One year ago, three U.S. servicemen were killed in a terrorist attack at Pensacola Naval Air Station by an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force, who had been coordinating with al-Qaida operatives for years while completing a pilot training program at the base. Earlier this month the three service members were posthumously honored with the Purple Heart. Their families, however, are still waiting for President Trump to make good on what he had assured them the day after their children were killed: That he would get to the bottom of the attack, and that the Saudi royal family — specifically, King Salman himself, the desert monarchy's absolute ruler — would take care of them.
They are also still waiting for Trump himself, or anyone in the administration, to contact them.
Now the Trump administration is reportedly weighing whether to grant Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legal immunity from a federal lawsuit accusing him of targeting a former intelligence officer for assassination. The decision could also lead to the dismissal of other cases against MBS, including one accusing him of directing the murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The move, however, could also thwart possible legal action on the part of the Pensacola victims, who may be covered under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which gives federal courts jurisdiction over a foreign state's support for acts of terrorism against U.S. targets, even if the foreign county is not a designated state sponsor of terrorism.
Hanging over all this is the recently renewed possibility that members of the Saudi Royal family could be called as witnesses in a lawsuit brought against the kingdom by families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.
The Pensacola attacker, Mohammad al-Shamrani, was later revealed to have been in regular contact since 2015 with what the FBI described as "dangerous operatives" in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That predates by two years his 2017 arrival at the U.S. on a special visa for flight training at NAS Pensacola, the same base where some of the 9/11 hijackers listed an address.
About a week before the attack, al-Shamrani visited the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan, and on Sept. 11, 2019, just months before the shooting, he posted a social media message saying that "the countdown has begun." While officials have not gone so far to say the attacker was directed by al-Qaida, they have said his ties to the group were "significant." No foreign terrorist organization has successfully directed a deadly attack in the U.S. since 2001.
The attack lasted about 15 minutes before security forces killed the shooter. In that time he shot to death Ensign Joshua Watson, Petty Officer 3rd Class Mohammed Haitham and Petty Officer 3rd Class Cameron Walter, and wounded eight other service members, using a semiautomatic handgun with about 180 rounds of ammunition.
The morning after the shooting, President Trump told reporters as he departed for a fundraiser at another location in Florida that King Salman was "very, very devastated" about the shooting, and the royal family would help the affected families "very greatly." The king, Trump said, would involve himself in the effort personally.
"I spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia. They are devastated in Saudi Arabia," the president said. "We're finding out what took place, whether it's one person or a number of people. And the king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly. He's very, very devastated by what happened and what took place. Likewise the crown prince. They are devastated by what took place in Pensacola. And I think they're going to help out the families very greatly."
"But, right now, they send their condolences," Trump continued. "And, as you know, I've sent my condolences. It's a very shocking thing. And we'll find out — we'll get to the bottom of it very quickly."
A family member of one of the victims told Salon that neither country had lived up to its promises. "No one from the Saudi government has reached out to any of the families," this person said. "No one from the White House has ever called us. No one has been held accountable. We're still waiting."
The Navy released its investigation in November. The heavily redacted report concluded that the attacker had self-radicalized, but a synopsis added that "the organizational environment inherent in the aviation pipeline" played a role, and that conditions to an extent were little different from what could lead to similar actions from "our own Sailors and civilian personnel." (The report notes "an adverse microclimate for all students" where superiors subjected foreign students to "derogatory and sometimes abusive comments as well as humiliating public reprimands" — such an incident in which an instructor referred to al-Shamrani as "Pornstache.")
A month after the attack, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that nearly two dozen other Saudis in the U.S. for military training were being deported for having anti-American or "jihadist" content on their social media. Seventeen of them had also reportedly come in contact with child pornography.
However, the unclassified sections of the 267-page Navy report contain just one passing mention of AQAP. At one point the report reveals that investigators had not reviewed the shooter's responses to security questions on his visa application: "The security portion contains 55 yes or no questions pertaining to such areas as terrorism, espionage, illegal activity, immigration violations, felony convictions, etc. The submitted A-2 visa application was not reviewed for derogatory material as part of this investigation."
