University spokesman says Omar Mateen and three others thought to be family members joined tour group on 2012 trip. An Islamic center in New York determined Thursday that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was among a group of roughly 80 people who traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2012 as part of an annual pilgrimage facilitated by the organization.
Mateen and three others believed to be his family members joined a tour group that was organized by the Islamic Center at New York University, university spokesman John Beckman said.
The university is notifying law-enforcement officials about Mateen’s presence on the trip after learning of the connection from The Wall Street Journal. It will assist with the investigation in any way, Mr. Beckman said. Saudi officials have said that Mateen made two pilgrimages to the country, first in 2011 and again in 2012, to perform Umrah, a religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The trips lasted between eight and 10 days each. Details about the first trip couldn’t be learned. U.S. and Saudi officials haven’t determined who Mateen met with during his visits, and whether the trips were connected to the shooting. But they also reviewed the trips in 2013 when Mateen was the subject of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe, and they found nothing suspicious at that time.
It couldn’t be learned what Mateen did while he was on the trip. The university said “the activities of the group aren’t compulsory,” and organizers don’t keep a checklist of whether all the people on the trip are participating in activities on the agenda.
“People on the trip can make their own decisions about how to spend their time, though typically most people participate in the day’s itinerary,” Mr. Beckman said.
He said no one at NYU distinctly recalls Mateen, and his name didn’t ring a bell until the university was asked about the connection.
The Islamic center facilitates trips to Mecca and the holy city of Medina annually, Mr. Beckman said. The trips aren’t limited to members of the organization or NYU and are organized by Dar El Salam, a travel agency that has offices in New York.
The trips are usually organized with other Muslim communities and institutions to which the center has connections, and it isn’t uncommon for participants to invite family members, Mr. Beckman said.
Bedar Bakht, a Mateen family friend, said Mateen and his mother would have gone on any pilgrimage independent of the Fort Pierce Islamic Center, a small mosque with about 50 active families. “We do not organize any kind of group visit from this mosque,” Mr. Bakht said.
The university believes one of the travelers was likely Mateen’s mother, Mr. Beckman said.
Around five million people from around the world visit Saudi Arabia every year for Umrah. Commonly known as the lesser pilgrimage, it can be performed at any time. By comparison the hajj, the major Muslim pilgrimage, is mandatory once in every Muslim’s life and takes place at a specific time each year.
Syed Rizwan Farook, the main suspect in a mass shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino last year, visited the kingdom twice in 2013 and 2014 to perform hajj and Umrah, Saudi officials have said.
Mohammed Farooq, owner of the Al-Noor Hajj Umrah Group travel agency in Fort Lauderdale, said the Umrah pilgrimage is primarily for people who can’t afford the time and money to spend 15 to 20 days doing the more extensive hajj pilgrimage. “For Umrah, you basically go over there to clean yourself, that’s what you go to do,” Mr. Farooq said.
Mr. Farooq said American Muslims might typically pay $2,000 to $3,000 for an Umrah trip. He said it is unusual but not unheard of for someone to undertake two Umrah trips in consecutive years.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said law-enforcement officials are searching for details about the Saudi Arabia trips Mateen made in 2011 and 2012 for a number of reasons.
“We’d like to know who he met with,” he said.
Authors: Damian Paletta and Pervaiz Shallawani