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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Albuquerque police detain suspect in killings of Muslim men

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, the brother of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, one of the four Muslim men killed in Albuquerque since November, wraps his arm around one of his sons after a press conference at the Albuquerque Police Department in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.

By Simon Romero, Neelam Bohra, Nicholas Boge-Burroughs and Ava Sasani

For days, the news that someone might be killing Muslim men in Albuquerque spread fear among the city’s Muslim residents, some of whom were so afraid of becoming the next target that they fled town or hunkered down in their homes.

On Tuesday, police said they had arrested a man who was himself Muslim and who may have targeted at least two of the victims because he was angry that his daughter had married a man from the other major branch of Islam.

Police said that the man, Muhammad Syed, 51, would be charged in two of the killings and that he was a suspect in the other two deaths.

Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, a mosque that at least three of the victims had attended, said he understood that authorities were looking at the possibility that the suspect was a Sunni Muslim who may have been motivated by resentment over a marriage to a Shiite Muslim.

He and police cautioned that details remained sparse, and Assed noted that at least one of the victims was Sunni.

Police officials said that they were not yet sure if a dispute over a marriage was the sole motive but said that they were aware of it and had found evidence that an “interpersonal conflict” may have led to the shootings. Chief Harold Medina of the Albuquerque Police Department said that it was not yet appropriate to label the shootings as either hate crimes or serial killings.

Several hundred people attended a vigil for the victims at the mosque Tuesday evening. Muslim leaders, as well as Roman Catholic, Jewish, Sikh and Mennonite residents spoke about the losses absorbed by Albuquerque’s Muslim community.

“The last two weeks have been nothing but nightmares,” said Tahir Gauba, a director of the mosque. Referring to the arrest of the suspect, he added, “Tonight the Muslim community will sleep in peace.”

Police in Albuquerque first disclosed Thursday that three killings between November and this month could be linked. The next day, a fourth Muslim man who worked as a truck driver was shot and killed in his car, raising further alarms in a city where many refugees and immigrants said they had long felt safe.

As word spread, authorities received tips about the suspect and a possible vehicle linked to one of the killings. As police officers prepared to execute a search warrant at Syed’s home Monday, he drove away in that same vehicle, Kyle Hartsock, a police deputy commander, said at a news conference. Officers stopped and arrested him near Santa Rosa, New Mexico, about 115 miles east of Albuquerque.

Hartsock said police found several guns at Syed’s home and one in the car he was driving, and believed two of the weapons were connected to the killings of one man July 26 and another Aug. 1. He said police were continuing to run tests on other firearms they had recovered and believed Syed may have also been involved in two additional killings, one in November and the truck driver Friday.

Syed had emigrated from Afghanistan and lived in Albuquerque for five or six years, Hartsock said. He said Syed had faced several domestic violence charges in recent years that were later dismissed.

Syed’s sons were questioned after his arrest and later released, Hartsock said.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, 41, the brother of the victim killed Aug. 1, attended the news conference and expressed gratitude that the suspect had been apprehended. He said he was awaiting more details about what had unfolded.

“All I know is that the way my brother was killed was something extraordinary, absolutely not normal,” said Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant.

The report that the killings might be linked to a sectarian dispute raised the specter of the kind of violence that many immigrants from conflict-ridden countries had hoped to leave behind.

Sunni and Shiite Muslims differ in their beliefs over who was the proper successor to the Prophet Muhammad when he died nearly 1,400 years ago, a foundational dispute that today drives rivalries over religion, territory and political power. The conflict has fueled sectarian violence in several countries, including Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, but it has been rare in the United States.

Muslim groups quickly condemned the killings and any hint of conflict in the U.S. Islamic community.

“Like Protestants and Catholics, the Sunni and Shia communities in this country live near each other, work with each other and marry each other in peace,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group. “There is no significant history of violence at all in the U.S. between Shias and Sunnis.”

For years, authorities in Albuquerque had sought to shape the city into a haven for immigrants. Hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan have settled in the city over the past year, since the withdrawal of the U.S. military in that country.

The latest killings come as Albuquerque has been upended by a harrowing spike in gun violence, with the city on pace to see more homicides this year than any other on record.

Police said Syed would be immediately charged in two of the killings: Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, who moved from Pakistan to attend the University of New Mexico and had become president of its graduate student association before going into city planning; and Aftab Hussein, 41, who worked at a local cafe.

Naeem Hussain, the 25-year-old who was killed Friday, had started his own trucking business and become a U.S. citizen just weeks earlier.

The recent killings were preceded by the fatal shooting in November of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan, who was attacked outside the grocery store that he owned with his brother.

Abrar H. Hashmi, Pakistan’s consul general in Houston, expressed his condolences at Tuesday night’s vigil and extended an offer of assistance to relatives of the victims who wanted to send remains for burial in Pakistan, from which three of the men hailed.

Scrambling to respond, the Albuquerque Police Department began bolstering patrols around the businesses and places of worship that serve as gathering places for the city’s Muslims, estimated to number from 5,000 to 10,000 in a city of more than 500,000.

Assed, president of the mosque, grew up in Albuquerque and described the community as a “welcoming melting pot.” He almost never felt that he stuck out as a Muslim, he said, until a woman was arrested and accused of trying to burn down the mosque last year.

Assed, who was born in Dearborn, Michigan, said that even with increasing xenophobia after the 9/11 attacks, Albuquerque seemed to continue to treat the Muslim community with respect, regardless of faith and nationalities.

Although Naeem Hussain’s death Friday heightened the concerns of his community, Ehsan Shahalami, his brother-in-law, said the killing came as a shock.

“There was never any indication of him feeling threatened or being scared of anything,” Shahalami said. “On the contrary, he was very fond of Albuquerque. He wanted to give back to the place that took him in.”

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