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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Wave of Killings Leaves Muslim Community Shocked and Saddened

Around 4,000 Muslims live in the city of Albuquerque, the largest city in the southwestern US state of New Mexico. Over the past weeks, their small, but close-knit community has been shaken by a wave of killings of Muslim men. With few clues to help the police investigation, many initially wondered if a serial killer was on the loose who was specifically targeting men of the Muslim faith. Now, the community is reeling from news that the killer was a Muslim himself and seemed to commit the acts out of sectarian hatred.

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, a victim of the killings. (Photo: City of Espanola)

Four Killings over a span of nine Months

The first murder occurred in November of 2021. Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, was standing outside of the small grocery shop he ran with his brother in southeastern Albuquerque when he was shot dead. The next three killings, which authorities think are all linked to the same suspect, occurred within two weeks of each other. Aftab Hussein, 41, local land use official and community organizer Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, and truck driver Naeem Hussain, 25, were all killed between July 26th and August 5th. All of the victims were immigrants from either Afghanistan or Pakistan. As news of the killings spread and their frequency increased, the small Muslim community of New Mexico’s largest city began to worry about their safety. Tahir Gauba, spokesman for the Islamic Center of New Mexico said in a statement after the fourth murder victim was found by police that the local Muslim community had “never felt this much fear [before]”. The local authorities, as well as members of the local Muslim community, assumed that the killings were motivated, at least in part, by the victims race and religion. Deputy Commander of the Albuquerque Police Department, Kyle Hartsock, said in a press briefing after the fourth killing that “there is one strong commonality in all of our victims – their race and religion.” The police further assumed that the same individual perpetrated all the killings, since all victims were murdered in the same way: ambushed in public and shot. The killings, and especially their victims, came as a surprise to many in Albuquerque, a city with a very low rate of anti-Muslim hate crimes. In fact, over the past three years only one anti-Muslim hate crime has been reported in the city each year. But, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes has been on the rise nationally, with a 45% jump in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2021, according to the FBI and the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. As the frequency of the killings increased, the hunt for a suspect became a top priority for the Albuquerque police, who offered a cash reward of $20,000 to anyone with information which could lead to an arrest. Finally, on Tuesday, August 9, Albuquerque police announced the arrest of a 51-year-old man in connection with the killings.

Identity and Motive of Suspected Killer leave Community and Police Puzzled

Stopped by police during a traffic stop over 100 miles (160 kilometers) from his Albuquerque home, 51-year-old Muhammad Syed was arrested by police and is suspected of committing at least two of the murders, and will most likely be charged for the other two murders as well. Mr. Syed told police officers that he was on his way to Houston, Texas in order to find a new place to live as he was scared for his safety as a Muslim man in Albuquerque. According to police, the only items he had with him in his car was clothing, shoes, and a handgun. Mr. Syed, an immigrant from Afghanistan, denied any involvement in the killings, but did tell detectives that he had served in the Afghan special forces and fought against the Taliban in the country. Police brought in Mr. Syed as the suspect due to bullet casings found in his vehicle which matched the caliber of the weapons believed to be used in two of the killings. Furthermore, bullet casings found at the site of the two murders were linked to a gun found at Mr. Syed’s home. Police thanked the members of the Muslim community in Albuquerque who “flooded” the tip line with clues which helped lead to his arrest, as Mr. Syed was known to many people in the local Albuquerque community. Ahmad Assed, President of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, said at a press briefing that the entire Muslim community breathed “an incredible sigh of relief” at news of his arrest. After news of the arrest broke, questions began to be asked almost immediately about Mr. Syed’s motives for the killings, as many had previously thought that the killings were part of a crime spree inspired by racist extremism. According to police, the cause of the killings may have been a mixture of personal prejudices held by Mr. Syed as well as a conflict between his family and members of the local Muslim community. “The offender knew the victims to some extent, and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings”, said the Albuquerque police in a press statement. All four victims of the murder were members of the Shi’ite branch of Islam, whereas Mr. Syed was a Sunni Muslim and may have been angry that his daughter had married a Shi’ite man based in Albuquerque. Police neither confirmed nor denied that the killings may have been sparked by interfaith disagreements or personal prejudices. It is not the first time that Mr. Syed has had legal issues since coming to the United States approximately six years ago. In 2017, police were involved after a boyfriend of Mr. Syed’s daughter alleged that he had been pulled from his car by Mr. Syed, his wife and one of their sons and beat him along the side of the road before driving away. The boyfriend was found by police with a bloody nose and multiple bruises, but refused to press charges. In 2018, Mr. Syed was arrested by Albuquerque police after a domestic dispute with his wife turned violent. The identity of the killer was a shock to the local Muslim community. Mula Akbar, an Afghan-American businessman in the New Mexico city said in a statement to Reuters that the local Muslim community was in “complete total disbelief. Speechless. You know, kind of embarrassed to say he was one of our own”. Mr. Syed was a member of the same mosque as the four victims. Mr. Syed’s daughter, in an interview with CNN, said that her husband was friends with two of the men who were killed, but rejected the idea that her father killed them. “My father is not a person who can kill somebody. My father has always talked about peace. That’s why we are here in the United States. We came from Afghanistan, from fighting, from shooting.”

Muhammad Syed has been charged with two killings so far, and may be charged with two more as a result of further police investigations.

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