The Pentagon Is Working to Make It Harder for Foreign Military Trainees to Buy Guns

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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)

Thousands of foreign military students who train at U.S. bases will be subject to tighter screening before they arrive, as well as intensive efforts to stop them from obtaining firearms while they are here.

The moves follow the attack by a Saudi national that killed three sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The immediate challenge is to close "what looks like a loophole" in existing gun laws that allowed 21-year-old Saudi Royal Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani to legally purchase the Glock 45 9mm handgun he used in the Dec. 6 rampage, said Pentagon intelligence official Garry Reid.

He also listed several security shortcomings in how the Defense Department works with the State Department to screen and vet foreign military students before they are accepted into military training programs and how they are monitored when they arrive.

The Defense Department is now working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on methods to block foreign military trainees from keeping or buying personal weapons, said Reid, director of Defense Intelligence (Counterintelligence, Law Enforcement, and Security) at the Pentagon.

Related: Navy Resumes Flight Training for Saudi Troops After Pensacola Terror Attack

In addition, the service branches have begun acting on their own to limit the access of foreign military students to firearms. On Jan. 31, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly released guidance to prohibit foreign military students training in the U.S. from owning personal firearms.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, the subcommittee's chair, noted that Alshamrani had obtained a Florida hunting license, which made it legal for him to purchase firearms in the state.

Reid and Army Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said that the hunting license exception was a focus of the department's review, ordered by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, of security procedures for foreign military trainees following the Pensacola attack.

Without giving specifics, Reid said the review found that "policies for student possession of firearms varied at the installation level, and that at the federal level there are ways to bypass firearms restrictions for non-immigrant visa holders."

"We also found that DoD programs meant to detect and mitigate events such as the Pensacola attack did not cover international military students -- for instance, our insider threat programs," he said.

The hearing went into a classified closed session after 45 minutes to allow Reid and Hooper to go into detail on where the department has fallen short and how the new procedures will boost security.

In his opening testimony, Reid said that all of the estimated 800 Saudi nationals training in the U.S., including about 150 at Pensacola, were put through additional screening as part of a "Personnel Vetting Transformation Initiative" immediately after the Dec. 6 shootings.

The screenings, which are continuing for all 5,000 foreign students from more than 100 countries, turned up a "small number" of individuals who were of concern, but "none that triggered any remedial action or further investigation by federal authorities," Reid said.

Alshamrani and several of his Saudi student associates at Pensacola were not subject to the DoD review since they were already being investigated by the FBI and the Justice Department, he added.

In all, 21 Saudi military officers in training in the U.S. were sent home as a result of the review for unspecified "misconduct."

Overall, "we found that DoD has been overly reliant on the vetting conducted by Department of State," mainly by U.S. ambassadors overseas, of foreign military students before they arrive in the U.S., he said.

He added that the DoD is working to improve information sharing with the State Department and conducting wider data searches to detect signs of extremist ideology among applicants for training programs.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, questioned how the department would prevent extremists from entering the training programs. He noted that Alshamrani had evidenced signs of adherence to extremist ideology in social media postings before coming to the U.S.

In response, Hooper said that "the Saudis have agreed to do a number of things differently" in their own screening of applicants, including increased psychological and behavioral testing "to uncover ideological, social or family issues and anxieties."

In addition, he said the U.S. is asking the Saudis "to consider the individual's personal opinions or attitudes toward the U.S. government, U.S. policies and Western culture and respect for persons of different race, gender, religion, national origin or sexual orientation" before permitting them into training programs in the U.S.

Hooper and Reid rejected assertions by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, that the U.S. may have deferred to the Saudis by refusing to label Alshamrani's actions in killing three sailors and wounding eight others in a Pensacola classroom building as terrorism.

Reid pointed out that U.S. Attorney General William Barr had labeled the attack an act of terrorism motivated by "jihadist ideology."

Hooper said the attack was "unequivocally identified as an act of terrorism" by the FBI and the Justice Department.

Both Reid and Hooper testified to the "strategic" value to the U.S. of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, through which more than one million foreign military students have trained in the U.S., including more than 28,000 Saudis.

In the program, the foreign nationals "are exposed to our values, our culture and our people" in ways that produce long-lasting results in terms of strengthening alliances and cooperation with partners worldwide, Hooper said.

However, the DoD owes it to the families of the three sailors killed at Pensacola to tighten up security procedures to weed out potential extremists, Reid said.

In the Pensacola attack, Alshamrani fired randomly, fatally wounding Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, of Enterprise, Alabama; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia.

Shortly after the attack, Navy Capt. Timothy Kinsella, the Pensacola base commander, said all three took actions to try to stop the shooter and had saved "countless lives."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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