The Wall Street Journal has confirmed that Omar Mateen – the jihadi responsible for the killing of 49 people at the Orlando night club Pulse this week – traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2012 as part of a program run by New York University.
The Islamic Center at New York University affirmed that Mateen “and three others believed to be his family members” booked a 2012 trip to Saudi Arabia through the university, one taken by a total of about 80 people. The trip, booked through the travel agency Dar El Salam, was nominally intended for its passengers to perform umrah, a secondary pilgrimage to Mecca, of an Islamic nature but less important than the hajj. This visit can be performed at any time during the year, unlike the hajj, though many choose the holy month of Ramadan for this voyage.
NYU offers the service of organizing voyagers through the agency to any Muslim, not just those affiliated with the university, so his presence on one of these trips does not confirm a relationship to NYU.
Since these visits through Dar El Salam do not have mandatory itineraries, knowing what kind of trip Mateen took – specifically, through NYU – does not narrow down his whereabouts for the eight to ten days he spent there. “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,” NYU spokesman John Beckman told the Wall Street Journal.
Authorities were aware that Mateen made two trips to Saudi Arabia, the 2012 trip with NYU and the 2011 trip a year before. Both were allegedly intended in order to perform umrah. Whether it is common for young Muslims to make multiple trips to perform a lesser pilgrimage is a matter of debate. Mohammed Farooq, owner of the Al-Noor Hajj Umrah Group travel agency in Fort Lauderdale, told the Wall Street Journal that such a decision is “unusual but not unheard of.”
Adnan Khan, former leader of the Council of Pakistan-American Affairs, told Fox News two consecutive trips of this nature were suspicious. “It’s not cheap to do so and people that young usually don’t go twice,” he argued, “And especially considering he appeared not to have come from a staunchly religious background.” Each of the trips is estimated to have cost $3000-$4000 per person, typically featuring luxury hotels and an itinerary full of meals at upscale restaurants, Fox News notes.
Authorities are now working to find more information regarding whether he stayed in Saudi Arabia for the entirety of his trips there, and what he was doing outside the country during the one confirmed visit to the United Arab Emirates on one of the two trips. “It’s very possible for someone to take a trip to a country like Saudi Arabia and declare it as their destination when it is in actuality just a pit stop to a different country like Yemen,” Ryan Mauro, national security analyst for Clarion Project, told Fox News.
Examining his activity during the trip may shed some light on whether he received terrorist training or otherwise connected with jihadist groups prior to attacking Pulse. The one visit’s ties to NYU also raise the question of whether such programs make such training more easily accessible for those looking to leave the country to network with jihadi organizations.
The NYU Muslim Students Association, the student community group tied to the Islamic Center of NYU, is a chapter of the greater national Muslim Students Organization, which has been repeatedly tied to the international Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood by U.S. courts, particularly in the terror fundraising Holy Land Foundation trial.
The NYU chapter in particular was the subject of extensive monitoring by the NYPD.
Khalid Latif, New York University’s Muslim chaplain, has been outspoken in condemning the violence in Orlando this weekend, posting a statement of unity on his Facebook and Twitter pages:
— Khalid Latif (@KLatif) June 12, 2016
He has also made statements in the past, however, calling for submission to the threat of Islamist violence in the case of displaying cartoons offensive to Muhammad. Latif objected to NYU in 2010 following the announcement of a display of controversial anti-Islam Danish cartoons, arguing that “the potential of what might happen after they are shown is something else that should be considered and not taken lightly.” “All over the world Muslims have been coming together over this issue and in New York they would not hesitate in doing the same thing,” he writes, without specifying what they would to object to the cartoons.
He was also an outspoken critic of a House of Representatives panel hosted by Rep. Peter King in 2011, focused on the threat of radical jihadist ideology. The panel, he told iCNN, was “just going to push us further apart” because targeting jihadists “isolates [Muslims] in the broader society and prevents other groups from really being able to understand similar qualities and values we have simply because we are human.” He specifically condemned the Tea Party movement for “expousing unamerican values.”