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DOJ says 21 Saudi trainees being expelled from U.S. over jihadist, child porn content

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Attorney General William Barr announced an update in the investigation of the deadly shooting last month at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla. He said Monday: "This was an act of terrorism."
Attorney General William Barr announced an update in the investigation of the deadly shooting last month at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla. He said Monday: "This was an act of terrorism."
Jacquelyn Martin | AP

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced Monday that 21 Saudi military cadets studying at U.S. military bases are being sent back to their home country after an investigation found the students had viewed or shared jihadist posts and child pornography online.

The announcement comes a month after a Saudi national opened fire in a classroom at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., killing three young sailors and wounding eight others.

"This was an act of terrorism." Barr said, adding that the shooter was "motivated by jihadist ideology."

Federal authorities said Monday that investigators have not identified any co-conspirators. The gunman does not appear to have been acted on behalf of any terrorist organization.

"Social media attributed to the shooter suggests that he harbored anti-U.S. military and anti-Israel sentiments," said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich. "And that he thought violence was necessary to defend Muslim countries."

The incident renewed scrutiny on foreign military exchange programs. Some 850 Saudi trainees currently study alongside U.S. military under such programs, but federal officials halted all Saudis training in the U.S. in the wake of the shooting.

Of the 21 Saudis now in the process of being removed from the U.S., investigators found that 17 had shared social media posts that were either jihadist or anti-American in nature, Barr said.

About 15 individuals, had "some kind of contact" with child pornography, Barr noted.

The move by the U.S. was made in consultation with the Saudi government, which agreed that the cadets' links to anti-American content and child pornography was grounds for expulsion.

Barr said federal prosecutors did not find that any of the material unearthed or actions by the 21 Saudi trainees rose to the level of criminal charges in the U.S.

"However, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia determined that this material demonstrated conduct unbecoming an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force and in the Royal Navy. And the 21 cadets have been disenrolled from their training curriculum from the U.S. military and will be returning to Saudi Arabia later today," Barr said Monday.

On Sunday, NPR reported that more than 20 Saudi nationals would be expelled from the U.S. military exchange program after investigators uncovered the links to the extremist and pornographic content.

Prior to the shooting in Pensacola, Barr said, the gunman made statements critical of American military actions overseas. Witnesses said during the shooting on Dec. 6, which lasted about 15 minutes, the shooter fired at photographs of President Trump and former U.S. presidents. The gunman was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy.

Investigators recovered a semi-automatic handgun with an extended magazine from the scene. The weapon, Barr said, had been legally purchased.

Barr also said federal authorities are struggling to gain access to digital evidence on two Apple phones used by the gunman, despite having court orders to be able to review the phones.

"It is very important for us to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died," Barr said. "We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooters' phones. So far, Apple has not given any substantive assistance."

Apple has said it would not assist the Justice Department by turning over private information on the gunman's phones on messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Signal.

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