Police in Albuquerque have tracked down the vehicle they believe was involved in a recent killing of a Muslim man, and its driver has been charged as a primary suspect in two of four deaths of Muslim men in the city, authorities announced Tuesday.
In a news conference later Tuesday, police said that Muhammad Syed, 51, was charged with two homicides in the deaths of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.
Authorities said they are working with the district attorney’s office on potential charges in the deaths of the other two men and that their cases were open and active.
The killings — one occurred in November 2021 and three took place over the last few weeks — put the city on edge, particularly after authorities announced the deaths were likely connected and told local Muslims to stay vigilant.
All four victims were Muslim immigrant men of South Asian descent who attended the same mosque and were fatally shot in ambush-style attacks, according to police.
Hussein, a 41-year-old who moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan, was ambushed and killed in late July. Afzaal Hussain, 27, was killed on Aug. 1. Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old from Pakistan who had attended funeral services for both men, was fatally shot on Friday.
Last November, Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, was shot in the back of the head and found in the parking lot of the halal grocery store and cafe he co-owned with his brother. His case had remained unresolved.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it was “disturbed by early indications that the alleged killer may have been targeting particular members of the Shia community.”
Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR, said in a statement: “We hope the news that this violence has been brought to an end will provide the New Mexico Muslim community some sense of relief and security.”
“Acts of hateful, sectarian violence against followers of the Shia tradition and any other group have no place in our communities, our country or anywhere else. American Muslims are and must be united against all forms of hateful bigotry, including anti-Shia bias.”
The American Muslim Bar Association said in a statement, “As Muslim lawyers and legal professionals who stand for the civil rights and freedoms of all people, without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and other identities, we stand strongly against Shiaphobia and urge other groups to do the same,”
Albuquerque has welcomed a growing community of immigrants and refugees in recent years, including the Hussain brothers who arrived in 2014 and 2017, respectively, from Pakistan as international students.
Targeted Attacks In A Matter Of Weeks
On Aug. 1, Muhammed Imtiaz Hussain was home with his brother, Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, when Afzaal Hussain stepped out to take a phone call around 9 p.m.
Several hours passed, and the younger Hussain never returned.
The 27-year-old was fatally shot just a few blocks from their home and was the third victim in the string of slayings.
“The people who targeted him wanted him dead,” Imtiaz Hussain said. “More than half of his head was gone.”
Over the last few days, efforts to locate the suspect began to move swiftly. On Sunday, the Albuquerque Police Department released footage of a silver Volkswagen sedan and launched an online portal for the public to submit photos or videos that could help the investigation. The Albuquerque Metro Crime Stoppers also offered a $20,000 reward in addition to $10,000 reward by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The FBI’s Albuquerque office is assisted the city’s police in the investigation.
“We know that our community is hurting, and we are heartsick and we are grieving with you,” Michelle Melendez, Albuquerque’s director of equity and inclusion, said at a news conference on Sunday. “We cannot denounce strongly enough what appears to be the targeting of people because of their race and religion.”
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) pledged that the perpetrator would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Over the weekend, President Joe Biden said in a tweet that his administration was awaiting a full investigation. “These hateful attacks have no place in America,” he said. The FBI has since joined the local police investigation.
“I feel that everyone is talking about my brother, and his shooter will be found. I have faith,” said Imtiaz Hussain.
Disturbing Trend On The Rise
Hate crimes rose more than 20% in 2021 and increased an additional 4.7% in the first half of 2022, according to a study released Monday by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes in particular increased by 45% in 12 jurisdictions in 2021 after a multiyear decline, largely due to the pandemic and concerns that crimes are being underreported.
“What we’re seeing with this radar screen is a blip that is part of a much larger problem,” said Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice at Cal State San Bernardino and the director of the center.
Even more alarming than the increase in hate crimes, Levin said, is the increase in homicides.
Imtiaz Hussain said he’s overwhelmed by the support he has received from across the country. He wants people to remember his brother by the life he lived and his service to the Albuquerque community.
“He was a very loving person. He was always with people and wanted to help everyone he met,” he said. “He had a passion for raising his voice for those voices that aren’t heard and those who are marginalized.”
He was the city planner for the city of Española. Before that, he had served as the president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association at the University of New Mexico and worked on the campaign for U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.).
Though some Muslims have considered leaving Albuquerque, Imtiaz Hussain said he doesn’t have plans to leave New Mexico anytime soon.
“This place where we live is the most welcoming, diverse place, I believe, in the United States. Those who have done this crime are a tiny fraction of society that do not represent New Mexico. New Mexico is a place of love, and Albuquerque is a city of diversity.”