators believe the gunman visited New York, including Rockefeller Center, days before the shooting, a U.S. official told the AP on Sunday

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What to Know

  • The Saudi student who fatally shot three sailors at a U.S. naval base in Florida visited New York City in the days before the shooting
  • The FBI is working to determine the purpose of the trip, and agents are trying to locate anyone who may have interacted with the gunman
  • The shooter opened fire inside a classroom at the naval base on Friday, killing three people and wounding two sheriff's deputies

The Saudi student who fatally shot three sailors at a U.S. naval base in Florida visited New York City in addition to hosting a dinner party where he and three others watched videos of mass shootings in the days before the shooting, U.S. officials told The Associated Press. Authorities also believe the gunman posted on social media about U.S. support for Israel and alleged Americans were anti-Muslim, one official said.

Those investigating the deadly attack were working to determine whether it was motivated by terrorism, while President Donald Trump indicated he would review policies governing foreign military training in the United States.

Investigators believe the gunman visited New York, including Rockefeller Center, days before the shooting, a U.S. official told the AP on Sunday. The FBI is working to determine the purpose of the trip, and agents are attempting to locate and question anyone who may have interacted with the gunman, the official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

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Authorities believe the gunman also made social media posts about U.S. support for Israel and alleging Americans were anti-Muslim, the official said. Investigators are continuing to examine the shooter's online profiles and social media postings.

The US has also sought assistance of Saudi officials as they try to piece together additional information about the gunman and his potential motive, according to the official.

Meanwhile, the Navy identified the three victims and hailed them as heroes for trying to stop the shooter and flagging down first responders after being shot.

"The Sailors that lost their lives in the line of duty and showed exceptional heroism and bravery in the face of evil," Capt. Tim Kinsella, the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Pensacola, said in a statement. "When confronted, they didn't run from danger; they ran towards it and saved lives."

The shooter opened fire inside a classroom at the naval base on Friday, killing three people and wounding two sheriff's deputies, one in the arm and one in the knee, before one of the deputies killed him. Eight others were also hurt. Both deputies were expected to survive.

One of the officials who spoke to the AP said one of the three students who attended the dinner party hosted by the attacker recorded video outside the classroom building while the shooting was taking place. Two other Saudi students watched from a car, the official said.

Ten Saudi students were being held on the base Saturday while several others were unaccounted for, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity after being briefed by federal authorities.

The FBI identified the shooter in a statement Saturday night as Mohammed Alshamrani, 21. Investigators said he was a 2nd Lt. in the Royal Saudi Air Force and was a student naval flight officer of Naval Aviation Schools Command. A U.S. official on Friday said the FBI was examining social media posts and investigating whether he acted alone or was connected to any broader group. The official wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Two U.S. officials said Friday that authorities were investigating whether the attack was terrorism-related. They spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose information that had not yet been made public.

In remarks at a gathering of top U.S. defense and military officials on Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked whether he could say definitively that the shooting was an act of terrorism.

"No, I can't say it's terrorism at this time," he said, adding that the investigation needs to proceed. He declined to discuss details of the investigation so far.

President Trump also declined to say whether the shooting was terrorism-related. The president tweeted his condolences to the families of the victims on Friday and noted that Saudi King Salman had reassured him in a telephone call that the shooter "in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people."

But in comments echoing those made earlier by Esper, Trump said Saturday that he would review policies governing foreign military training in the U.S.

The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. Currently, more than 850 Saudis are in the United States for various training activities. They are among more than 5,000 foreign students from 153 countries in the U.S. going through military training.

"This has been done for many decades," Trump said. "I guess we're going to have to look into the whole procedure. We'll start that immediately."

Speaking at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, on Saturday, Esper and others downplayed any initial impact on U.S.-Saudi ties.

Asked whether he would now hesitate to send U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia, he said, "No, not at all." He said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have shared security interests, especially with regard to Iran.

The shooting has shined a light on the sometimes rocky relationship between the two countries, however.

The kingdom is still trying to recover from the killing last year of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi intelligence officials and a forensic doctor killed and dismembered Khashoggi on Oct. 2, 2018, just as his fiancée waited outside the diplomatic mission.

Residents of Pensacola mourned the attacks and offered their condolences to affected members of the community.

Family members on Saturday identified one of the victims as a 23-year-old recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who alerted first responders to where the shooter was even after he had been shot several times.

"Joshua Kaleb Watson saved countless lives today with his own," his older brother Adam Watson wrote on Facebook. "He died a hero and we are beyond proud."

A second victim was identified as Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida, who joined the Navy after graduating from high school last year, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Haitham's mother, Evelyn Brady, herself a Navy veteran, said the commander of her son's school called her and told her Haitham had tried to stop the shooter.

The former track and field star had been assigned to flight crew training and was looking forward to graduating from the program later this month, Brady said.

"He said he was going to get his flight jacket for Christmas," she said. "Now that's not going to happen."

The Navy identified the third victim as Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia. All three were students at Naval Aviation Schools Command.

Associated Press reporters Lolita Baldor, Ben Fox, Mike Balsamo and Robert Burns in Washington; Jon Gambrell in Dubai; Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida; and Tamara Lush in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

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