By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The families of three murdered U.S. Navy servicemen and eight others wounded when a Saudi Air Force officer with “significant ties to al-Qaeda” opened fire at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 2019 cannot sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for damages, a federal magistrate ruled Thursday.
Magistrate Zachary Bolitho explained his decision in a 64-page report and recommendation to Pensacola U.S. District Judge Margaret Rodgers, who will now make the final call on whether to grant Saudi Arabia’s motion to dismiss the case against it.
Lawyers for Saudi Arabia invoked the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to assert the claim that as a foreign sovereign nation it is beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. Magistrate Bolitho agreed.
Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) Second Lt. Mohammed Al-Shamrani was stationed at Pensacola to complete training from the U.S. military under a “Security Cooperation and Education” program on Dec. 6, 2019. At 6:42 a.m., Al-Shamrani walked into Building 633, used to train aviators since World War II, in uniform and carrying a 9mm handgun and ammunition in his flight bag.
He quickly pulled his gun and began shooting, chanting “Allahu Akbar,” an Islamic phrase meaning “God is Great,” throughout his attack across two floors of classrooms.
THE DEAD AND WOUNDED
Killed were Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, of Coffee, AL; Airman Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, GA, and Airman Mohammed “Mo” Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg.
Wounded were Airman George Johnson, Ensign Breanna Thomas, Airman Ryan Blackwell, Ms. Jessica Pickett and Ensign Kristy Lehmer. Three law-enforcement officers were also wounded in a brief gun battle before Al-Shamrani was shot and killed.
According to the magistrate’s report, Saudi Arabia “immediately denounced Al-Shamrani’s actions” and the FBI investigated with the kingdom’s “complete and total support.” Al-Shamrani’s cell phone soon revealed his “significant ties to al-Qaeda.”
The U.S. Navy also investigated, issuing a 267-page report declaring that the “self-radicalization of Al-Shamrani was “the primary cause” of the attack and that “no one person or organization knew or could have known” of the killer’s plan to attack.
The magistrate’s report says investigators also determined that just before the attack Al-Shamrani used Twitter to send “a series of anti-American messages that included the following: ‘I hate you because every day you [sic] supporting, funding and committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity. I am against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil.’ ”
PLAINTIFF’S ALLEGATIONS DISCOUNTED
The report notes, without comment, the plaintiffs’ allegation that the Saudi officer supervising Al-Shamrani knew he’d been carrying a handgun on base – something that violated both U.S. and RSAF policy – yet took no action.
Further, it recounts other allegations by the plaintiffs.
First, that a month before the attack Al-Shamrani and other RSAF trainees made an unauthorized visit the 9/11 Memorial in New York City where the plaintiffs allege they “praised the 9/11 hijackers and discussed plans for launching” the Pensacola attack. Second, that at dinner the night before the attack, Al-Shamrani and other Saudi trainees discussed plans to attack the next morning.
Magistrate Bolitho, however, discounted those allegations, writing that both the U.S. Navy and the FBI concluded that none of the other Saudi trainees was aware of the planned attack.
His report says that based on the FBI’s probe, which concluded that Al-Shamrani’s attack was motivated by his “jihadist ideology,” then-Attorney General William Barr announced that there was “no evidence of assistance or pre-knowledge of the attack” by other Saudi Air Force members training in the U.S.
Nearly three dozen survivors and family members of the deceased filed a 172-page complaint alleging that Al-Shamrani was a “Trojan Horse sent by…the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its proxy, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula…under the auspices of a program tied to billions of dollars in military arms sales from the United States” to Saudi Arabia, the report says.
The plaintiffs argued the federal court has jurisdiction over Saudi Arabia based on several exceptions to the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, including the exception provided for by Congress when it passed, over President Obama’s veto, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) in 2016 “in part to allow suits against Saudi Arabia for the September 11 attacks.”
Indeed, JASTA’s passage resurrected a massive, ongoing New York civil lawsuit against Saudi Arabia brought by 9/11 victims.
TERRORISM WASN’T IN ‘AL-SHAMRANI’S JOB DESCRIPTION’
But Magistrate Bolitho, applying Florida law, determined that Al-Shamrani was not acting within the scope of his employment when he attacked.
“Have Plaintiffs produced evidence showing that Al-Shamrani’s terrorist attack was the type of conduct Saudi Arabia employed him to perform? The answer is: No. Saudi Arabia employed Al-Shamrani to serve its national defense by flying airplanes and operating weapons systems as a member of its air force. It is undisputed that the U.S. is one of Saudi Arabia’s most important military allies,” Bolitho wrote. “Plaintiffs have not sufficiently shown that jeopardizing an important strategic relationship by causing a disastrous diplomatic incident was within Al-Shamrani’s job description.”
While it may not have been disputed in court, it is common knowledge that numerous public officials disagree with the magistrate’s assessment of the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S., including Florida’s former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.
“Saudi Arabia has been shown to be a perfidious ally,” Graham, the former co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, told Florida Bulldog in 2016.
Further, the magistrate also ruled that the plaintiffs’ contention that Saudi Arabia acted with negligence and gross negligence in its vetting, retaining and supervising of Al-Shamrani also failed because they are claims based on the kingdom’s omissions. “And the JASTA exception provides that a ‘foreign state shall not be subject to the jurisdiction of the courts of the United states (under JASTA) on the basis of an omission or a tortious act or acts that constitute mere negligence.’”
“Plaintiffs here have provided vague, conclusory, and unsubstantiated allegations of indirect support by Saudi Arabia. What the Court has before it is insufficient to support a finding that the Saudi Arabian government provided material support to terrorism and that support proximately caused the NAS-P attack.”