The document contrasts sharply with FBI Director Christopher Wray's press conference six months earlier.
"The new evidence shows that al-Shamrani had radicalized not after training here in the U.S. but at least as far back as 2015, and that he had been connecting and associating with a number of dangerous AQAP operatives ever since," Wray said. "It shows that al-Shamrani described a desire to learn about flying years ago, around the same time he talked about attending the Saudi Air Force Academy in order to carry out what he called a 'special operation.' And he then pressed his plans forward, joining the Air Force and bringing his plot here — to America."
Wray said that the attacker associated with AQAP while he lived in Texas and Florida, and discussed his plans and tactics directly with the group, "taking advantage of the information he acquired here, to assess how many people he could try to kill."
"He was meticulous in his planning," Wray said, adding: "He wasn't just coordinating with them about planning and tactics — he was helping the organization make the most it could out of his murders. And he continued to confer with his AQAP associates right until the end, the very night before he started shooting."
In the days after that attack, Trump, offered a conspicuous non-response, strongly out of character for someone who has often been among the first public figures to politicize a terrorist attack apparently carried out by a Muslim. Early in his presidency he falsely denounced a casino robbery in the Philippines as an act of terrorism, a knee-jerk mistake that reportedly drew laughs in the White House situation room. He once appeared to invent a terrorist attack in Sweden that had not happened, and then doubled down on it.
But the president refused to call the al-Qaida-inspired attack on U.S. troops an act of terrorism, let alone "radical Islamic terrorism." (Barr called it a terrorist attack the next month, following an preliminary investigation.) The closest Trump came was a retweet of a TV interview of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., using the term.
(The president, whose retweets are a cesspool of fringe-right and white supremacist accounts, often uses the technique to create a layer of deniability between himself and the tweet's actual claim. "That was a retweet," he once said, after sharing a tweet that connected the Clintons to the death in custody of convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. "That wasn't from me. That was from [the original account].")
Trump's own tweet after the attack, however, only said he'd spoken on the phone with King Salman, who expressed "sincere condolences":
King Salman of Saudi Arabia just called to express his sincere condolences and give his sympathies to the families and friends of the warriors who were killed and wounded in the attack that took place in Pensacola, Florida. The King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.
By contrast, 11 months prior, Trump boasted on Twitter about avenging al-Qaida's 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, claiming that "our work against al Qaeda continues."
"Our GREAT MILITARY has delivered justice for the heroes lost and wounded in the cowardly attack on the USS Cole. We have just killed the leader of that attack, Jamal al-Badawi," Trump wrote. "Our work against al Qaeda continues. We will never stop in our fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism!"
Two months after Pensacola, the U.S. confirmed that it had killed the AQAP leader who claimed responsibility for the attack, in a drone strike in Yemen. Trump had already alluded to the assassination in several tweets, but he still had not contacted any of the families robbed of their loved ones in an attack on his own soldiers at Pensacola.
"Where was our president?" asked the family member who spoke to Salon. "Where was the man that refuses to lose and loves America?"
For whatever reason, Trump's fight stops at the gates of the Saudi royal palace. For instance, the president took the kingdom's side when it blockaded Qatar, home to a critical U.S. military base. He has defended the country's continued bombing of Yemen, which has created a humanitarian disaster, and vetoed an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill to halt weapons sales as that tragedy escalated.
Weeks before the Pensacola shooting, CNN reported that the State Department and Pentagon were deploying teams to Saudi Arabia to investigate the network's reports that, only months after Trump jammed a multibillion-dollar Saudi weapons deal through Congress, U.S.-made weapons were being transferred to groups including al-Qaida fighters in Yemen, in violation of the sales agreement. The State Department said that the Saudis' "continued insufficient responses" were muddling the probe.
(The joint U.S.-Saudi military training program at Pensacola NAS is a part of the weapons package.)
