Saudi Arabia wins dismissal of suit by relatives of dead and survivors of 2019 terrorist attack at Pensacola Naval Air Station

pensacola naval
The three sailors killed in the Pensacola Naval Air Station terrorist attack, from right to left: Cameron S. Walters, Joshua K. Watson and Mohammed Haitham.

By Dan Christensen,

A federal judge has dismissed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit seeking to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for a murderous rampage by a Royal Saudi Air Force officer at the Pensacola Naval Air Station nearly five years ago.

Three U.S. Navy servicemen – Cameron S. Walters, Joshua K. Watson and Mohammed Haitham – were shot to death and four others were severely injured in the Dec. 6, 2019 attack, as were a Navy civil servant, seven Escambia County Sheriff’s deputies and a member of the Department of Defense Police Force. Other first responders suffered less severe injuries.

The killer, Second Lt. Mohammad Saeed Al-Shamrani, was shot dead at the scene by the return gunfire of responding officers.

U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers tossed the case in a little noticed 42-page order filed March 30 in the Northern District of Florida.

“In sum, the role of the court is limited by the jurisdictional dictates set forth by Congress to protect a foreign state’s sovereignty, notwithstanding the gravity of this tragic and horrific terrorist attack,” Rodgers wrote.

U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers

Lawyers for Saudi Arabia invoked the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FISA) to argue that the kingdom was beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. Rodgers agreed, holding that Saudi Arabia is presumed to be immune and that none of the four statutory exceptions to FISA, which would allow the case to proceed toward discovery and trial, applied. Her order upheld a recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Zachary Bolitho issued nearly one year ago.


On Friday, the plaintiffs, including more than a dozen relatives of the dead and survivors, served notice of their intent to appeal Rodgers’ decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Al-Shamrani arrived at the Pensacola naval base in May 2018 to attend military and flight training provided under a Security Cooperation Education and Training Program that lets “Saudi Arabia modernize its armed forces through the purchase of equipment” from the U.S, the judge wrote.

At the time, Al-Shamrani was both a Saudi air force officer and an affiliate of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, then Attorney General Bill Barr later announced that Al-Shamrani’s unlocked phones showed he’d been in direct communication with Al Qaeda until the night before the attack.

When he suddenly attacked, he was wearing his air force uniform and carrying a semi-automatic handgun he bought in July 2019, several bullet magazines and about 180 rounds of ammunition, according to the FBI.

The shooting lasted 15 minutes. Naval Security Forces intervened eight minutes after the first shots were fired, the FBI said. Two months after the attack, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for the attack.


In their 170-page amended complaint, the Pensacola naval base plaintiffs argued that Al-Shamrani was already radicalized as a religious jihadist before undergoing “extensive” vetting in 2015 when he joined the Royal Saudi Air Force. They further alleged the kingdom allows extremism because Wahhabi clerics are employed by the government and control grade schools and universities.

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Saudi killer Mohammad Saeed Al-Shamrani

“Plaintiffs contend that this education amounted to state-sponsored indoctrination to jihadism, but there is no allegation that the Saudi government is engaged in terrorist activities or actively recruits terrorists for such activity,” the judge said.

Saudi Arabia was aware of Al-Shamrani’s anti-American sentiments, the plaintiffs’ complaint says, because he was active on Twitter and often posted comments about his fundamentalist ideology.

In January 2020, Attorney General Barr announced that 21 Saudi trainees were found to have possessed “derogatory material” containing anti-American or jihadi sentiments and at least 15 of them had “some contact with child pornography, although he determined that the conduct would not in the normal course result in federal prosecution,” Judge Rodgers’s order says.

The judge went on to say the 21 Saudi men were “immediately returned to Saudi Arabia on assurance to the Attorney General that he would have ‘full access’ to anyone he wanted to interview in the investigation and the cadets could be returned for trial if charged.”

While the judge did not mention it, the U.S. decision to allow the Saudi cadets to leave American soil when the criminal investigation was just beginning is reminiscent of the U.S. decision in September 2001 to allow members of the Saudi royal family to fly out of the country immediately after U.S. airspace reopened two days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11.


The key exception to FISA that the plaintiffs relied on to prosecute their case was JASTA, or the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The act narrowed the scope of foreign sovereign immunity to give the federal courts jurisdiction over civil claims against a foreign state for physical injury to a person or property, or death that occurs inside the United States as a result of an act of international terrorism. Courts also have jurisdiction for torts committed anywhere by an official, agent or employee of a foreign state acting within the scope of their employment.

Judge Rodgers wrote that the “heart of the dispute” was about “whether a tortious act (not an omission or negligence) of/by Saudi Arabia or an employee or agent of Saudi Arabia while acting within their scope of employment caused the Plaintiffs’ harm.”

The plaintiffs argued that Al-Shamrani was acting with the scope of his employment “because his work provided him access to the place where the attack occurred, and he believed he was serving the interests of Saudi Arabia due to his state-indoctrinated extremist religious beliefs.”

But the judge, like the magistrate before her, rejected those arguments and found that Al-Shamrani’s acts “were not within the scope of his employment because they were committed for his own personal religious extremist purposes.”

So unless the appeals court rules differently, the plaintiffs will obtain no compensation for their losses from Saudi Arabia.

And that’s apparently despite an announcement by then President Donald Trump shortly after the attack and cited in the complaint that “King [Salman] and Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] had agreed to ‘be involved in taking care of the families’ ” and stating, “I think they are going to help out the families very greatly.”

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Latest comments

  • Tragic decision. Godspeed the appeals by all. Incomprehensible that killer was even here, on precious American soil, and cleared for ‘training’. My deepest condolences to the family and friends of the three sailors and all injured and died that fateful day.
    DeSantis where are you on this ruling please?

  • Trump lied, anyone suprised?

  • Total negligence by DOD and FBI to let this snake into the US. But theres millions more in country as sleeper assassins and saboteurs. We are on our own. The biggest enemy we face is the Communist US Government. Our government. Saudies did 9-11. And this. Now Biden wants to give them Nukes. The American people are the only force that can save the country, and that wont be a cakewalk. Civil wars never are.

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