International Terrorism Prosecutions: Wife of Orlando Shooter Indicted

By Nora Ellingsen
Wednesday, January 18, 2017, 11:03 AM

Late last week, a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Florida returned a two-count indictment against Noor Zahi Salman, the wife of Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen. On June 12, Mateen opened fired in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. After Mateen was killed in a shootout with the police, many began to question whether the FBI had done enough to catch and disrupt the terrorism suspect.

Exactly seven months later to the day, law enforcement and prosecutors moved forward in the case, charging Salman with obstructing justice and aiding and abetting the attempted and actual provision of material support to ISIS, presumably through her support of her husband’s attack. Because Salman was indicted by a federal grand jury and not charged via a criminal complaint, any additional and official details are sparse. While the indictment was unsealed Tuesday morning, the Justice Department’s press release contained no further information.

According to the New York Times, which broke the news on Monday that the FBI arrested Salman in the San Francisco area where she had been living, Salman “shook visibly” at her initial appearance in Oakland, California on Tuesday. Salman is due in federal magistrate court again on Wednesday, where the judge will decided whether she will be detained before she is transferred back to Florida to face the charges.

Since the attack, Salman has only spoken publically on one occasion—during an interview with the New York Times in November. During that interview, Salman denied any knowledge of the attack, characterizing her husband initially as a “gentle spirit” who later in their marriage began to beat her on a regular basis. She admitted to the newspaper that she knew Mateen watched jihadist videos online, but wasn’t worried by his behavior since she knew that the FBI had already investigated and cleared her husband in 2013.

If we look for hints, Salman describes several incidents during the interview that could begin to provide the basis for the charges alleged in the indictment: On two occasions she was with Mateen when he canvassed potential targets for his attack, Walt Disney World and the Pulse nightclub. However, Salman disputed that she had any knowledge of the reason for their visits. She also went with her husband to buy ammunition at Walmart, but claimed she believed the ammunition was for target practice as part of his job as a security guard. The indictment only provides a clue when it comes to timing, stating that Salman’s criminal activity took place at least as early as late April 2016, through the day of the attack in June 2016. (She and her husband allegedly travelled to Walt Disney World in April 2015.)

As the New York Times pointed out, prosecutors frequently charge the associates of attackers: friends of Dylann Roof and the San Bernardino attackers were charged with lying to federal agents. While prosecutors elected not to bring charges against the wife of one of the Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the Boston bombing, the Boston office did charge three of the brothers' friends. Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, who got rid of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s backpack while fully aware of his role in the attack, were charged with obstruction charges similar to Salman. A third friend, Robel Phillipos, was sentenced to three years in prison for lying to federal agents. Reniya Manukyan, the wife of a man who implicated himself and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a triple homicide, was also charged with lying to federal agents after her husband’s death.

But although it’s common to bring obstruction or false statement charges, the press generally takes a dim view when prosecutors do so. As the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, current FBI Director James Comey faced criticism when his office prosecuted Martha Stewart for lying to investigators. Since 9/11, Muslim communities have also spoken up against the use of false statement charges: In March 2011, Farhana Khera, the president of Muslim Advocates testified in a Senate hearing that she advised American Muslims not to talk to the FBI without a lawyer present, partly due to the fact that they could be charged with lying to the interviewing agent. On the other hand, advocates of this charging method argue that it’s an essential disruption method to prevent future deadly attacks. Elton Simpson, for example, was charged with lying to federal agents in 2011, but was sentenced to three years probation by a skeptical judge. Four years later, he became an ISIL-inspired active shooter when he attacked the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest outside Dallas, Texas.

What's unusual about the current case is that Salman was indicted on material support charges along with obstruction. In her interview with the New York Times, Salman and her attorney expressed anxiety at the prospect of being charged with lying to agents, but never seemed to consider the possibility of material support charges, which are notoriously more difficult for the government to bring. However, according to the timeline in the complaint, Salman helped her husband provide material support to ISIS for nearly two months, support that culminated in his deadly attack.

According to the GW Extremism Tracker, 89% of individuals arrested in the United States on ISIS-related terrorism charges are male, but Salman is not the first wife who has allegedly assisted her to her ISIS-sympathizing husband. Domestically, Jaelyn Young tried to accompany her husband overseas to join the terrorist group. Overseas, particularly in Syria, wives of ISIS members have played an integral role for years. In 2014, New York Magazine discussed how these women had become invaluable recruiters for ISIS, disseminating propaganda through their social media accounts, while reaching new demographics of recruits through the artful use of emojis. Although not mentioned in the article, Sally Jones is perhaps the most famous of these wives. Married to fellow Brit Junaid Hussain, she has continued to recruit for and illicit violence on behalf of ISIS following her husband’s death by drone in 2015.

Salman’s precise role in the attack remains to be seen, and for the time being, we can only speculate as to the underlying facts of the indictment and what exactly came to light during the seven month FBI investigation.