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WASHINGTON, Dec 11, (Agencies): The Pentagon announced on Tuesday it was halting operational training of all Saudi Arabian military personnel in the United States until further notice after a Saudi Air Force lieutenant shot and killed three people last week at a base in Florida.
The decision will have farreaching impacts on visiting Saudi personnel, including grounding more than 300 Saudi Arabian military aviation students as part of a “safety stand-down,” first reported by Reuters earlier on Tuesday.
The Pentagon later confirmed the Reuters report about aviation students and added the move would also affect infantry personnel and all other Saudi training, other than classroom training. Such coursework, which includes English-language classes, will continue. A senior US defense official, briefing Pentagon reporters on the decision, said the move was intended to allow for a broader review of security procedures that would eventually apply to all of some 5,000 international military students in the United States
Still, the safety stand-down only applied to the some 850 visiting students from Saudi Arabia. The defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the shooting “suggested that there could be a particular improvement with that (nation’s) population.”
“I don’t have any evidence to suggest that there is a larger ring or larger conspiracy,” the official said, when asked what was driving the safety stand-down. The FBI has said US investigators believe Saudi Air Force Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, acted alone when he attacked a US Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday, before he was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff.
The shootings have again raised questions about the US military relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has come under heightened scrutiny in Congress over the war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Still, US military leaders have sought to portray this as a localized issue which would not affect the overall US-Saudi relationship. Navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Andriana Genualdi said the safety stand-down and operational pause began on Monday for Saudi Arabian aviation students. She said the grounding included three different military facilities: Naval Air Station Pensacola, Naval Air Station Whiting Field and Naval Air Station Mayport, all in Florida.
The Air Force said its groundings of Saudi aviation students also applied to additional US bases. “Given the traumatic events, we feel it is best to keep the Royal Saudi Air Force students off the flying schedule for a short time,” the Air Force spokeswoman said.
Alshamrani was on the base as part of a US Navy training program designed to foster links with foreign allies. He had started training in the United States in 2017 and had been in the Pensacola area for the past 18 months, authorities said.
A group that tracks online extremism has said Alshamrani appeared to have posted criticism of US wars in predominantly Muslim countries and quoted slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Twitter hours before the shooting spree.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, ordered a broad review of vetting procedures for international students who participate in training on US military installations and demanded the process be strengthened, in direct reaction to last week’s deadly shooting at a Pensacola Navy base by a Saudi aviation student.
The memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist also suspends flight and other operational training for all Saudi Arabian students in US military programs. It follows a decision by the US Navy to halt flight training for more than 300 Saudi Arabian students at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and two other bases in Florida.
Norquist’s memo says the review of the vetting must be completed in 10 days, and the flight restrictions will continue throughout the review and until they are lifted by senior leaders. “As we reaffirm our commitment to these critical military partnerships, so must we assess the efficacy of our security procedures in light of the tragic loss of life on Dec 6,” the memo says.