ALBUQUERQUE — For days, news that someone might be killing Muslim men in Albuquerque struck fear among the city’s Muslim residents, some of whom were so afraid of becoming the next target that they fled the city or are holed up at home.
On Tuesday, police said they arrested a man who was himself a Muslim who allegedly 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 the man, Muhammad Syed, 51, would be charged in two of the murders and was a suspect in the other two deaths.
Ahmad Assed, the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, a mosque attended by at least three of the victims, said authorities told him the suspect was a Sunni Muslim and that he may have targeted the victims because that he was angry at his daughter marrying a Shia Muslim.
He and police warned that details remained scarce, and Mr Assed noted that at least one of the victims was Sunni.
Police officials said they did not yet know if a row over a marriage was the sole motive, but said they were aware of it and had found evidence that an ‘interpersonal conflict’ could have led to the shooting.
Albuquerque police revealed for the first time last Thursday that three murders between November and August could be linked. The following day, a fourth Muslim man who worked as a truck driver was shot and killed in his car, setting off further alarms in a town where many refugees and immigrants said they had long felt safe.
As word spread, authorities received information about the suspect and a possible vehicle linked to one of the murders. As officers prepared to execute a search warrant at Mr Syed’s home on Monday, he drove off in the same vehicle, Kyle Hartsock, a deputy police commander, told a news conference. Officers pulled him over and arrested him near Santa Rosa, NM, about 115 miles east of Albuquerque.
Commander Hartsock said police found several guns at Mr Syed’s home and one in the car he was driving, and they believed two of the guns were linked to the murder of a man on July 26 and another on August 1. He said police were continuing to carry out tests on other firearms they had recovered and believed Mr Syed may also have been involved in two additional murders, one in November 2021 and the lorry driver on Friday .
Mr. Syed had immigrated from Afghanistan and lived in Albuquerque for five or six years, Commander Hartsock said. He said Mr Syed had faced several domestic violence charges over the past few years, which were later dismissed.
The murders of Muslim men in Albuquerque
Mr Syed’s sons were questioned after his arrest and were later released, Commander Hartsock said.
Reports of interpersonal conflict that may be linked to a sectarian feud raises the specter of the kind of violence that many immigrants from countries in conflict had hoped to leave behind.
Sunni and Shia Muslims differ in their beliefs about who was the true successor of the Prophet Muhammad when he died nearly 1,400 years ago, a fundamental dispute that today sparks rivalries over religion, territory and the political power. The conflict has fueled sectarian violence in several countries, including Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, but has been rare in the United States.
Muslim groups were quick to condemn the killings and any hint of conflict in the American Islamic community.
“Like Protestants and Catholics, Sunni and Shia communities in this country live in close proximity to each other, work together and marry in peace,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civilian body. rights group. “There is no significant history of violence in the United States between Shiites and Sunnis at all.”
For years, Albuquerque authorities had sought to make the city a haven for immigrants. Hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan have settled in the city over the past year since the US military withdrew from that country.
The latest killings come as Albuquerque has been rocked by a heartbreaking spike in gun violence, with the city poised to see more killings this year than any other on record.
Police said Mr Syed would be immediately charged with two of the murders: Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, who left Pakistan to attend the University of New Mexico and had become president of its graduate student association before engage in urban planning; and Aftab Hussein, 41, who worked at a local cafe.
Naeem Hussain, the 25-year-old who was killed on Friday, had started his own trucking business and had become a US citizen 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 he owned with his brother.
“There are newcomers who are scared, and there are American-born Muslims who are also nervous,” said Michelle Melendez, director of the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. “The victims are everything from professionals to students to working class people.”
Rushing to respond, the Albuquerque Police Department has begun beefing up patrols around businesses and places of worship that serve as gathering places for the city’s Muslims, whose numbers are estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000. in a city of over half a million.
In a plea for public help, police over the weekend released a photo of a car, believed to be a dark gray Volkswagen sedan, which they believe was used in the murders.
The fatal shootings came amid a string of killings in the city, perhaps explaining why it didn’t seem unusual that the first two killings of Muslim men went relatively unnoticed.
In 2021, 116 people in the city were killed, according to crime statistics from the Albuquerque Police Department, which exclude justified or negligent homicides. It was the city’s deadliest year on record; one person was killed on average every three days in November 2021, when Mr Ahmadi was found dead.
Things have only gotten worse this year. As of Monday, homicides are on track to reach 131, surpassing last year by more than a dozen. That’s more than double the average number of homicides from 2010 to 2020, when the city recorded about 53 murders each year.
At the same time, Albuquerque, like other cities across the country, has struggled to fill vacancies in its police force. Since 2014, the department has been under a settlement agreement with the Justice Department to improve its practices, reached after accusations of civil rights violations and excessive force.
Before getting into truck driving, Naeem Hussain, the most recent victim, had worked as a case manager for Lutheran Family Services, helping refugees. It was in the parking lot of this organization that Mr. Hussain, a Pashtun speaker who had family roots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was killed while he was in his car.
Mr Assed, the mosque’s president, grew up in Albuquerque and described the community as a “welcoming melting pot”. He almost never felt like he stood out as a Muslim, he said, until a woman was arrested and charged with trying to burn down the mosque last year .
Mr Assed, born in Dearborn, Michigan, said that even with growing xenophobia after the September 11 attacks, Albuquerque seemed to continue to treat the Muslim community with respect, regardless of religion and nationality.
Now many of the city’s Muslims feel like targets, and fear is even pushing some people to consider leaving New Mexico.
Indeed, the murders have rocked an increasingly diverse city, where immigration, largely from Mexico and other Latin American countries, is a major source of population growth and an integral part of the ‘history of the city. Immigrants from the Middle East, including Muslims and Christians from Lebanon and Syria, deposited stakes in Albuquerque and other parts of New Mexico in the late 19th century.
The city has gradually seen a new wave of Muslim immigrants in recent decades, many of whom have come to study at the University of New Mexico. A group of Muslim students came together in the mid-1980s to form the Islamic Center of New Mexico, which was attended by the three most recent victims.
Many of the city’s Muslim community hail from Pakistan and Afghanistan, while others hail from countries like India, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Under the Trump administration, when concerns grew about bigotry directed against Muslims, officials passed a bill affirming Albuquerque’s status as an “immigrant-friendly” city. It prevented federal immigration officers from entering city-run facilities and city employees from collecting immigration status information.
At least 300 Afghan refugees have arrived in Albuquerque over the past year, bolstering a growing community reflected today by at least eight different places of worship for Muslims. Albuquerque has bolstered outreach efforts with translators speaking Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto — languages officials have prioritized in recent days when sharing information about the killings.
Although Muslims in the United States faced violence and discrimination after 9/11 and during Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, the apparent serial nature of the Albuquerque attacks – and the enduring mystery of who is responsible for it — is particularly disconcerting, said Sumayyah Waheed, senior policy adviser at Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group.
“I can’t think of any incident like this,” she said in an interview before news of the suspect’s arrest was announced.
Ms Waheed said it was concerning that Albuquerque police apparently only established a possible link between the attacks after the deaths of three Muslim men.
Although Naeem Hussain’s death on Friday heightened concerns in his community, Ehsan Shahalami, his brother-in-law, said the killing came as a shock.
“There was never any indication that he felt threatened or scared of anything,” Mr Shahalami said. “On the contrary, he was very fond of Albuquerque. He wanted to give back to the place that welcomed him.