Albuquerque Muslims thought a killer was targeting them. The truth was more devastating.

·8 min read

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – It's sometimes a home away from home for Muslim students. Other times, it's a refuge for those fleeing conflict on the other side of the world.

For years, New Mexico's largest city has operated as an unobtrusive enclave for thousands of Muslims. Albuquerque's close-knit Islamic community boasts an informal network of imams who help newcomers assimilate to the U.S. and offer a welcome to a diaspora of people from different backgrounds and countries.

"We are always one of the recipients of waves of refugees, depending on what's happening," Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told USA TODAY, adding that the status was a point of pride for many in the city.

But that sense of safety and inclusion was shattered as Muslims across central New Mexico feared a killer was targeting them after four Muslim men were killed in ambush-style shootings over several months.

Many Muslims across the region said they were fearful of leaving their homes. Some left the area temporarily and stayed with family or friends. Law enforcement amped up security at mosques and schools as worry turned to panic over a possible serial killer targeting Albuquerque’s Muslim population.

But the reality of what happened was much more complicated and harder to comprehend. Police arrested Muhammed Syed, a Muslim and known community member, this month. Syed, 51, was charged in two killings, and authorities say they are gathering evidence to charge him in the two others. Syed’s motive is still unclear, and Syed, a married father of six, has denied involvement in the killings.

Albuquerque police say "an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings" and said the suspect appeared to know several of the victims.  Authorities were examining whether he may have been motivated by religious zeal –  such as the political and religious divides between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that underlie modern conflict in the Middle East, but those in the community have rejected such divides and refuse to be defined by them.

Now, the community is working to move forward, both with grieving over the deaths and processing why a member of their community could have done this.

Fear after 4 killed, questions after arrest

Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, left, speaks at a news conference to announce the arrest of Muhammad Syed, a suspect in the recent murders of Muslim men in Albuquerque, N.M., as Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller listens, at right, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP) ORG XMIT: NMALJ232
Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, left, speaks at a news conference to announce the arrest of Muhammad Syed, a suspect in the recent murders of Muslim men in Albuquerque, N.M., as Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller listens, at right, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP) ORG XMIT: NMALJ232

The first killing was in November. Police say Muhammad Zahir Ahmadi, 62, was fatally shot outside his restaurant. There wasn't another slaying until this summer. Then, within two weeks, three others were killed in ambush-styled shootings: Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26; Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1; and Naeem Hussain, 25, on Aug. 5.

Police received multiple tips about the suspect and a vehicle that authorities say was spotted driving from one of the shootings. Syed, a native of Afghanistan who police say immigrated to the U.S. about five years ago, was taken into custody Aug. 8 after a traffic stop more than 100 miles away from his southeast Albuquerque home.

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Authorities found a 9mm pistol in his car – the same weapon that police say was used in at least one of the killings, an arrest affidavit says. The document says bullet casings were also found near the windshield and the hood of the car. Syed told police he was on his way to Houston and wanted to relocate his family there “because the situation in Albuquerque was bad,” referring to the spate of killings, the arrest warrant says. Court documents show other weapons, including an AK-47 rifle, were found in Syed's home.

Police say they are still examining the connections between Syed and those killed, but say he knew several of the victims and attended the same mosque as some of them. When asked specifically whether Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was angry that his daughter married a Shiite Muslim, Deputy Police Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said, “motives are still being fully explored to understand what they are.”

Members of the community attend  a memorial in the city  of Espanola, New Mexico  for Muhammand Azfaal Hussain, whom was murdered in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Azfaal worked for the city of Espanola and was highly steemed by the community.
Members of the community attend a memorial in the city of Espanola, New Mexico for Muhammand Azfaal Hussain, whom was murdered in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Azfaal worked for the city of Espanola and was highly steemed by the community.

CNN interviewed Syed’s daughter shortly before the announcement of his arrest. She said her husband was friends with two of the men who were killed. She also acknowledged that her father was initially upset about her 2018 marriage, but had recently been more accepting.

