The USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. Photo: Patrick Nichols / US Navy / AFP

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wants to expand the US Foreign Military Training program, but has almost no idea how to protect the trainees or the surrounding communities.

Nor has the Defense Secretary either sought or received a report on the problems and dangers that may be inherent in the foreign military training program or even if the program always supports US foreign policy objectives.

Questions are now being asked about the program after a shooting at a military base in Florida left three dead, but most of the questions remain unanswered.

While the US training program is generally regarded as a force for good – from the US perspective – it isn’t always so. For example, the US-trained military from Mali – Foreign Policy reported that the “Malian army is now accused of massacring Arabs and Tuaregs” and other human rights abuses.

The US spent US$25 billion training the Iraqi Army, some in the United States, but it has been taken over largely by pro-Iranian Sh’ias.

The US has trained Nicaraguan soldiers, but Nicaragua is generally hostile to the United States. The US continues to back the Lebanese army and provides training despite the fact that Lebanon is largely controlled by Hezbollah, a terrorist group famous for attacking Israel and killing top US personnel in Lebanon, including the torture and murder of the CIA’s William Francis Buckley.

Since 2000 there has been an annual Foreign Military Training Report to Congress about the US training of foreign military personnel. The report is laced with praise for the program and is uncritical about its dangers and faults.

Pensacola Florida, the home of the Naval Air Base where Saudi pilot student Mohammed Alshamrani killed three fellow students, has not recovered from the attack.

The Pensacola Naval Air Station on December 6, 2019. Security is tight and the base in lockdown. Photo: AFP/Josh Brasted/Getty Images

The base remains locked down, which the Navy calls a “safety stand down and operational pause.” The US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) also instructed all military installations “to review force protection measures” and to increase “random security measures.”

But at Pensacola, there is no flying, access to the base is highly limited and civilian access to the base’s excellent Naval Aviation Museum is entirely blocked. Exactly how long rigorous security measures at Pensacola will stay in place is not known.

There are 850 Saudi students now in the United States in military training. According to locals in Pensacola, some of the Saudi students were always recognizable by the fancy and expensive cars they drove around town.

According to the Military Times, there are 5,181 foreign students from 153 countries in the United States for security cooperation training.

Investigation ongoing

The FBI is treating the Mohammed Alshamrani shooting as a “lone wolf” incident. However, there are a number of indications this assessment is wrong.

Firstly, the evidence suggests that midway through his training Second Lieutenant Alshamrani returned to Saudi Arabia for home leave. During that period, it is believed Alshamrani may have been radicalized.

Unfortunately, there is no specific evidence, only suspicion this is what happened. His family says they know nothing about radicalization and never suspected it.

Secondly, Alshamrani published statements on Twitter that were both anti-American and anti-Israeli, suggesting he intended to take action against the United States, saying “the countdown has begun.”

Such statements are typical of Islamic terrorists, and the Twitter statement was made four months before the shooting, suggesting serious early planning for the attack.

Thirdly, Alshamrani mysteriously traveled to New York three days before the shooting, where it is known he visited the 9/11 Museum telling the story of the Twin Trade Tower, Pentagon and failed US Capitol attacks where four commercial jets were hijacked for suicide attacks planned by Osama Bin Laden.

Some of the hijackers had flight training in the United States – but not military training.

Was Alshamrani’s trip just a pilgrimage to honor the 9/11 terrorists, or was the trip to meet with his handlers? No one knows and it isn’t clear if the FBI is following up on the New York visit.

Fourthly, Alshamrani exploited a loophole in Florida’s gun laws to buy the semi-automatic pistol he used in the attack. While foreigners are not allowed to buy guns in the United States, Florida made an exception for hunting.

However, handguns are not a hunting weapon, so to get a gun and not have to answer questions, a cooperative gun dealer would be needed, and seems to have been found.

It is unlikely that Alshamrani would have known how to thwart the clear intent of Federal and State law, but he did know how to go about the task and he first got a hunting license and then a gun license. It suggests he was receiving well-researched advice. From whom?

Alshamrani, like his fellow Saudi students, comes from the creme de la creme of Saudi society who are the sons of wealthy and successful Saudi families.

Many of the world’s top terrorists in past years came from either middle class or rich families, such as George Habash, the leader of the terrorist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was a doctor who graduated first in his class from medical school.

Then there was Yaser Arafat, the head of the PLO, who was university-educated and had a degree in civil engineering. Arafat came from a solid and respectable middle-class family.

The notorious Osama Bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda, was also trained as a civil engineer and in addition, had a degree in business administration. He came from a prominent and extremely wealthy family – originating in Yemen – close to the Saudi Royal family.

By contrast, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, came from a lower-middle-class family, but his father had the title of Sheikh, being a tribal and religious leader. Al-Baghdadi had a doctorate in Koran studies from Saddam University in Baghdad.

Many of Saudi Arabia’s soldiers receive training in the US. Photo: AFP/Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik

Regarding Saudi Arabia, what matters most is the Kingdom has problems within its elites that, based on what we know about Alshamrani so far, suggests there may be Islamic radicals in the Saudi military, including the Royal Saudi Air Force.

If true, if there are other radicals in the Saudi military, it could have ominous implications for the future of the Kingdom.

The US has no plans to send any of the Saudi students home or to stop taking them in the future, although it is confining Alshamrani’s fellow Saudi students to base.

Instead, there are calls for better vetting of training candidates coming to the United States, but neither the Pentagon nor anyone else has explained how this can be done, or even if it can be done.

It isn’t a secret that the United States has to rely on Saudi Arabia to vouch for the bona fides of its military students sent to the United States, in the same way the US has to rely on what military people in other countries say about their students.

There is no sign this will change or that there is any credible alternative for the training program.

Nor, it appears, is there any serious thinking about how American culture impacts foreign students who come from traditional and restrictive societies. There is a great risk that instead of being impressed by the United States, they can easily harbor resentment and anger after living there.

This means, even if everything about them checks out before they come to the United States, students from abroad could become hostile as a result of their exposure to American society.

In the meantime, the Secretary of Defense, and notwithstanding all the unanswered questions, will move to increase the overall size of the program by 50% over the next five years, unless Congress says no.

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