Noor Zahi Salman has long claimed that she was unaware that her late husband, Omar Mateen, was plotting a shooting rampage at the gay nightclub Pulse in June 2016. That assertion will be put on trial starting Thursday.
Salman, who lives in Fort Pierce, Florida, is the only person being charged in the shooting, in which Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 at the Orlando nightclub. It is considered one of the deadliest acts of terrorism in American history. (Mateen was killed by law enforcement officials during a standoff after the shooting).
Salman is specifically being accused of helping Mateen plan and carry out the attack, according to an indictment unsealed in January 2017. She is also being charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to the FBI during an extensive 12-hour interview on the day of the shooting.
If convicted, she could face life in prison – but the situation is complicated, as Salman previously claimed that Mateen was physically abusive toward her throughout their marriage, and prosecuting victims of domestic abuse can be difficult.
Additionally, Salman’s lawyers are adamant that she was completely blindsided by the shooting and did not know that her husband was plotting the attack, even if she was present for some of the preparations leading up to the devastating June 12th massacre – including the purchase of firearms and possibly scouting for locations to stage the shooting.
“I was unaware of everything,” she said in an interview with The New York Times several months after the incident. “I don’t condone what he has done. I am very sorry for what has happened. He has hurt a lot of people.”
Here, what we know about Salman, the case being made against her and her defense.
Salman and Mateen first met in 2011 through an Internet dating site called Arab Lounge.
Salman told the Times that she “thought he was the whole package” and didn’t see the fact that he was religious and she was not as an issue. She had previously been wed to a man through an arranged marriage in 2006, but the marriage did not work out. Salman and Mateen got engaged shortly after meeting online and married not long after that. This factors into Salman’s assertion that she considered him a “gentle spirit” prior to their marriage and the start of his abuse.
Salman said Mateen’s abusive behavior began just six months into their marriage.
The Rodeo, California, native told The Times that once, when they were shopping for baby clothes while she was pregnant, he had punched her shoulder hard enough to leave a bruise, and when they drove to his parents’ house afterward, he told her: “Wipe your eyes. This stays between us, or it’s going to get worse.” Mateen’s former wife, Sitora Yusufiy, has also said that he used to beat her and could be controlling. In interviews with family and friends, Salman has been characterized as a “relatively naive young woman” who may have been an unwitting witness to Mateen’s scheming.
Salman has said that she was aware that Mateen watched jihadist videos, but no evidence has shown that she herself shares in her husband’s violent jihadist ideologies.
In her interview with The Times, Salman pointed to a 2013 investigation that the FBI launched into Mateen that closed after 10 months. (Mateen had made comments to his colleagues about being a member of Hezbollah, having family connections to Al Qaeda and wanting to die a martyr). To her, Salman said, the FBI closing the investigation suggested that he had been cleared of any suspicions; she felt she did her part by forcing him to turn off the videos for the sake of their 3-year-old son. Jacquelyn Campbell, a nurse and professor at Johns Hopkins University, evaluated Salman’s case and said at the time, “She would be totally oblivious to clues that he is getting radicalized or planning anything.”
The couple went on a spending spree in the 11 days leading up to the Pulse nightclub shooting, but Salman did not think this out of the ordinary.
According to prosecutors, Mateen and Salman charged about $25,000 on credit cards and withdrew about $5,500 in cash – their purchases included everything from $1,200 worth of electronics to $9,000 worth of jewelry. The couple also notably spent $1,800 on a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and $500 for a Glock firearm. Salman also accompanied Mateen to buy ammunition at Walmart, but she said she didn’t question the purchase because he often needed bullets for his job as a night security guard.
In those 11 days, Mateen also added Salman to his account as a beneficiary, assuring that she would have access to his funds if and when he died.
Though Salman held an associate degree in medical administration, she largely stayed at home and took care of their son. Mateen was therefore the family’s sole provider, bringing in about $30,500 a year.
When the FBI questioned Salman on the night of the shooting, there was no attorney present.
Importantly, then, when the FBI said in a court statement that Salman had confessed to accompanying Mateen on a trip to possibly scope out Pulse nightclub a few weeks before the massacre, there is no verification of how the confession came to be. “I am sorry for what happened,” the FBI quoted Salman as saying during a subsequent lie detector test. “I wish I’d go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do.” Though prosecutors are looking to use this confession as literal evidence that Salman lied about being completely oblivious to Mateen’s plans, Salman’s attorneys counter that she thought her son would be taken away from her and given to a Christian family if she wasn’t truthful about how she felt during the lie-detector test.
On the night of the shooting, Salman told Mateen’s mother that he was having dinner with a friend identified in court records as “Nemo.”
Though prosecutors are framing this as proof that Salman had concocted an alibi to cover for her husband, Nemo personally told investigators that Mateen had used their friendship and dinners as a cover for his extramarital affairs. Salman’s lawyers are adamant that she did not lie that night, and actually did believe that Mateen was meeting Nemo for dinner.
Salman will most likely not testify as part of the month-long hearing, though at least 75 Pulse victims are expected to attend.
Aside from The New York Times interview, Salman has largely stayed out of the public eye; she was arrested in January 2017 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she had been staying with family, and has been in jail since then awaiting trial.