Trump's deference to the Saudis came to the forefront the year before, in October 2018, when a hit team of Saudi nationals dismembered Khashoggi — a Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident — in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence concluded with its highest degree of certainty that Crown Prince Mohammed had personally directed the murder. (In October 2019, MBS took "full responsibility" for the killing, but denied any advance knowledge.) In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Congress condemned Saudi Arabia and passed legislation blocking arms sales to the kingdom — sales Trump had bragged about repeatedly.
Trump disputed his intelligence community's conclusion on the Khashoggi murder, and the New York Times reported that Jared Kushner advised the president to ignore the bipartisan outrage and support Prince Mohammed until it passed. A few weeks after the murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia, where in a closed-door meeting he reportedly passed the Crown Prince a "road map" meant to help him navigate the scandal.
According to a CNN report last year, Pompeo was reportedly one of only two men in the room with Trump — the other being former national security adviser John Bolton — during the president's post-Khashoggi phone call with Saudi leaders. The transcript of that call was immediately sequestered.
"Officials who ordinarily would have been given access to a rough transcript of the conversation never saw one, according to one source," CNN reported. "Instead, a transcript was never circulated at all, which the source said was highly unusual."
Additionally, CNN reported that there were "no transcripts made of the phone conversations between Trump and the Saudi king or crown prince to prevent leaks." The officials said the radical step didn't stem from concerns about classified information, but instead seemed designed to shield Trump from potential political consequences.
The White House, of course, was not the only party capable of creating transcripts or recording those calls. Whoever else might have them — which would include various parties on the Saudi side or any intelligence agencies that might have intercepted the call — would have devastating blackmail material on the outgoing president. That would also include the Saudis themselves.
"They give us a lot of jobs. They give us a lot of business," Trump said to explain his non-response to Khashoggi's murder.
Though Trump has in recent years denied having financial ties to Saudi Arabia, he and a number of people close to him have had many business dealings with the kingdom. At a 2015 campaign rally, candidate Trump said, "Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much." He also said that he likes doing deals with the Saudis because "Saudi Arabia pays cash."
In May 2017, Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner flew to Saudi Arabia on the president's first international visit. On that trip, Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis — a number since proved to be wildly overstated — as part of an even larger $350 billion investment deal, in which the royal family pledged to invest $20 billion in a $40 billion U.S. infrastructure fund.
Kushner is literally in debt to the company that manages this fund — the Blackstone Group — which over the last six years has loaned Kushner Companies, long plagued by financial woes, more than $400 million to fund a number of deals. Kushner also has ties to Tom Barrack, who went in with Blackstone on the fund. A 2019 congressional report alleged that Barrack urged the Trump administration to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia while simultaneously going in with the kingdom on a company that would benefit from the new policy.
In 2018, The New York Times reported that the Saudis have been ingratiating themselves to Kushner for years. In October 2017, a year before Khashoggi's murder, Kushner made an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia, where he reportedly gave Prince Mohammed a list of Saudi dissidents that came directly from the President's Daily Brief, one of the U.S. government's most sensitive intelligence documents. Six months later, MBS visited Trump in Washington, but a sizable portion of the Saudi entourage stayed in Manhattan at the Trump International Hotel. The Washington Post's David Farenthold reported that the Saudis' five-day stay yielded a profit for the quarter:
After two years of decline, revenue from room rentals went up 13 percent in the first three months of 2018. What caused the uptick at President Trump's flagship hotel in New York? One major factor: "a last-minute visit to New York by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia," wrote [the hotel's] general manager Prince A. Sanders in a May 15 letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post...."Due to our close industry relationships,' he wrote, 'we were able to accommodate many of the accompanying travelers."
And in the summer of 2016, weeks after Trump claimed the GOP nomination, Donald Trump Jr. met in Trump Tower with George Nader — an adviser to Prince Mohammed — along with a representative from an Israeli psy-ops firm. The New York Times reported that Nader told Trump Jr. that the Saudi and United Arab Emirates royal families were "eager to help his father win election as president." It's not clear what, if anything, came of this, but Nader later cut the owner of the Israeli firm a check for up to $2 million. One explanation for the payment, according to the Times, concerned "an elaborate presentation about the significance of social media campaigning to Mr. Trump's victory."