Last Friday, Noor Salman was acquitted in federal court on charges related to the worst Islamist terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. It was a watershed moment for American justice in the war on terror.
On June 12, 2016, Salman’s husband, Omar Mateen, a Long Island–born US citizen of Afghan descent, opened fire on partygoers at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, massacring 49 people. Mateen was killed by law enforcement during the attack. Seven months later, Salman, the 31-year-old mother of their son, was charged with two counts: aiding and abetting her husband’s material support for ISIS, and obstruction of justice.
Salman’s case has crossed into new territory for terrorism trials. Finally, acquittal in a terrorism case is not considered a failure of the criminal-justice system.
Previously, two former high-profile terrorism cases resulted in partial acquittals. Last November, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was accused of playing a leading role in the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, was acquitted on 14 of 18 charges, including the murders of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, but convicted of conspiracy. Seven years earlier, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the accused co-conspirator in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was acquitted by a New York jury on 284 counts, including 224 murder charges, and convicted on a conspiracy charge. The acquittals were particularly striking, given the fact that nearly all terrorism prosecutions result in convictions.
All three trials stumbled as the defense successfully countered some of the facts alleged in the indictments. In Salman’s case, the prosecution’s attempt to try her as an accomplice faltered on several fronts. Her confession to the FBI, which had not been taped, differed from evidence presented in court, undermining the government’s case. An FBI agent testified that Salman could not possibly have cased—as she had initially confessed—the Pulse nightclub. In fact, Mateen had driven around alone on the night of the killings, looking for a site to attack, starting with Disney Springs, proceeding to another club, and, seemingly at the last moment, choosing Pulse. The prosecution’s case was further compromised when it turned out that Mateen’s father was a former FBI informant. And then there was the defendant herself, who did not take the stand but whose defense was compelling. The victim of spousal abuse at Mateen’s hands, Salman was convincingly portrayed as having a low IQ and being continually ignored and duped by her husband, including over his many affairs. “She was not his peer, she was not his partner, and she was not his confidante,” defense attorney Linda Moreno told the jury.