Saudi Linked to Florida Shooting Probed for Terrorism. He Had Clashed with Instructor. – The New York Times
The investigation into the fatal shooting last week at a Navy training center in Florida was officially characterized as a terrorism inquiry on Sunday, as new details emerged about the Saudi Air Force trainee who killed three sailors on the base where he was a visiting student.
As the F.B.I. continues to conduct interviews with everyone at the Pensacola Naval Air Station who may have had contact with the gunman, identified as Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a new report emerged that the Saudi trainee filed a formal complaint earlier this year against one of his instructors, who left him “infuriated” in class by tagging him with a derogatory nickname.
The complaint, quoted in a communication circulated among people connected to the flight training, said that the instructor referred to Lieutenant Alshamrani as “Porn Stash” in front of about 10 other aviation students, embarrassing and angering him.
“I was infuriated as to why he would say that in front of the class,” the Saudi trainee wrote in his complaint, as quoted in the summary. The document was reviewed by The New York Times and authenticated by a person who spoke with Lieutenant Alshamrani shortly after the incident.
The F.B.I. declined to comment on the April incident, and the special agent in charge of the agency’s Jacksonville office, Rachel Rojas, said on Sunday that investigators are still searching for a motive for the Friday morning attack. There has been nothing to suggest that the classroom incident had any connection to the shooting, which did not occur until more than seven months later.
Yet little is known of Lieutenant Alshamrani’s life in Florida during his months as a trainee, and the incident in April appears to have been upsetting enough that two American students in the class helped him file his complaint, according to the person who spoke with him about it.
Lieutenant Alshamrani reported that the confrontation came at the end of a meteorology class, when the instructor, James Day, asked whether students had any questions before he dismissed them.
The instructor then turned to Lieutenant Alshamrani and asked whether he had any questions, addressing him as “Porn Stash” — spelled that way in the complaint — in an apparent reference to the mustache of a porn actor.
“Laughing, he continued to ask, ‘What? Have you not seen a porn star before?’” the lieutenant wrote in his complaint, according to the summary. “After I did not respond, he just let go of the subject.”
Brian Busey, the president of the company that employs Mr. Day, Delaware Resource Group of Oklahoma, declined to discuss details of the classroom incident, but said the company had dealt with the matter in April. He said the company was cooperating with the F.B.I.’s investigation into the shooting.
“Appropriate personnel action was taken regarding the incident in question, corrective action was taken, the matter was closed back in April, and we have no further comment,” Mr. Busey said.
Mr. Day also declined, through Mr. Busey, to comment. Officials at the Navy base referred questions to the F.B.I., which also did not comment.
“We are unable to confirm this type of information due to the active and ongoing investigation,” Amanda Warford Videll, a spokeswoman for the bureau’s Jacksonville office, said in a statement.
Separately, F.B.I. officials said they are continuing to conduct interviews with anyone who may have had contact with the gunman, who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy at the scene of the attack. They said they are operating on the assumption that he acted alone.
More details have emerged about the gunman’s actions in the days leading up to the shooting.
The night before the attack, Lieutenant Alshamrani showed videos of mass shootings at a dinner party, according to a person who was briefed on the investigation.
Days earlier, he and three other Saudi military trainees were in New York City, visiting several museums and Rockefeller Center. There has been no indication that the trip was more than a sightseeing tour.
Still, several dozen F.B.I. agents and New York Police Department detectives have been working to learn everything they can about the visit, which lasted for about four days, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The agents and detectives have been tracing their movements through credit cards, surveillance video and other means, the person said.
It was not clear whether the April classroom incident will play any role in the investigation.
According to the communication describing the encounter, Lieutenant Alshamrani was visibly upset and reported what happened to managers of CAE USA, which provides instruction to civil and military aviation students. (Delaware Resource Group is a subcontractor to CAE.) The American student who helped the lieutenant draft the complaint was one of two who accompanied him when he went to file it, according to the person who spoke with the Saudi trainee about the complaint.
The CAE managers offered to have the instructor apologize, but Lieutenant Alshamrani turned that offer down, and instead spoke to the naval office that oversees international students, the person said.
Several government employees thought that disciplinary action should be taken against Mr. Day, but he continued to instruct students, the person said. About a week after the incident in April, Lieutenant Alshamrani was paired with Mr. Day for simulated flight training, according to a schedule reviewed by The Times. He again complained to CAE managers, and the session was canceled and rescheduled with a different instructor, the person said.
As part of a terrorism investigation, federal authorities will also be attempting to determine whether there was a political or ideological motive behind the shooting.
The SITE Intelligence Group has flagged a Twitter account that it believes is connected to the gunman, with a posting shortly before the attack that was critical of America’s support for Israel, as well as the “invasion” of other countries by United States troops. The statement, which quoted Osama bin Laden, accused the United States of “committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity.”
Lieutenant Alshamrani began training with the United States military in August 2017 and was scheduled to complete the training in August 2020, Pentagon officials said. He initially attended language school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He spent breaks back home in Saudi Arabia. When he returned to the United States in February, friends and colleagues noticed that he had become more religious, according to a person briefed on the investigation.
The White House said Sunday that President Trump had spoken with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who “reiterated Saudi Arabia’s commitment to working with the United States to prevent a horrific attack like the Pensacola shooting from ever happening again.”
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on “Fox News Sunday” that the Pentagon would review screening procedures for foreigners on American military bases but would maintain the training programs.
“The ability to bring foreign students here to train with us, to understand American culture, is very important to us,” he said. “We have something that our potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, don’t have.”
Mr. Esper confirmed that several friends of the gunman were detained during the military’s investigation of the shooting, and said that of those who were detained, “some one or two were filming” the shooting.
“I’m not trying to pass a judgment on this,” Mr. Esper said. “Today, people pull out their phones and film everything and anything that happens.”
Contributing reporting were Frances Robles, Patricia Mazzei, Eric Schmitt, Adam Goldman, Chris Cameron and William K. Rashbaum. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
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