Pentagon Orders Training Pause for 850 Saudi Troops in US

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Saudi Arabia Defense Attaché Major General Fawaz Al Fawaz meets with Saudi students at the NAS Pensacola base.
In this Dec. 9, 2019 photo made available by the FBI, Saudi Arabia Defense Attaché Major General Fawaz Al Fawaz (second from right) meets with Saudi students at the NAS Pensacola base in Pensacola, Florida. (FBI via AP)

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of Saudi students now in the U.S.

The Pentagon has paused its training in the U.S. with Saudi nationals until officials conduct a thorough review. The directive follows a deadly shooting that killed three sailors and injured eight other people at NAS Pensacola, Florida, according to a senior defense official.

Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist issued a memo this week following the incident saying leaders would review security and screening procedures for foreign students attending training in the U.S., as well as ongoing bilateral training programs. But Saudi students in particular have been ordered to take a temporary operational pause in training in what the Pentagon says is a "safety and security stand down" during the review, the senior defense officials said in a phone call with reporters Tuesday.

"This will apply to all Saudi students in the United States. So they will all continue to have classroom training, but operational training will pause during the course of this review," the official said.

There are roughly 850 Saudi students in the U.S. at this time for various training programs, the official said. The Navy first issued its own temporary grounding for Saudi aviation students training at three Florida bases earlier on Tuesday.

Related: Navy Grounds 175 Saudi Aviation Students Following Pensacola Shooting

The latest development comes as thousands of U.S. troops are in Saudi to deter malign behavior from Iran in the Middle East.

Norquist said he has directed the undersecretary of intelligence "to take immediate steps to strengthen personnel vetting for International Military Students (IMS) and to complete a review within 10 days of policies and procedures for screening foreign students and granting access to our bases," according to the memo.

"These efforts will seek to more closely align IMS vetting procedures with those we apply to US personnel," the memo states.

The senior defense official said the U.S. military has trained more than 28,000 Saudi students over the life of our security cooperation relationship "without serious incident." But "we are going to take some short term looks at our programs to see how we can address any shortcomings," the official added.

At various events over the weekend, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that he had ordered a review of vetting and security following the shooting.

The FBI identified the suspect as 21-year-old Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani, who allegedly used a handgun in his shooting rampage.

The Associated Press reported Saturday that the al-Shamrani hosted a dinner party earlier in the week to watch videos of mass shootings.

One of the students who attended the dinner had videotaped the outside of the training building where the shooting was taking place, the AP said, quoting a top U.S. official. Two other students watched from a nearby car.

"I want to immediately make sure we're taking all necessary precautions appropriate to the particular base to make sure our people are safe and secure," Esper said on "Fox News Sunday."

"I want to make sure those procedures are full and sufficient," he said during the interview.

During a panel at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday, Pentagon top brass discussed how the U.S. has a variety of training events and programs with foreign partners, and is looking to expand those programs. Ending those would have an adverse effect on joint training down the line, said Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

"The biggest impact would be on our allies and partners and interoperability," Goldfein said of foreign partner training. "My biggest concern that we would walk away from those key relationships and folks that we know we need when we go into combat."

--Richard Sisk and Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

--Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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