Military

Pensacola shooting, treated as terror; Many US troops think Russia’s an ally; N.Korean test; U.S. leaders’ Afghanistan lies; And a bit more.

The FBI has opened a terrorism investigation into Friday’s deadly shooting at Pensacola’s Naval Air Station that killed four people, including the attacker. The incident was the second deadly shooting at a U.S. naval base in less than a week. (A sailor shot three civilians on Wednesday at Pearl Harbor; two of them died before the shooter then killed himself.) 

What we know about the gunman: He was a Saudi Air Force trainee identified as 21-year-old Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, the New York Times reported this weekend. He “came to the U.S. in 2017 as part of a Pentagon-approved sale of military hardware to Saudi Arabia,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “His training was due to last until August 2020.”

For the record: “There are 852 Saudi military service members now studying and training in the U.S.,” and they are among a wider group of “5,181 foreign students from 153 countries” on a similar training path, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn told the Journal separately on Sunday.

Said U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday: “I guess we’re going to have to look into the whole procedure. We’ll start that immediately.”

Shortly before the attack, Alshamrani went on Twitter “to blast U.S. support of Israel and accuse America of being anti-Muslim,” AP reported. U.S.“investigators [also] believe the gunman visited New York City, including Rockefeller Center, days before the shooting and are working to determine the purpose of the trip.” 

Saudi authorities are reportedly looking into whether he “was radicalized during a trip back to the kingdom that began late last year,” according to the Journal. The Times notes “Alshamrani showed videos of mass shootings at a dinner party” held the night before he opened fire at the naval base. 

Several friends of the gunman have also been detained, and “one or two were filming” the attack as it happened, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

Said Esper: “I don’t know. I’m not trying to pass a judgment on this at this point in time. You know today, people pull out their phones and film everything and anything that happens.”

Esper has ordered a review of “our vetting procedures within DoD for all the many foreign nationals that come, with good reason, to our country to train,” he said Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California.

The shooting may have also exposed a “federal loophole” in how foreigners can acquire weapons inside the U.S., Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Sunday. That’s because the shooter “used a Glock 9 mm weapon that had been purchased legally in Florida,” AP reports

The names of those killed in Friday’s attack:

  • Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, Ala.; 
  • Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, from St. Petersburg, Fla.; 
  • and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, from Richmond Hill, Ga.

From Defense One

The Space Force Appears Cleared For Launch // Marcus Weisgerber: Lawmakers hint that bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act will create a new military branch.

Amazon’s Bezos Hits Silicon Valley For Not Working With Pentagon // Marcus Weisgerber: His comments come as his company fights to wrest DOD’s giant cloud contract from Microsoft.

Federal Bill Would Constrain Some Police Use of Facial-Recognition Tools // Patrick Tucker: A 72-hour limit on tracking individuals would become the first, and somewhat arbitrary, federal line in the sand.

The Defense Digital Service Opens a Georgia Satellite Office // Courtney Bublé, Government Executive: Located near the Army’s Fort Gordon and its Cyber Command, Tatooine is the service’s first facility outside Washington, D.C.

CBP Reverses Course on Mandatory Facial Scans for US Citizens / Aaron Boyd: After criticism from Congress and privacy advocates, the border security agency says it will pull back a proposed rule change.

Today, Everyone’s a Nuclear Spy / Amy Zegart: Nuclear intelligence isn’t just for government agencies anymore. Self-appointed watchdogs are finding creative ways to foil regimes that pursue atomic weapons.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1793, New York’s first daily newspaper was published under the title American Minerva. Its goal: to contain “the earliest intelligence, collected from the most authentic sources.” Its first editor, Noah Webster (yes, that one), started the effort in part “to discourage the French influence in the U.S.,” according to the Paris Review’s context for this fateful day. Bonus: The 1790s saw newspapers grow at four times the rate of the U.S. population, according to historian Jeffrey Pasley. One result of all this: the Sedition Act was signed into law in 1798, which made defaming the country’s second president, John Adams, a federal crime. Read more about this defining era of both newspapers and U.S. history in either Pasley’s book above, or via historian Jill Lepore writing for the New Yorker in 2009, here.


