At least a dozen Saudi military trainees in the United States could be sent back to their home country after an FBI investigation found connections to extremist rhetoric, possession of child pornography, and a failure by a small number of people to report alarming behavior by the gunman who killed three people last month at a Pensacola, Fla., military base, according to people familiar with the matter.
Federal law enforcement and military officials are preparing to announce developments in the case in a matter of days. The FBI has been treating the shooting as a terrorist incident, particularly after discovering an anti-American screed posted by the gunman just before the December shooting, according to the people familiar with the matter. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss decisions by government officials.
Several of the Saudis were found to possess child pornography, while others were found to have been a part of a social media conversation that included alarming support for extremism, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department and a spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment. The planned expulsions of the Saudi trainees were first reported by CNN.
Lt. Col. Robert Carver, a Defense Department spokesman, said: “In the wake of the Pensacola tragedy, the Department of Defense restricted to classroom training programs foreign military students from Saudi Arabia while we conducted a review and enhancement of our foreign student vetting procedures. That training pause is still in place while we implement new screening and security measures.”
He referred questions about the program students to the Justice Department.
The Saudi government has been cooperative in the FBI investigation, even going so far as to help U.S. investigators link particular social media accounts to individuals, according to a U.S. official.
The Pensacola gunman, a Royal Saudi Air Force member, was training at the base in December when he used a legally purchased 9mm handgun to go on a rampage, authorities have said. He was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy.
Investigators believe the gunman posted a screed on Twitter expressing hatred of U.S. foreign policy and military action, according to a law enforcement official.
It is still unclear if a technical complication in the investigation could delay a final resolution of the FBI’s work.
Earlier this past week, the FBI sent a letter to Apple, asking for the company’s help to open two iPhones that belonged to the Pensacola gunman. Apple has resisted any efforts to alter the encryption on their phones to make it possible for the company to give government investigators access to the data on such phones, saying to do so would weaken the security of all their customers’ devices.
“Even though the shooter is dead, the FBI, out of an abundance of caution, has secured court authorization to search the contents of the phones in order to exhaust all leads in this high priority national security investigation,” wrote FBI General Counsel Dana Boente.
“Unfortunately, FBI has been unable to access the contents of the phones,” the letter said, even after asking private technology experts if they could help agents crack them. “None of those reachouts has shown us a path forward.”
In a statement, Apple said it had already helped FBI agents on the Pensacola case by sharing relevant data in its cloud storage. Apple and other companies have said that encryption on phones is an important safeguard protecting millions of consumers against hackers and other criminals.
The courts have yet to rule whether companies such as Apple can be forced to change their business practices to give law enforcement agents access to phones and other devices.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.