A lawsuit filed last year accuses the Saudi Arabian government of completely failing to prevent an extremist from their military from coming to the United States and committing a terrorist attack in Pensacola, Florida. The attack happened on a military base where the extremist was part of a joint program between the US and Saudi Arabia, and left three people dead and many others wounded. Ring of Fire’s Farron Cousins talks with attorney Chris Paulos about the litigation.


*This transcript was generated by a third-party transcription software company, so please excuse any typos.

Farron Cousins:                  So Chris, take us back to the beginning with this, you know, December 6th, 2019, Pensacola NAS. Tell us what happened that day.

Chris Paulos:                        So on December 6th, 2019 in Pensacola, Florida, second Lieutenant Mohammed Alshamrani, a flight officer with the Royal Saudi air force, who was in the United States as part of an international military training program, entered NAS Pensacola Naval Air Station Pensacola through a secured gate and proceeded did to go to building 633, which was the building where international military students trained hand in hand with US military personnel. He entered the building with his flight bag, in full flight uniform, with a high powered Glock handgun and hundreds of rounds of, of ammunition and extended capacity magazines. He actually used his familiarity with the building, as well as those who were inside the buildings, a knowledge of him and awareness of him as a student there to walk around the building for a few minutes to see where people were located and, and to reconnoiter the, the scene. After he had gone through the building and determined where people were located, he removed a handgun from his flight bag and executed two Navy personnel that were at the command desk in the building.

After shooting those individuals, he then proceeded to walk through the building methodically firing his weapon at other victims in the building, at photographs of the president vice president that were on the wall and at other American and military emblems and continued to do that for several minutes until he was engaged, first engaged by Navy security personnel and DOD police. Shortly after that, well, during that engagement, he did shoot at least one military police officer, DOD security officer captain Charles Hogue was shot and then the Escambia county Sheriff’s office in Pensacola police department arrived on scene and approximately five to six Sheriff’s officers entered the building and engaged Alshamrani in gunfight. There multiple officers were shot during that engagement, but ultimately, Alshamrani became cornered and was then neutralized by Escambia county Sheriff’s officers. So that attack, it took about 15 minutes in, in its entirety to unfold. But during that brief time period, Alshamrani killed at least three people and severely wounded another five to six. And ultimately shot, wounded, killed and injured up to 13 individuals in the building that day.

Farron Cousins:                  And, you know, this is obviously, hugely personal for all of us, you know, this, this happened about, you know, maybe 10 minutes away from where our studio is, 10 minutes from where your law firm is. You know, that, that morning I remember driving into the studio and had to pull over because there was this massive cadre of police cars, you know, whizzing by sirens on, there was about eight of them. And, you know, at the time I had no idea, I just thought, oh my God, you know, obviously something is happening somewhere. This is not usual. And then to, to get into the office and, and start looking at news and realize, oh my God, why are we in the news here? And then of course it all, it all comes out and, and this was horrifying. And unfortunately, I know at the time this did gain kind of national attention, but it, it, it really in the news media seemed to kind of fall by the wayside and it shouldn’t have. Because as a lawsuit, you know, that, that you are working on has claimed here, this involvement, you know, the liability for this goes way beyond just this shooter. This was not just a guy who decided to wake up one day and say, I’m going to start shooting these people at this military base. This guy had been radicalized and, and all signs point to Saudi Arabia, you know, just completely overlooking any of that. Am I getting that right?

Chris Paulos:                        Yeah. You are. I mean, first this should have never have happened. It was easily preventable, first and foremost, by Saudi Arabia, and the series of events and the, and the circumstances that led up to it, were entirely within Saudi Arabia’s control and within its duty as a, as a purported ally and partner in this international military student training program, as well as the multiple contracts worth billions of dollars that this individual’s presence in the United States was part in parcel to. What, as you pointed out in, in what you just said, Alshamrani, according to our own federal bureau of investigation and, and, and government, had radicalized prior to ever joining the Saudi military. Apparently had been in contact with, and was following extremists online and otherwise in Saudi Arabia prior to enlisting with its military there.

Shortly after he joined the military, he had communicated to friends and family that he had been selected for a special mission, which my understanding at the time, certainly didn’t include the, the selection for him to be part of the international military student program. The individuals that Saudi Arabia sends here for that type of training are supposed to be the best of the best. They’re supposed to be thoroughly vetted by Saudi Arabia prior to being selected as a candidate for that type of training and passed over to the, the United States government to be permitted into the country. And in hindsight, and then what the investigation has, has detailed and determined is that Alshamrani did not hide his extremist leanings or his connections. He was active on Twitter.

