Saudi Family of Pensacola Gunman: 'Even We Don't Know the Truth' of Motive

Saudi Family of Pensacola Gunman: 'Even We Don't Know the Truth' of MotiveAL AHSA, Saudi Arabia — Not long before a 21-year-old Saudi Royal Air Force trainee shot and killed three American sailors Friday at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, he called his mother and his brother back home.The trainee, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was wearing his uniform, they could see on the video call — the uniform he had always wanted to wear as a child, when he dreamed of becoming a pilot.With his elder brother, Abdullah, he joked around on the call: "You're the eldest," Alshamrani teased, "but I'm going to get married first." Talking to his mother, he promised he would be home as soon as he finished his training. "Just a few more months," he said.What was missing was any hint of what was to come: opening fire in a classroom building at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, shooting three fatally and wounding eight more before being killed by a sheriff's deputy.Alshamrani seemed utterly normal in that last conversation, his family insisted in interviews this week in Saudi Arabia. Four days later, they are still baffled."He never had a secret, he was never hiding anything," Saeed Abdullah Alshamrani, 55, the lieutenant's father, said at the family's home in eastern Saudi Arabia on Tuesday evening. "It's such a mystery. Even we don't know the truth.""Are you sure he's dead?" his father asked during the interview, surrounded by several relatives, acquaintances and others whose relationship to the family was not clear. "We haven't even been given any proof of whether he's dead or alive."No motive for the shooting has been determined, although the FBI is treating it as a presumed terrorist attack. The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it was suspending operational training for all of the nearly 900 Saudi military students in the United States.Among the few clues to emerge was a tweet from an account that may be connected to Alshamrani, which condemned United States foreign policy decisions in the Middle East, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online. There was also a complaint the lieutenant filed earlier this year against one of his instructors for mocking his mustache in class.But in Saudi Arabia, the American focus on possible radicalization has left family and acquaintances bewildered, forced to answer for their son and friend to other Saudis.Sensitive to Western stereotypes that often reflexively brand Muslims as terrorists, and aware that the kingdom cannot afford to lose Washington's support, many Saudis have been eager to portray the lieutenant as a monstrous outlier. A hashtag declaring that he "does not represent" Saudis has dominated Twitter in the kingdom, and the media has echoed the point."This work can only be done by a cowardly villain," Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri, a political scientist, wrote in the Arab News, a Saudi newspaper. "He has betrayed his country, which trusted him and spent millions on his education. Instead, he stabbed her in the back."The Saudi government is also extremely sensitive about the case, fearing it could jeopardize a relationship already frayed by criticism in Washington over the war in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year. King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other top officials have all condemned the shooting. Alshamrani's family has said they were questioned by government officials.In interviews, his father, brother, cousins and a family friend said that Alshamrani had always seemed content to be in the United States, working toward his longtime goal, never mentioning difficulties."Since he was a kid, he'd dreamed of being a pilot, and he worked so hard for it," said his brother, Abdullah Alshamrani. Once he arrived in the United States, "he loved it so much, really," his brother said. "He was amazed by America's military force, just really impressed by the military."The third child in a family from Tabalah, a farming town in southern Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Alshamrani grew up in Al Ahsa, not far from the Saudi Aramco compound in eastern Saudi Arabia. His father had moved there to work in the local airport, eventually rising to be a security official.The family spent summers with extended family back in Tabalah, with its date farms nestled amid the undulating desert and stark mountains. They built another house there and frequently came back for weddings and other family events. On summer evenings, with other entertainment scarce, young men like Alshamrani and his brothers and cousins would gather at rented guesthouses in the desert to play cards and watch soccer on TV late into the night.Alshamrani always seemed more serious and less boisterous than the other young men, recalled Galat bin Mitshoosh, a retired longtime detective with the local prosecutor's office in Tabalah who knows the family."I never heard anything political from Mohammed," he said. "He was quiet, just a normal guy. He might talk about sports sometimes."The Alshamranis were observant Muslims who prayed, he said, but their practice of Islam was not considered especially strict.A person familiar with the investigation in the United States has said that friends and classmates told investigators that Alshamrani seemed to have become more religious when he returned from his last visit home in February.During that visit, relatives said, he took his mother to the holy city of Mecca to perform the umrah, a type of pilgrimage that many Muslims routinely undertake. In his relatives' eyes, however, they said there was nothing to indicate his Islamic beliefs had changed or hardened. He did not seem different, they said, except that he had shaven his chin clean.Always a good student, Alshamrani cemented his place as the pride of his family when he became one of the two students picked from his air force academy class of several hundred to enter the training program in the United States on a scholarship. Saudi Arabia has sent hundreds of thousands of young students overseas to study in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States in recent years, but it was so rare for someone from rural Tabalah to study in the United States that the last young man from the town to do so before Alshamrani is locally famous."I was so proud of him. He's the role model of the family," his brother Abdullah said. "I'm the eldest son, but Mohammed is a big deal."Starting in August 2017, the Saudi government paid for him to spend a year learning English at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio before he moved to Pensacola for military training. He had already received weapons training at his academy in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the family said. But he did not appear to acquire a gun in the United States until July, when he legally purchased a Glock 45 9-millimeter handgun in late July, shortly after obtaining a state hunting license, the FBI said Tuesday.Over his years in the United States, he shared with his family pictures of himself smiling in Times Square and in uniform with one of his American trainers.A video he took in Florida showed friends splashing around in kayaks, as he laughed behind the camera. When he called home — almost every day, his father and brother said — he talked about traveling around the United States, hanging out with his Saudi roommate and coming home after graduation. He was counting down the months.So was his family. His father had told neighbors and friends in Tabalah that he would throw a huge graduation party for his son when the family visited next summer, according to bin Mitshoosh, the retired detective. All the men from all six of the town's tribes would be invited.When he called his family Friday, Alshamrani offered to send his brother some extra money. He promised to be home soon."I'll call you later," he told Abdullah.Only hours later, that night, would they learn the news.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company



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