Police in Albuquerque said they arrested the “primary suspect” in the killings of four Muslim men in New Mexico’s largest city — deaths have raised fears in the community and led to increased security at mosques and schools.
Muhammad Syed, 51, of Afghanistan, was charged in two of the killings and was called a suspect by police in the two other slayings.
Chief Harold Medina said Tuesday the arrest happened after authorities tracked down a vehicle linked to one of the killings.
Albuquerque authorities bolstered security measures as worries mounted within the Muslim community over the ambush-style killings, the most recent happening Friday. Authorities sought help Monday searching for a vehicle that appeared to be the one discovered Tuesday. Police said in a news release they suspected the vehicle was used in the homicides – a dark gray or silver four-door Volkswagen, possibly a Jetta or Passat, with tinted windows.
The common elements in the deaths were the victims’ race and religion, officials said, and authorities discovered a possible link between the killings. Authorities released photos, hoping people could help identify the car, and offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan, was the first victim, killed Nov. 7. Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, were killed July 26 and Aug. 1, and Naeem Hussain, 25, was shot to death Friday , according to investigators. The last three victims were from Pakistan.
Syed is facing murder charges in the deaths of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain and Naeem Hussain. According to Deputy Commander Kyle Hartsock, Syed is also believed to have “involvement” in the two other deaths.
Hartsock said firearms found in Syed’s home and car through search warrants were matched to bullet casings the two crime scenes.
Albuquerque’s Muslim community in fear
Khalid Emshadi, a Republican candidate for New Mexico’s House of Representatives, had campaign events planned for Friday – but he said fear of a possible serial killer targeting Muslims in Albuquerque could keep him home.
“I’m thinking to cancel them,” said Emshadi, 44, a Muslim who emigrated with his wife from Libya to the USA in 2008. He’s lived in New Mexico’s most populous city for more than a year.
“I cannot work the streets,” the father of five told USA TODAY before the arrest. “I cannot knock on doors because if this person is still on the streets and feeling comfortable killing Muslims, I could be his next target from him.”
Emshadi said the killings have made him and fellow Muslims nervous to practice their Islamic rituals at mosques. “We think something bad is going to happen if we just start praying, (like) a crazy person comes inside and shoots us,” he said.
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Samia Assed, an Albuquerque-based Muslim community activist and organizer, said she knew Hussain, the third victim. Her fellow civic engagement worker was due to get married in September, Assed told USA TODAY.
“Muhammad was part of a cricket team, and his whole cricket team left town the next day (after he was killed),” Assed said.
“These are young men who come to America for the peace of mind of just living a life and not having to worry about the issues that they left back home,” she said. “Nobody wants to face this kind of fear.”
Anti-Muslim hate crime statistics in Albuquerque
Few anti-Muslim hate crimes have been recorded in Albuquerque over the past five years, according to FBI data cited by Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a professor of criminal justice at California State University at San Bernardino .
From 2017 through 2020, there was one anti-Muslim hate crime a year. The highest recent number was in 2016, when Albuquerque police recorded six out of a total of 25 hate crimes.
That largely tracks with national trends, which hit the lowest numbers in a decade in 2020, only to increase by 45% in 2021 in a dozen cities and states, Levin said.
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Albuquerque authorities said the motive in the killings is unclear.
City officials, along with state and local law enforcement, heightened security efforts as authorities investigated.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said police protect mosques during prayer times. The city organized home food deliveries and access to trauma services through the Albuquerque Community Safety Department for those who need them.
“We are outraged by these attacks and will not relent in our pursuit of justice for those we have lost,” Keller said in a statement.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said additional state police will patrol Albuquerque.
Police ramped up their presence near Muslim-affiliated schools and worked with the University of New Mexico’s police department in preparation for the fall semester. Albuquerque Public Schools worked with the city on addressing student safety, Keller said, noting the school year starts Wednesday for most.
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Police provided the Islamic Center of New Mexico with extra security in addition to the mosque’s own, Assed said.
“This is foreign to the community” of about 4,000 Muslims in Albuquerque, she said. “It was a big surprise to have it in sequence this way within the Muslim community.”
“The authorities have been amazing, they really stepped up,” said Assed, who organized a community prayer Tuesday night in memory of the four shooting victims.
Contributing: The Associated Press