The widow of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen was arrested last week by federal authorities on charges of “providing material support” to a terrorist group related to the June 12, 2016, mass murder. Prosecutors say Noor Salman knew about her husband’s plan to attack the Pulse Nightclub.
However, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there was no link found between Mateen and terrorist groups. The “material support” charge presumably comes from the fact that Mateen told police via cell phone that he “pledged allegiance” to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and made other disjointed statements about terrorism during the shooting. He also claimed to have bombs in his possession, which later turned out to be untrue.
On the other hand, and perhaps more troubling, Mateen did have multiple interactions with the FBI and FBI “informants” in the years leading up to the massacre that killed 49 and injured 53. Troubling because, like a growing number of disturbed individuals who go on to commit mass violence, Mateen was also enmeshed in an FBI “investigation” prior to the attack.
In addition, charging his wife, Noor Salman, with “material support” of a terrorist group appears to be a heavy-handed expansion of an already broad federal statute, according to a criminal justice expert. She is also accused of “obstruction of justice” for allegedly misleading investigators, and faces life in prison if convicted on both charges.
Similarly, federal officials took a “scorched earth” approach to associates of the Tsarnaevs after the Boston Marathon bombing. Then, too, the FBI had many prior interactions with the Tsarnaev family, particularly with the eldest son, Tamerlan — interactions the Bureau worked hard to minimize after he was killed in a shootout with police days after the bombing.
As we wrote at the time, the FBI spent the first six months after that attack “relentlessly intimidating, punishing, deporting and, in one case, shooting to death, persons connected, sometimes only tangentially, with the alleged bombers.”
Similarly, defense lawyers for Tamerlan’s brother, Dzhokhar, who was eventually convicted of participating in the Marathon bombing, formally complained to the judge about “a growing atmosphere of anxiety and agitation” generated by the Bureau’s actions and requested more time to prepare their defense — a request that was not granted.
Effort to Silence?
Noor Salman, the wife of the Pulse nightclub shooter, who had avoided contact with the media since the June shooting, broke her silence in November in an interview with The New York Times.
The Times article painted a sympathetic picture of a woman who had lived in fear of an abusive husband, a disturbed individual who routinely beat and threatened her. She said she was aware her husband watched jihadist videos, but did not think much of it because the FBI seemed to have cleared him. The article went on:
Agents had investigated Mr. Mateen in 2013 after he told work colleagues he was a member of Hezbollah, had family ties to Al Qaeda and wanted to die as a martyr. Ten months later, the F.B.I. closed the case. That same year, the agency questioned him again in connection with another terrorism investigation. So when Mr. Mateen told his wife to mind her own business about the videos, she did.
“The FBI let him go,” Salman told the Times.
Salman’s uncle told reporters last Tuesday that his niece knew nothing of her husband’s plan to attack the nightclub and that she is, herself, a victim of physical and mental abuse by her husband.
Salman, 30, was arrested Monday last week and appeared in Oakland’s Federal District Court Tuesday and again Wednesday. She pleaded not guilty to all charges and is being held in jail until a February 1 bail hearing.
Omar Mateen was killed in a shootout with law enforcement the night of the nightclub shooting.
WhoWhatWhy has documented a growing list of seemingly disturbed individuals targeted by federal investigators who later go on to commit mass violence — raising questions about whether federal investigators’ actions may be contributing to the problem.
The latest example: Esteban Santiago, who shot and killed five travelers at Fort Lauderdale airport January 6. He too was the subject of an FBI “assessment.” He was also investigated by the Army Criminal Investigations Division and Homeland Security at various times, according to officials.
Cited by the Bureau as the “least intrusive” level of investigation, assessments can nonetheless be aggressively intrusive.
With Mateen, the Bureau opened a “preliminary investigation,” the level above assessment. The probe went on for 10 months and involved the use of an informant. The FBI claims it did not find anything to warrant continuing the investigation. Two months after that, the Bureau investigated Mateen again for possible connections to an American who went to Syria to become a suicide bomber for an Al Qaeda affiliate. The investigation “turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them,” according to FBI Director James Comey.
It is not clear what actions were taken by the Bureau’s “informant” — the FBI almost never reveals its “sources and methods.”
In practice, however, informants would be better described as “provocateurs,” as they are often tasked with goading targets of suspicion into going along with a terrorist attack — a sort of “smoking out” of potentially violent people.
The idea is to induce a disgruntled but otherwise law-abiding person, who agents suspect might commit terrorist acts in the future, into participating in a plot devised and enabled by FBI operatives.
Journalist Trevor Aaronson, who has reported extensively on the FBI’s use of informants and provocateurs in terrorism stings, illustrates the conundrum posed by this controversial tactic:
The FBI’s goal is to create a hostile environment for terrorist recruiters and operators — by raising the risk of even the smallest step toward violent action. It’s a form of deterrence.… Advocates insist it has been effective, noting that there hasn’t been a successful large-scale attack against the United States since 9/11. But what can’t be answered — as many former and current FBI agents acknowledge — is how many of the bureau’s targets would have taken the step over the line at all, were it not for an informant.
A Terrible Expansion
Law enforcement officials have pointed to the fact that Mateen’s wife accompanied him on a trip to Pulse sometime before the shooting, purportedly to “case” the establishment. Salman also allegedly went with Mateen to purchase ammunition at a Wal-Mart. She did not think her husband’s buying ammunition was suspicious because he was an armed security guard, she told The New York Times in November.
The two crimes prosecutors charged Salman with — “providing material support” (to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL), and “obstruction of justice” (for knowingly misleading investigators some time after the shooting) — both involve controversial statutes.
The “material support” statute is notoriously elastic, and has been a target of criticism from human rights groups. According to Human Rights Watch, the US government has “made overly broad use of material support charges, punishing behavior that did not demonstrate an intent to support terrorism.”
The “obstruction of justice” statute also lends itself to prosecutorial abuse. FBI interviews are almost never electronically recorded, and the handwritten reports of what was said in the interviews are notoriously unreliable. Despite the imperfect nature of these reports, interviewees who contest what was said in one, or later claim to have said something different, open themselves to being indicted for “making false statements.”
Although Salman’s indictment lacks much in the way of specifics, prosecutors are likely basing the “material support” charge on her husband’s “pledge [of] allegiance” to ISIL, which he allegedly made to a 911 dispatcher and a police negotiator while he was holed up in Pulse Nightclub after the shooting began.
However, “Omar Mateen may not have understood the difference between ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah,” a headline in The Washington Post announced not long after the shooting. FBI director James Comey told reporters Mateen had made “inflammatory and contradictory” comments about being a “member” of Hezbollah and other terror groups. Contradictory because, as The Post points out:
…these groups named by Mateen are not allies. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda both derive their theology from an extreme view of Sunni Islamism, but in practical terms the pair split in 2014, with the more established al-Qaeda publicly disavowing the actions of the more extreme Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, often fights the Islamic State in the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamist group. In Syria, it supports the government of Bashar al-Assad, effectively meaning it fights both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Comey suggested Monday that Mateen may have not understood the distinctions among the groups.
“That adds a bit to the confusion around his motives,” the FBI director said.
If the FBI admits to being confused about Mateen’s motives, it is even more unclear how it might have determined his wife’s.
“That’s really, really a stretch,” Nancy Hollander, a criminal defense attorney who specializes in national security cases, told WhoWhatWhy. “This appears to me to be a terrible expansion of this [material support] statute. It is un-American to punish this woman for the sins of her husband.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Noor Salman (Facebook) and James Comey (FBI).