Saudi behind Navy base rampage appeared to live a double life on social media. Why were red flags missed?
Posted December 10, 2019 10:16 a.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2019 10:23 a.m. EST
CNN — Mohammad al-Shamrani has over 2,700 tweets under his name. While the alleged killer's motivations remain a mystery, newly-obtained information about his social media presence offers clues about his mindset before his lethal shooting spree last week at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida.
The Saudi Air Force officer was killed after shooting dead three US Navy sailors and injuring eight others on Dec. 5. Until then, his apparent tweets dating back to July suggest that he was a man torn between two worlds: professionally training with Americans, while engrossing himself in radical views that would risk getting him locked up at home.
The Twitter account in his name, @M7md_Shamrani, is riddled with retweets of anti-American and increasingly religious sentiment. One thing that marks him out from other Saudis his age is the unusual absence of admiring content about Saudi Arabia's King and Crown Prince, and a consistent interest in groups and individuals considered terrorists by the Kingdom.
Sent minutes before authorities were alerted to the attack, the account's last tweet recites al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and its Yemeni-born American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Earlier tweets also show support for the Muslim Brotherhood, political Islamists who don't officially espouse violence but are also listed as a terror organization by many Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.
CNN has obtained information from a 28-minute screen recording by a Saudi activist and blogger known only as @ZHRANCO which shows the past six months of the Twitter page @M7md_Shamrani.
Although CNN was unable to verify the authenticity of the account, a source familiar with the case told CNN that authorities have found an account with a name similar to the shooter's and are viewing it as connected to al-Shamrani. CNN was able to match screen grabs it took of @M7md_Shamrani's account, with the video, before the account was suspended.
@ZHRANCO seeks to document instances of "religion being used as a tool of trade" by those who wish to "brain-wash" Arabs, according to his website. He told CNN he recorded and analyzed the page that he believed belonged to al-Shamrani after the shooting, because he expected Twitter to take it down.
"Of course I care about the incident," he said. "Because as a Saudi national I understand the negative impacts that such incidents have on every religion and country," he added.
Twitter spokeswoman Aly Pavela confirmed to CNN that the account was suspended, saying, "That's all we have to share."
According to @ZHRANCO's recording, the @M7md_Shamrani account shows support for controversial figures who did not support the Saudi monarchy and were detained for their religious views. These include Hakem al-Mutairi, a religious scholar and Secretary General of Saudi Arabia's al-Ummah party with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood -- both groups banned in the kingdom.
@M7md_Shamrani even retweets a video posted by al-Mutairi -- who has 1.1 million followers on Twitter -- with the caption: "O free Iranians, changing the sectarian regime in Iran is the life-jacket to save the Iranian people and the Arab region which has had its treasures depleted, millions killed and displaced for the sake of the western campaign of colonization run by this criminal regime in cooperation with the American occupier in Iraq and the Russians in Syria."
Sentiments like this may not seem uncommon among young Saudis, but when examining their source, a different picture emerges. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, al-Ummah's goals are "to establish an Islamic society, remove foreign troops from the Gulf's region, implement Islamic law, and support political pluralism" -- views that are in-line with those of al Qaeda.
A week before the shooting, the account also posted an excerpt of writings by Saudi writer Ibrahim al-Sakran, who was detained in 2016 for his anti-Saudi comments. The text attacks Western institutions and motives: "As for the third face -- the third face of Western civilization is a truly dark one. Western political imperialist colonial institutions suck the treasures of other nations, with no ethical boundaries before their interests. They are democratic and transparent in internal policies but usually dictatorial and opaque in their foreign policies."
Yet in the midst of his stream of religious postings, just a few weeks before the shooting, in October, the account begins to switch between personas, interspersing tweets that revel in the exploits of a former Saudi F-15 fighter pilot. CNN has confirmed that al-Shamrani was undergoing training during the beginning and end of that month.
It retweeted an episode of an aviation podcast about F-15s featuring a former Saudi pilot officer. The tweet in question talks about how a principle in aviation called "Dead Reckoning" can apply to real world political situations. Again in October, the account retweets the same former pilot, who also told CNN he was not aware that an account likely belonging to al-Shamrani had retweeted him. The pilot chose not to be named because he has no authority to speak to the media said he did not know al-Shamrani.
The account-holder also tweets happily in English simply: "#every20minutes Operation Check :)". According to the Federal Aviation Authority, an operational check is "An 'in motion' or 'power on' test for determining that an item of equipment will operate at a specified performance level".
These personality flips are dramatic -- a far cry from the account's August retweet of a quote from an account with the name of now-dead cleric Shaikh Hamood al-Shoaibi: "Without jihad, how could Muslims protect themselves." Shaikh Hamood al-Shoabi, who died in 2001, was seen as a radical by the Saudis. According to Carnegie, he was "part of a network that heavily influenced al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s as well as the transnational jihadi movement".
Speaking to CNN on Friday, al-Shamrani's uncle said there was "nothing" in his nephew's behavior that indicated he was about to commit the attack. Mohammad "was likable and mannered towards his family and the community," the uncle said.
If the account did belong to al-Shamrani, it is notable that he managed to blend in in real life, immersing himself in his career as a professional aviator, while maintaining an entirely different persona online, far from a typical pro-government air force pilot-in-training.
A law enforcement source tells CNN that al-Shamrani was vetted upon entry to the US and his background checked again after the shooting "with nothing of concern found".
CNN military analyst John Kirby, a former Navy rear admiral, says foreign students have to have certain military clearances.
In retrospect, it's remarkable that many of his apparent tweets went unnoticed, perhaps, by the same authorities that are now scrambling to figure out how this happened.
While Saudi officials have expressed condolences and emphasized that al-Shamrani does not represent Saudi Arabia, it seems that he slipped under their radar somehow. CNN has repeatedly reached out to the Saudi authorities for a comment.