Life with a Shooter: Science Explores Killers' Family Lives

Experts say that family members of terrorists can have a variety of types relationships with the killers. (Image credit: Prazis/

What kind of relationships do mass shooters have with those close to them?

In the wake of mass shootings, including the most recent one in Orlando, investigators look to family and friends of the shooter for insight into motives. According to recent news reports, Noor Salman, the widow of the Orlando gunman, may have known about the man's plan for an attack and tried to talk him out of it.

Experts say that family members of terrorists can have a variety of types relationships with the killers, ranging from complete unawareness to full involvement in an attack.

In the Orlando case, whether Salman could have stopped her husband likely depended on the many dynamics at play in their relationship, said Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in terrorism and mass shootings.

The Orlando shooter had a history of being abusive, Lankford told Live Science. "If the male has significantly more power in the relationship, to the point of being abusive in some cases, and certainly different religious and cultural backgrounds can set the stage for that … it seems less likely the wife would have a real ability to talk him out of anything."

Anne Speckhard, who researches the psychology of terrorism at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said it can be difficult for people to even acknowledge violent extremism in a loved one, let alone act on their knowledge and alert authorities.

"I think it would be really hard for a spouse to call on their family member and tell the FBI," Speckhard told Live Science. "If you don't agree with it [the family member’s beliefs], it horrifies you, and a lot of times if you're horrified about the behavior of a family member, you just try to block it out of your mind."

Partners and family members can also be unaware that a person plans to act.

"You might know that your husband has those hateful thoughts and is interested in terrorism, but you might not know that he's actively going to go do it," Speckhard said.

In other cases, partners are aware and are also involved in the activities. "You can also be highly involved. You could be helping plan it," she said.

In fact, the militant-extremist mind-set can be the link between romantic partners. This may have been the case for the married couple who attacked co-workers in an office in San Bernardino, California, last December, she said. In these cases, the attacks may include a suicide pact made between the partners.

In other cases, one partner may romanticize the other's acts of terrorism, Speckhard said. A recent case like this involved Shannon Conley, a teenage girl from Denver, who Speckhard wrote about in her book "The Bride of ISIS" (Advances Press, LLC, 2015).

"She fell in love [online] with a Tunisian ISIS fighter, and he said, 'Come to Syria,'" Speckhard said. (Conley was arrested before her flight took off and sentenced to four years in prison.) "When you're in love, you do really stupid things," Speckhard said

People can also be seduced into terrorism by someone within the family.

"I've interviewed 500 terrorists' family members and known associates at this point, and oftentimes the mom and dad can tell you how the person changed dramatically in their lives and got pulled into terrorism. And sometimes, Mom and Dad are part of it. Sometimes a sibling is part of it," Speckhard said.

In some cases, family members commit terrorist acts together, as Lazar Stankov, a psychology professor at Australian Catholic University, wrote in a recent article for The Conversation.

"Being raised together — and therefore being exposed to the same set of stories about the enemies and the same set of moral, ideological and religious reasons justifying their feeling of hate — is likely to contribute significantly to the same tendency," Stankov wrote. He suggested that there will likely be more instances of terrorist attacks committed by siblings.

In the article, Stankov noted that siblings were involved in committing the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015 and the Brussels attacks in March 2016.

There can also be a feeling of trust among family members, beyond the "typical camaraderie," Stankov said.

Original article on Live Science.

Kacey Deamer
Staff Writer
Kacey Deamer is a journalist for Live Science, covering planet earth and innovation. She has previously reported for Mother Jones, the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, Neon Tommy and more. After completing her undergraduate degree in journalism and environmental studies at Ithaca College, Kacey pursued her master's in Specialized Journalism: Climate Change at USC Annenberg. Follow Kacey on Twitter.