New Mexico police charge suspect in ambush-style killings of Muslim men

A 51-year-old man from Afghanistan was charged Tuesday with killing two Muslim men in Albuquerque, N.M., and authorities said he is suspected in the slayings of two others whose deaths sparked fear in Muslim communities nationwide.

Muhammad Syed charged in 2 shootings, suspected in other 2 slayings

A man, surrounded by other men and boys, throws dirt on the ground.
Mourners sprinkle dirt over the grave of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, at Fairview Memorial Park in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, Aug. 5. Police in New Mexico announced Tuesday they had detained a man who is a 'primary suspect' in the killings of Hussain and three other Muslim men in the state. (The Associated Press)

A 51-year-old man from Afghanistan was charged Tuesday with killing two Muslim men in Albuquerque, N.M., and authorities said he is suspected in the slayings of two others whose deaths sparked fear in Muslim communities nationwide.

Officials announced the arrest of Muhammad Syed a day after he was taken into custody.

Naeem Hussain, 25, originally from Pakistan, was killed Friday night. His death came just days after those of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41, who were also of Pakistani descent and members of the same mosque.

The first known victim, Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, a native of Afghanistan, was killed on Nov. 7, 2021, while smoking a cigarette outside a grocery store and cafe that he ran with his brother in the southeastern part of the city.

Syed was formally charged with two of the homicides: those of Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, killed on July 26 and Aug. 1, respectively, but he is considered a suspect in all four murders, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said at a news conference.

When told about the announcement, Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, the brother of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said he felt relieved but needed to know more about the suspect and the motive.

"This gives us hope that we will have (the) truth come out," he said. "We need to know why."

A man smiles, standing between two flags and a sign that says "City of Espanola."
Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, seen in this undated photo released by the City of Espanola, was killed on Aug. 1, 2022. (City of Espanola via The Associated Press)

Bullet casings link 2 killings, police say

Prosecutors expect to file murder charges in state court and are considering adding a federal case, authorities said.

Police said the two killings with which Syed was initially charged were tied together based on bullet shell casings found at the murder scenes. The investigation branched out from there. 

According to police, detectives were preparing to search Syed's home in southeastern Albuquerque on Monday when he drove from the residence in the car that investigators had identified to the public a day earlier as a "vehicle of interest."

He was pulled over and taken into custody along Interstate 40 in Santa Rosa, about 177 kilometres east of Albuquerque.

A woman holds up a piece of paper with photos of a car ad the word "Wanted."
Albuquerque Police Deputy Chief of Investigations Cecily Barker, seen on the right, on Sunday, holds a flyer with photos of a car wanted in connection with Muslim men murdered as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham looks on. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal via The Associate Press)

In addition to recovering multiple firearms from the suspect's home, detectives "discovered evidence that shows the offender knew the victims to some extent, and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings," police said in a statement.

The motive and exact nature of the relationships between Syed and the victims - and the victims to one another - remained unclear. But police continued to investigate how they crossed paths before the shootings.

Police are also investigating whether Sunni-Shia tensions fuelled Syed's violence or if he was motivated by other ideas.

"The motives are still being explored fully to understand what they are," Deputy Police Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said.

Community shocked, afraid

Investigators received tips from the city's Muslim community that pointed them toward Syed, who arrived in the U.S. sometime in the last several years, police said.

The ambush-style shootings of the men terrified Albuquerque's Muslim community. Families went into hiding in their homes, and some Pakistani students at the University of New Mexico left town out of fear.

"It's quite shocking," Aneela Abad, general secretary at the Islamic Center of New Mexico, said of the arrest. "We are still trying to comprehend."

She said she believed the suspect attended her mosque and that he had also been to other mosques.

Asked about possible Sunni-Shia tensions, she said: "We don't want to create that chaos about Shia and Sunni." She said the suspect's "personal agenda" is "what caused this whole chaos."

With files from Thomson Reuters