North Korea may have tested a new rocket engine on Saturday. Satellite images appear to show ground disturbed at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in the northwest, “where North Korea has conducted banned satellite launches and missile engine tests in recent years,” AP reports, citing North Korean statements and Arms Control Wonk Jeffrey Lewis. 
The test comes as Kim Jong Un ups the pressure on Donald Trump to return to nuclear talks with concessions by year’s end. North Korean officials returned to insults, calling Trump a “heedless and erratic old man” who is running scared, a separate AP report said.
The test is likely related to a satellite-launch vehicle, not an ICBM, according to Kim Dae-young, an analyst at South Korea’s Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. AP: “The fact that North Korea hasn’t revealed what kind of test it conducted also indicates the country is still interested in diplomacy with the United States.”
Background: USDPRK talks collapsed in Stockholm in October. “Little was known about what North Korea and the United States specifically sought and offered during that meeting,” Reuters writes in an explainer. “But Pyongyang has been demanding U.S. corresponding action to its proposed dismantling of a nuclear testing venue, including the lifting of crippling sanctions.”

The Russian military just entered Raqqa, Syria, “in one of the starkest examples yet of how Moscow has filled the vacuum created by President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria,” Reuters reports today from Moscow. This new backfilling is on top of the former U.S. helicopter base the Defense Department abandoned hastily in October. A bit more from Reuters, here.

From the region: Nearly a dozen rockets have hit Iraqi air bases over the past week, including four today that landed next to Baghdad International Airport, Reuters reports
As well: Turkey says it just deported 11 French terrorism suspects, including four women and seven children, Reuters reports separately today. 
By the way: Get to better Turkey’s military drones, since they’re “an export product that’s disrupting NATO,” as Dan Gettinger of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last week.

Nearly half of military respondents say Russia’s an ally, according to a public-opinion survey released by the Reagan Foundation last week, Voice of America reports. The same is believed by 28% of all respondents, up from 19% last year. 
This would appear to be a remarkable information-warfare victory for a country that seized Crimea in 2014, interfered with the U.S. general election, and is continuing to inject propaganda into Americans’ socialmedia feeds.
VOA: “Russian efforts to weaken the West through a relentless campaign of information warfare may be starting to pay off, cracking a key bastion of the U.S. line of defense: the military…nearly half of armed services households questioned, 46%, said they viewed Russia as ally.” Read on, here.
Trump will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Russian officials tell Reuters. The U.S. president has famously sided with Lavrov’s boss, Vladimir Putin, in rejecting the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in his election, and declined to publicly warn Moscow to cease and desist its present efforts.

Happening today in Paris: a four-nation summit to end the war in Ukraine. AP reports: “The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are holding a series of meetings at the Elysee presidential palace to try to revive a 2015 peace deal that’s been largely ignored.” 
But don’t hold your breath since “A major breakthrough at the summit is unlikely,” AP writes, “and Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv are heaping pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy not to surrender too much to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their first face-to-face meeting.” Read on, here

The Afghanistan papers. Thanks to some FOIA work from the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, we can now see for ourselves “more than 2,000 pages of interviews and memos [that] reveal a secret history” of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan…and how the whole thing has been going pretty poorly for quite a while now. 
For what it’s worth: “The World Bank has warned that the war-stricken country will still require billions of dollars in international aid over many years after a peace deal to deliver basic services and sustain any potential peace,” the New York Times reported Friday. That, here.

And finally today: China’s judicial system already features “artificial-intelligence judges, cyber-courts, and verdicts delivered on chat apps,” AFP reported Friday. It’s all part of Beijing’s effort to encourage “digitization to streamline case-handling.” 
See for yourself what a case looks like as it’s heard by an AI judge, here.
On that note: Researchers are finding that “AI programs can be sabotaged by even subtle tweaks to the data used to train them,” WIRED reported around Thanksgiving. Read over some of that research, here.



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