(CNSNews.com) – Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday reacted cautiously to claims that Saudi officers at a U.S. naval base in Florida had filmed a compatriot shooting Americans, saying it was still unclear whether they began doing so before the deadly attack began, or only once they saw it underway.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Esper conceded that that was a “distinction with or without a difference,” but said it was important to await findings in the investigation.
Fox News’ Chris Wallace said it surely was not “normal” to react to a live shooting incident by filming it. Esper replied, “You know, today, people pull out their phones and film everything and anything that happens.”
A Saudi air force second lieutenant identified as Mohammed Alshamrani shot and killed three U.S. Navy sailors and wounded eight other people at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Friday, before he was himself shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy.
The FBI said Sunday the incident was being treated as a terrorist attack.
“We are – as we do in most active-shooter investigations, work with the presumption that this was an act of terrorism,” FBI special agent-in-charge Rachel Rojas told reporters, adding that investigators were “working tirelessly” to determine whether any “ideology” may have been a factor.
She said no arrests have been made, and that Saudi officers – who are at the base for aviation training – were cooperating in the investigation.
Rojas declined to comment on reports that some of the Saudis had filmed the shooting.
“As much as I would like to answer any questions about the videos or any other presumption information that’s out there, my goal is not to continue the misinformation campaign,” she said. “I’m here to just continue to gather facts. There’s a lot of review, there’s a lot of follow-up information that needs to be done. So as soon as that information has been vetted, and is accurate, and it can be shared, it will be.”
Rojas was then pressed on whether the claims of the shooting being filmed were in fact “misinformation” and invited to clear up the issue by a simple confirmation or denial, but she would not be drawn.
Esper, however, confirmed having been told about filming.
“Some were detained – friends of [the shooter] that were also on that base, as I understand it,” Esper told Wallace. “And I also was told that some, one or two, were filming it. What’s unclear is, were they filming it before it began or was it something where they picked up their phones and filmed it once they saw it unfolding?”
“That may be a distinction with or without a difference, but again, that’s why I think we need to let the investigation play out,” he added.
“But I mean, that would not be a normal response – to film one of your colleagues who’s shooting Americans,” said Wallace.
“I don’t know, I’m not trying to pass a judgment on it at this point in time,” Esper said. “You know, today, people pull out their phones and film everything and anything that happens.”
Rojas in Pensacola disclosed that Alshamrani had used a Glock 45 9-mm handgun, which had been legally obtained.
U.S. investigators were working with “every single international and domestic partner” to probe his background in Saudi Arabia.
She made it clear that no Saudis – or anyone else – were in U.S. custody in connection with the shooting.
“A lot of the individuals that were on base are cooperating with their Saudi official government and they have been instructed to follow their commander’s leads. They are on base and they continue to assist us in answering our investigative questions.”
She disputed reports saying that some individuals were unaccounted for, saying the FBI was working closely with the U.S. Navy, which has “confirmed to us that they have 100 percent accountability of all international students from NAS Pensacola.”
‘Tolerate Islamic values’
President Trump spoke to Saudi King Salman on Friday. He tweeted afterwards that Salman had “said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter.”
Over the weekend Saudi ministers and entities issued statements deploring the shooting and stressing it had nothing to do with Islam.
Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif al-Sheikh said Alshamrani did not represent the Saudi people or “the noble Islamic religion which is a divine religion that brought mercy, justice and goodness to all of humanity without distinction.”
In separate statements the Muslim World League, the speaker of the Shura Council, the Council of Senior Scholars, and Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) espoused the kingdom’s “moderate” and “tolerant Islamic values.”
“Islam and all Muslims have no relation to such category of people,” said MWL secretary-general Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa. According to the official SPA news agency he stressed “that criminal delinquency has no religion or nationality.”
The 57-year-old Mecca-based MWL has been accused of religious bigotry, and of spreading the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi brand of Islam through mosques and schools.