Widow of Orlando nightclub shooter charged: What does it mean to aid and abet a terrorist?

Noor Salman, whose husband Omar Mateen rampaged through an LGBT nightclub last summer, killing 49, faces the possibility of life in prison.

Chris O'Meara/AP/File
Law enforcement officials work on June 12, 2016, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., following the mass shooting that left 49 dead.

The widow of the shooter who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., has been indicted on a federal terrorism charge, court documents unsealed Monday reveal.

Noor Salman, whose husband Omar Mateen rampaged through the LGBT hotspot last June, faces the possibility of life in prison for allegedly helping him provide "material support" to the so-called Islamic State. She was arrested Monday in California and made an initial court appearance Tuesday, looking dejected and confused for the 15-minute hearing, according to the Associated Press. She did not enter a plea.

The grand jury's indictment, which was filed under seal Thursday in the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida, states that Ms. Salman aided and abetted her husband's actions for months leading up to the attack, beginning at least as early as late-April 2016. A second charge, obstruction of justice, alleges that Salman misled the FBI and local police during their investigation following the massacre.

Jeffrey Addicott, the director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, says the charges suggest prosecutors view Salman's statements to police and the press – including an interview with The New York Times in which she described herself as a victim of domestic abuse – as inadequate to explain away her alleged complicity in the violence.

"The material support act is usually charged with people that are actively conspiring and engaging in the violence, so this tells me that her involvement runs a whole lot deeper, other than, 'My husband was abusive. I knew he was involved in radical Islamic thinking,' " Dr. Addicott tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. "They've got to show more than that, so this tells me that her involvement runs a whole lot deeper than we were led to believe initially."

Addicott says prosecutors often lack sufficient evidence to bring charges against suspects loosely tied to known terrorists, so the fact that the US Department of Justice is proceeding with this case suggests investigators may have unearthed solid evidence to link Mr. Mateen to the foreign extremist group.

"This is an example of the fact that investigations do continue long after they're publicly discussed," US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during an interview Monday with MSNBC. "It was always our goal, and we said from the beginning, we were going to look at every aspect of this case, every aspect of this shooter's life, to determine not just why did he take these actions, but who else knew about them, was anyone else involved, is there any other accountability that needs to be had here in this case."

Salman, an American citizen, was born to parents who emigrated from the West Bank in 1985. Following her husband's attack and subsequent death in a shootout with police, she was repeatedly questioned, and she told authorities that she had been with Mateen when he bought ammunition and conducted surveillance of the club, his eventual target, although she did not know the purpose of their trip. She denied any involvement in the planning and execution of the attack.

"I was unaware of everything," Salman told The New York Times after the attack. "I don't condone what he has done. I am very sorry for what has happened. He has hurt a lot of people."

During the attack and hours-long standoff, Mateen spoke on the phone with an emergency dispatcher, expressing solidarity with multiple terrorists and groups, including the Islamic State. In order to prove that Salman aided and abetted Mateen's crime, as charged, prosecutors will have to demonstrate that Mateen attempted to provide or actually provided "material support or resources" to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

The statute in question, 18 US Code § 2339B, has been the subject of controversy in the past.

"This law criminalizes a wide variety of behaviors by persons beyond members of the terrorist organization itself by making it a felony to knowingly provide 'any property, tangible or intangible, or service' to a designated foreign terrorist organization," retired US Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law in Durham, N.C., wrote to the Monitor in an email Tuesday.

"Importantly, it's still a crime even if the support isn't intended to further violent terrorist activity." 

In 2010, the US Supreme Court decided in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project that merely providing legal education to foreign terrorist organizations constitutes a violation of the law, a ruling that elicited criticism from some advocates. The defendants had stated that their goals included training the terrorist organizations in how to use the law to resolve conflicts peacefully.

"In the name of fighting terrorism, the Court has said that the First Amendment permits Congress to make human rights advocacy and peacemaking a crime. That is wrong," David Cole, a coordinating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which was involved in the case, said in a statement following the decision.

No one is claiming, of course, that Salman's relationship with her husband resembled that of an international non-government organization. Her attorney, Linda Moreno, argued in a statement that it is "misguided and wrong to prosecute her and that it dishonors the memories of the victims to punish an innocent person," citing Salman's statements that she had been abused by Mateen, as The New York Times reported.

Salman's prosecution could highlight, however, a crease in the legal landscape – one which some say punishes Muslims more harshly than others, as Naomi Braine, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, explained in an article for Political Research Associates "The Public Eye" magazine in 2015. The material support statute applies to "designated terrorist organizations," none of which are US-based, she wrote:

The material support statute applies to 'designated terrorist organizations,' but the FBI’s list of designated terrorist organizations, available on its website, includes no domestic organizations of any ideological 
bent. As a result, material support charges have no analog among domestic terrorism cases, despite 
the existence of longstanding right-wing organizations associated with political violence. In
 blunt terms, if a person gives money to the KKK, they will not be prosecuted for material support to terrorists. Although it might technically be possible to bring such charges, in practice, it simply doesn’t happen. 

But the material support statute has become central to the prosecution of Muslims accused of terrorism.

The broader impact of heightened surveillance of Muslim communities, including the use of informants, exacerbates fear and inhibits the "development of community support for those caught in terrorism prosecutions, effectively isolating family members of accused or convicted 'terrorists,'" Professor Braine added.

Police and victims impacted by the Pulse attack are hailing Salman's prosecution.

"I really think this will help us heal, because so many of us have been curious and have so many questions," Orlando Torres, one of the victims who was held hostage in the club, told the Orlando Sun Sentinel. "I don't think it's going to open wounds or bring back bad memories. If anything, I think this is going to help us move on."

Orlando police Chief John Mina expressed gratitude in a statement that "some measure of justice will be served in this act of terror that has affected our community so deeply."

Addicott, the law professor, says the prosecution could serve as an effective deterrent.

"It sends a strong signal.... It's a step to encourage those who might be associated with jihadists to come forward now before criminal acts occur," he says. "It really fits in quite nicely with the Bush administration’s and Obama administration's policy of 'see something, say something.'"

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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