Feds probing Orlando gunman’s N.Y.U. Saudi trip

Omar Mateen made pilgrimage to Mecca in 2012 as part of an N.Y.U. program.
Omar Mateen made pilgrimage to Mecca in 2012 as part of an N.Y.U. program.

BY MICHAEL OSSORGUINE | To the surprise of New York University officials, it was recently revealed that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people last month at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, participated in an N.Y.U.-sponsored trip to Saudi Arabia four years ago. Mateen traveled with three other individuals, who are assumed to be family members, and completed a Muslim religious pilgrimage called the umrah.

N.Y.U.’s Islamic Center organized the 80-member trip. Around 40 participants were an New York Police Department contingent, while the rest were connected to programs from N.Y.U., Yale and Columbia.

No participants or N.Y.U. officials had any recollection of interacting with Mateen. But when checking records of the 2012 trip, the university’s Islamic Center was indeed able to find his name. Program members do not have to join the group on any of the trip’s organized activities — perhaps explaining why no one has any memory of Mateen or his travel partners.

“[The Islamic Center] is uncertain what his connection to the trip was — i.e., whose relative or friend he was,” N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman said in a statement. “They believe his presence was not connected with anyone from the N.Y.U. contingent.”

The umrah is the lesser of the two mandatory Islamic religious pilgrimages to Mecca. Yet, unlike the hajj — which must be undertaken during the month of Ramadan, which began June 5 this year — the umrah can be done anytime.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi officials also confirmed another, earlier trip by Mateen to Mecca, also for the umrah, in 2011. But N.Y.U. reportedly had nothing to do with this trip.

The Washington Post was told by Mateen’s former wife and some of his former friends that he had not been a devout Muslim, but became steadily more religious after his divorce in 2011. Apparently, he had not, until recently, expressed sympathies for the Islamic State publicly, yet was known as an unstable and sometimes violent person.

Mateen’s father, an Afghan immigrant, on the other hand, reportedly uploaded YouTube videos expressing favorable views of the Taliban. Both of the gunman’s parents have been added to the no-fly list following the Orlando massacre. N.Y.U. Islamic Center officials believe Mateen’s mother was also on the 2012 trip.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation probed Mateen in 2013 regarding his Saudi trips. Nothing suspicious reportedly was found, however.

Although the N.Y.U. Islamic Center coordinated the 2012 trip, the travel agency Dar El Salam, which has offices near Bryant Park in Midtown, provided the travel packages. According to the company’s Web site, the programs cost from $2,800 to $4,500.

For the 2012 trip, the N.Y.U. Islamic Center facilitated a tour first of Medina in order to visit historical sites, followed by transportation to Mecca to perform umrah.

According to Beckman, the F.B.I. has been given all the information N.Y.U. has on Mateen’s trips to Saudi Arabia. Congressmember Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said law enforcement is searching for more details of Mateen’s activities while in Saudi Arabia, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“We’d like to know who he met with,” Schiff said.