The Pensacola Mass Shooting and Terrorism


Earlier today [Dec 6], Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani of the Royal Saudi Airforce murdered three people and injured eight others in a mass shooting at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. Alshamrani was at the Naval Air Station learning how to fly. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are currently investigating whether Alshamrani’s mass shooting was a terrorist attack, but they have not reached a conclusion yet.

According to the Global Terrorism Database, terrorism is the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation. In other words, whether a crime is terrorism depends upon the motivation of the attacker, and his motivation isn’t known yet.

It may well turn out that Alshamrani is a terrorist, as many politicians are already claiming, but we don’t know yet. If Alshamrani’s shooting turns out to be a terrorist attack, then that raises the total number of people killed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil to 3,040, over the period from 1975 until December 6, 2019.

Using the same risk calculation I used elsewhere, this means that the annual chance of being murdered on U.S. soil in an attack committed by foreign-born terrorists during that 45-year time period is about 1 in 4 million per year. That’s the lowest chance since I’ve been tracking this.

A new development, in this case, is that Alshamrani was here as personnel in a foreign military. This means that he was likely here on an A-2 visa for foreign officials and government employees, which includes foreign military personnel at U.S. facilities. This is important as many media reports say that Alshamrani was a student, which is influencing some pundits to argue for restrictions on student visas or to make inaccurate comparisons to Saudis who trained at Florida flight schools before attacking the Twin Towers and Pentagon in 2001. This is almost certainly not true.

If it turns out that Alshamrani was a terrorist, this would be the first attack carried out by a person who entered on an A visa. Since 1997, the U.S. government has issued about 2 million A-2 visas and just under 5 percent of them have gone to Saudis. Thus, if it turns out that Alshamrani was a terrorist, there was one terrorist on an A-2 visa for every 2 million visas issued during that time and three murders – a decent track record compared to other visas (see Table 10). Immigration attorney Charles Kuck told me that, “other than running the names through the standard background check systems, there is no additional vetting done on A-2 visa holders.” I suspect that that will change regardless of whether Alshamrani is a terrorist.

There is much we don’t know about the mass shooting carried out by Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani of the Royal Saudi Air Force at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. It’s unclear whether his shooting was terrorism or inspired by another motive. As more information becomes clear, I will be updating our terrorism research appropriately.

Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street JournalUSA Today, the Washington Post, and most other major publications in the United States. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and OrganizationEconomic Affairs, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice. Alex regularly appears on Fox News, MSNBC, Bloomberg, and numerous television and radio stations across the United States. He is a coauthor of the booklet Open Immigration: Yea and Nay (Encounter Broadsides, 2014). He is a native of Southern California and received a BA in economics from George Mason University and a Master of Science in economic history from the London School of Economics.

Used with the permission of the Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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