He followed radicalized clerics that are frequently followed by Salafi-jihadists and, and other extremists and particularly those that are adherence to Al-Qaeda’s core mission, which essentially is attacking and destroying Western interests and in, in particular Americans. So the, the, the red flags were there well before he ever joined the Saudi military. He should never have been permitted to join the Saudi military. However, what’s also known and what’s established is that extremist ideologies, anti-American, anti-Israel and violent Jihadi viewpoints are percolating through the ranks of the Saudi military. What has been established is that the, the Saudi ministry of defense publishes a, a military member magazine, much like the stars and stripes publication for our military members. They publish a magazine called the Muslim soldier. And in that magazine there are routine articles that are written by, or that quote or cite extreme, extremist clerics, extremist viewpoints. Our complaints cites just one example of that, which was a magazine, a volume of that magazine that was published prior to Alshamrani’s arrival here in the United States.

But certainly during the time that he was in the military and would have access to this magazine, where clerics are being, clerics who have followed and, and, and, and supported by Al-Qaeda, and that Al-Qaeda uses to justify their position and their, and their actions directly in this magazine. And, and the, the, this is something that, that was clearly promoted to the rank and file of the, the Saudi military at the time that, that, Alshamrani was a member. So there’s, there was no disconnect between his personal views and, and his commitment to these extremist ideologies and with what was being reverberated in, in the military that, the Saudi military that he joined. I, I think he probably found that he was in line with what the military, the Saudi military had promoted through its own publications and, and fostering of ideas amongst its, its members.

So there ,there’s that. I mean, he was primed to, to, to reach that extreme viewpoint and he was certainly primed to act upon it by the, the ideologies that have been allowed to, to fought, be fostered in, in the Saudi military. What we also know is that Alshamrani had acted very suspiciously leading up to the, the attack. And what we have determined is that the individual that had what was his direct commander or officer above him, which is called a country liaison officer or a CLO, it’s a, another Saudi military member. The country liaison officer was responsible for checking in with his subordinates. He was responsible for performing routine inspections of barracks and knowing the whereabouts at all times of, of his subordinate officers. That country liaison officer essentially went AWOL in July of 2019, left NAS, left Pensacola entirely, traveled back to Saudi Arabia.

And then did come back in September, but never stepped foot on the base, never performed the required routine inspections of the barracks, which had he, he highly, it was, there’s a high probability that he would’ve uncovered the large quantities of ammunition that Alshamrani had stockpiled, the high capacity magazines that he had, as well as the handgun that he had to have been keeping in, in his barracks at, at, at that time. He was in possession of that handgun for months before he committed the attack. And he also would’ve known that Alshamrani and two other, at least two other Saudi officers had taken unauthorized leave in November, the weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, just prior to the attack. Traveled to New York city and actually visited the 9/11 Memorial site there. And that’s something that he did not, that Alshamrani and his fellow soldiers did not get approval for as required, and that would’ve been known by the country liaison officer had he been at his post.

So, you know, these circumstances suggest that Alshamrani’s ideological viewpoint as well as his conduct and behavior leading up to the, the attack, was known by his fellow Saudi soldiers and also should have been known by his, his commanding officer and, and the officer that had primary responsibility for him here in the United States. The other kind of damning fact we have is that prior, the night before the attack was committed, Alshamrani in his, in his barracks, in his, in his housing, hosted a dinner party for his fellow Saudi officers at which, during this party they were watching videos online of other mass shootings, mass attacks and, and rampages during this dinner party, which certainly is a violation of a code of conduct for a military officer, whether it be in the United States or the, the, the Saudi military and should have been reported by his fellow officers and, and other Saudi soldiers and was not. So, it, it, it’s, it’s clear to us that the, that this, that Alshamrani’s actions were, were likely discoverable and had likely been discovered by those who should have reported his behavior and his conduct and they did not. So.

Farron Cousins:                  Right.

Chris Paulos:                        This, this tragedy, it was entirely preventable and those that had primary responsibility to prevent it, didn’t, and that was the Saudi government.

Farron Cousins:                  So you have filed a lawsuit, you know, on, on behalf of the victims here and their families, and you and I have spoken about this, but you have to tell this part of the story too, because this is truly disturbing. That lawsuit was filed I believe back in February of last year. So we’re talking, you know, almost 12 calendar months now, and it still hasn’t been served to the Saudi government, has it?

Chris Paulos:                        No. And what’s really important to, to, to for context in, in this regard, is that in order to sue a foreign government, a sovereign country, there, you know, you have to follow the procedural steps of service of process to a T. You can’t skip any steps. You can’t send it to the wrong location, and you, you can’t deviate from the statutorily mandated process in terms of the form of the documents, the translation of the documents and, and the, the entities used to perform the actual handing over of those documents to the proper people. Normally, countries are immune from lawsuits originating out of other countries and that’s, you know, basically what sovereign immunity is and the United States grants sovereign immunity to other governments. Most listeners are probably gonna be familiar with the concept of diplomatic immunity.

