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Answers needed on Pensacola base shooting | Editorial

Service members like Mohammed “Mo” Haitham of St. Petersburg should not be at risk of being killed on a base in their home state.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, center, and Navy Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, look on as an Air Force carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Navy Seaman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, of St. Petersburg on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base, Del. A Saudi gunman killed three people including Haitham in a shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) [CLIFF OWEN  |  AP]
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, center, and Navy Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, look on as an Air Force carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Navy Seaman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, of St. Petersburg on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base, Del. A Saudi gunman killed three people including Haitham in a shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) [CLIFF OWEN | AP]
Published Dec. 9, 2019

Former Lakewood High track star Mohammed “Mo” Haitham surprised his family in St. Petersburg by showing up for Thanksgiving. The 19-year-old Navy airman won’t be there for Christmas. He was one of three sailors killed Friday at the Naval Air Station Pensacola by a Saudi Air Force officer undergoing flight training at the base. The tragedy raises serious questions about security on U.S. military installations and the arrangements for hosting foreign nationals in American military settings.

Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, from St. Petersburg [U.S. NAVY PHOTO | AP]

Investigators are trying to establish whether 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani of the Royal Saudi Air Force acted alone or as part of a conspiracy in Friday’s rampage in a classroom on the base, which killed Haitham, 23-year-old U.S. Naval Academy graduate Joshua Kaleb Watson and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Ga., and left eight others injured. Alshamrani was later killed by a sheriff’s deputy responding to the scene.

While authorities have not suggested a motive, the FBI said it is investigating the attack under the presumption it was an act of terrorism. The few details released so far include several troubling events involving Alshamrani preceding the attack. Returning to the United States from a break home in February, Alshamrani was described by friends and colleagues as having become more religious. He reported to be “infuriated” with a base instructor who poked fun at him in April, prompting Alshamrani to file a complaint. The night before the attack, Alshamrani reportedly showed videos of mass shootings at a dinner party. Authorities are investigating whether the gunman is connected to a Twitter account that contained a posting shortly before the shooting that was critical of U.S. support for Israel. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also confirmed Sunday that several friends of the gunman were detained as part of the investigation, and that “one or two were filming” the shooting.

These might be isolated events that have no bearing on the tragedy. But they raise flags over Alshamrani’s recent experience in Pensacola, and they raise questions not only about him but the oversight of the military training program, which enables thousands of military members from foreign allies to train on American bases. Did U.S. or Saudi authorities receive any warnings about Alshamrani? Did his Saudi superiors hear or report any concerns? Who were the witnesses at the dinner party, and did they report the videos at the time? While Alshamrani used a handgun he bought legally in the United States, why was a foreign national in possession of the weapon when rules at the nation’s military bases generally prohibit service members who are not security personnel from carrying personal firearms around the post?

These military training programs serve a vital national interest, sensitizing foreign nationals to American ideals and creating relationships with the next generation of allied military leaders. But America’s service men and women are this nation’s best and brightest, and their security must be the paramount concern. Now it falls to a country whose citizens accounted for 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 and which tried to mislead the world about its involvement in the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year to be candid and forthcoming about this latest murderous act. The Trump administration should insist on a full accounting from the Saudis as it reviews the vetting process for foreign military training. A 19-year-old Navy airman from St. Petersburg should not be at risk of being killed at a base in his home state by a member of another country’s armed forces.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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