National security adviser Robert O’Brien said the U.S. is taking Saudi Arabia “at their word” after the Middle Eastern kingdom agreed to cooperate with the FBI in its investigation of the deadly shooting at a Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday.
“The Saudis have promised full cooperation with the investigation,” O’Brien told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We’re going to take them at their word.”
O’Brien, whom Trump appointed in September after firing John Bolton, said the incident that left three U.S. Naval Aviation Schools Command students dead “appears to be a terrorist attack.” Navy officials have identified a Saudi Arabian aviation trainee as the gunman.
“We don’t know yet if he was acting alone,” O’Brien said Sunday. “It appears that this may be someone that was radicalized, whether it was here ― it’s unclear if he’s got any ties to any other organizations.”
Some U.S. officials have been reluctant to call the shooting an act of terrorism while the FBI investigation is ongoing. Asked if he’s seen credible reports that suggest the attack was part of a “broader plot,” O’Brien said no.
“I’m watching the same things that you’re watching,” he said.
O’Brien’s remarks about trusting the Saudis mirrors President Donald Trump’s friendly stance toward the brutal regime. The president shocked the world last November when he sided with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over U.S. intelligence agencies on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Though the CIA concluded that the crown prince authorized Khashoggi’s killing, Trump publicly declared that the world may never know whether the Saudi leader was behind it.
“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,” Trump tweeted Friday.
He added: “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.”
But Republicans in Florida, including some of Trump’s loudest cheerleaders in Congress, have taken a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia in the wake of the shooting.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), whose district includes Pensacola, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that the attack will certainly “inform on our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
“There are Saudis that are currently with us that are being investigated,” Gaetz said. “I made the point as clearly as I possibly could that we want no interference from the kingdom.”
“If there are Saudis that we do not have that may have been involved in any way in the planning, inspiration, financing or execution of this,” he added, “we expect Saudi intelligence to work with our government.”
Navy officials identified Mohammed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force, as the gunman. He opened fire Friday morning at a classroom building at Naval Air Station Pensacola, where he was participating in a training program, killing three people and injuring eight others, authorities said.
The gunman was later shot and killed by police.
The night before the shooting, the gunman showed videos of mass shootings at a dinner party, reported The New York Times. Six Saudi nationals have been detained for questioning, including three who were seen filming the shooting as it unfolded, according to the Times.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” hesitated to describe the attack as terrorism and downplayed reports that some Saudis had filmed it.
“What’s unclear is were they filming it before it began or was it something where they picked up their phones and filmed it once they saw it unfolding,” Esper said. “That may be a distinction with or without a difference.”
Host Chris Wallace responded that it “would not be a normal response to film one of your colleagues who’s shooting Americans.”
“I don’t know,” Esper said. “I’m not trying to pass a judgment on it at this point in time. You know, today people pull out their phones and film everything and anything that happens.”