You see it sometimes in movies and you hear about it being raised by agents of a government or individuals that are affiliated with a government or a sovereign country here in the United States, who may be subject to civil or criminal prosecution. And it’s usually a, a bar to your ability to, to hold them civilly liable, or even criminally liable here in the United States and that’s something quite frankly, that we also enjoy in these other countries. However, the foreign sovereignty immunities act here in the United has exceptions. There’s some conduct that is so egregious or abhorrent that we have, we basically accept individuals who commit that conduct from sovereign immunity. Specifically, sovereign immunity is not given to state sponsors of terror who commit extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, hostage taking, or other types of conduct along those same lines, against US nationals either outside of the United States or here within the United States.

And what’s important to understand is that Saudi Arabia has never been designated a state sponsor of terror. So up until about 2016, they enjoyed sovereign immunity, even if they were facilitating terrorist attacks. For example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Saudi Arabia was originally sued for, but could not be held liable due to the fact that they had never been designated a state sponsor of terror. That changed in 2016 with the passage of a law called JASTA or the justice against state sponsors of terrorism act, that law was passed with a overwhelming bipartisan support, primarily due to 9/11 victims coming together and lobbying Congress to change the law to permit them to, to explore a route of vedras against Saudi Arabia. President Obama vetoed that law in, at, towards the end of his tenure as president. And then the, the Congress came back and overrode that veto with three quarter vote and passed the law, despite Obama’s resistance to it.

So it’s the law of the land now. And what that did is it basically said that any country that materially supports or commits acts of international terrorism against US citizens or nationals here in the United States in, inside our borders, can be sued for violating the anti-terrorism act and under the sovereign immunities act. And that’s the law that we have used to bring this lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. They can find no comfort or, or, or no defense because they’re, they are not a state sponsor of terror anymore. And so, so that’s the law that, that, that we are using that requires a very, very specific service of process procedure to be followed. The, one of the reasons that it’s taken so long to serve these documents on Saudi Arabia is that Saudi Arabia, through its attorneys, denied our request or refused our request for it to come to an, an agreement, to allow us to simply serve the attorneys that are representing Saudi Arabia and have represented Saudi Arabia for decades now, here in the United States, by handing them the service package, and therefore speeding up the ability for this case, case to proceed.

We made several requests for that to occur, and the, could not get an agreement from the attorneys to do that. So once we determined that that wasn’t possible, we had to follow the first step of service to process, which is to get the service package delivered to the foreign minister at the ministry of foreign affairs in Riyadh and we did that. We sent the package to the ministry of foreign affairs. It came from the district court clerk, it didn’t have, you know, my return to sender address on it. It came from a federal district court to the ministry of foreign affairs in Riyadh. Right on the, the face of the package it was clear what that package contained and the ministry of foreign affairs refused to accept that package. That then allowed us to move onto the next step, which was to seek the assistance of the United States department of state to, to, to deliver the packages through diplomatic channels, to the ministry foreign affairs in, in Riyadh.

We delivered that package to the department of state in July of last year and expected the department of state to be able to quickly get those documents served, because we clearly have a robust diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia. It’s not as if it’s like a country like Iran or, or Syria, or maybe even Cuba where diplomatic relations are strained, or there is no diplomat, diplomatic engagement between embassies of the countries. However, that did not turn out to be the case. The department of state, as far as I presently know, is still in possession of the package. And although we’ve heard differing information over time, in fact, I was on another show with you just a week ago, where we’ve been informed that the package had been delivered, we have just recently heard that that was not the case and the package may or may not have been delivered this week. The, the fact that the state department can’t confirm whether or not it’s performed it’s statutory required duty to deliver these packages and has delayed so long, is just totally perplexing to me as somebody who’s done this type of service for, in many lawsuits to date. But also incredibly disappointing and frustrating and at this point, infuriating to the victims and the victim’s families who are wanting to proceed with this lawsuit.

Farron Cousins:                  Right. And, and there’s been, you know, some of the, the family members have been a little more outspoken recently because these, these families want justice and of course they deserve justice. All of those responsible need to be held responsible for this, whether they’re in the United States, or if it’s the failure, you know, to, to properly vet this individual all the way back in Saudi Arabia. And, Chris, thank you for talking to us today and most importantly, thank you for fighting this fight with these families to make this happen. I, I know this is clearly not easy, given all the hurdles you have to go through. So thank you so much for everything that you are doing with this.

Chris Paulos:                        Well, thank you, Farron. And I, I hope to be able to, to give you an update on the case soon, and we certainly look forward to holding Saudi Arabia to account here in the United States’ justice system.

Farron Cousins:                  Yeah, absolutely. As soon as, you know, there’s something new with this, let us know, more than happy to bring you back on. So thank you very much, Chris.

Chris Paulos:                        Thank you.