“My father is not a person who can kill somebody,” the woman told CNN, which did not disclose her identity to protect her safety. “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.”

Court documents show a history of disagreements and violence within the family. In 2017, a boyfriend of Syed’s daughter reported to police that Syed, his wife and one of their sons had pulled him out of a car, punching and kicking him before driving away, according to court documents. The boyfriend, who was found with a bloody nose, scratches and bruises, told police that he was attacked because they did not want her in a relationship with him.

Misunderstandings within the Muslim faith

Faith leaders told USA TODAY that any notion of sectarian conflicts, precisely that of the Shia-Sunni divide, misunderstands Albuquerque's Islamic community. Like schisms in Christianity, the Sunni-Shia divide has roots in the medieval era. But in the modern era, political leaders have used it as a political argument to divide populations and justify war.

While the divide underlies many worldwide conflicts across the Muslim diaspora, imams in Albuquerque say it has almost no presence in their community – even noting funerals for two victims, one Sunni and the other Shiite, were held at the same Islamic center.

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Muslims arrive for Friday prayer services at the Islamic Center of New Mexico during Friday prayer services on August 12, 2022.
Muslims arrive for Friday prayer services at the Islamic Center of New Mexico during Friday prayer services on August 12, 2022.

"These two (Azfaal Hussain and Aftab Hussein) were buried within 10 feet of each other," said Tahir Gauba, imam and director of public affairs for the Islamic Center of New Mexico.

Albuquerque's status as a refugee resettlement location, a designation granted by the U.S. State Department, brought waves of refugees worldwide. The city is home to people from Vietnam, Cuba and Afghanistan.

The University of New Mexico also brings in many people worldwide. One of the victims, Afzaal Hussain, attended UNM's graduate school and became the graduate student association's president in 2019.

For Muslim families coming to Albuquerque, an informal network of imams and worshippers aid in assimilation, according to Albuquerque Islamic Center Imam Talha Elsayed.

Photos of Muhammad Azfaal Hussain are displayed at “Plaza de Española” in the city of Española, New Mexico after a memorial.
Photos of Muhammad Azfaal Hussain are displayed at “Plaza de Española” in the city of Española, New Mexico after a memorial.

Elsayed said imams in the Albuquerque community rely on word-of-mouth to know when a Muslim family is moving to the area. Elsayed said that once those families are in Albuquerque, the community helps by teaching them U.S. laws and customs.

Albuquerque is home to two major mosques – the Islamic Center of Central New Mexico, established in 1986, and the Albuquerque Islamic Center, established in 2015 – and several smaller centers.

Over time, the community has grown, and now boasts about about 4,500 Muslims in the area.

It’s led to a close-knit Muslim community in Albuquerque, with many knowing both the victims and the man charged in their deaths.

An inclusive community works to heal

Gauba said that he and Afzaal Hussain, one of the men killed in August, attended many of the same events. Afzaal Hussain was an urban planner who had worked on the campaign of a New Mexico congresswoman before his death. Gauba said they were like family.

"(Afzaal Hussain) was a rising star in New Mexico for a long time,” Gauba said.

Gauba said the community in the border state boasts around 30 different ethnicities.

"It's very broad," Gauba said. "You see everybody."

He said fear boiled over in the community as the killings continued.

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"It's been a nightmare," Gauba said. "My family has been in New Mexico since 1995.”

Much of the anxiety ended when police made an arrest. Still, Gauba said he's been fielding calls from community members who are curious about why the suspect was charged with only two of the killings, and what might happen next.

At left, TIm Keller, mayor for the city  of Albuquerque, New Mexico, greets Albuquerquue Islamic Center Imam Talha Elsayed during an interfaith breakfast held at the Albuquerque Convention Center on  August 11, 2022.
At left, TIm Keller, mayor for the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, greets Albuquerquue Islamic Center Imam Talha Elsayed during an interfaith breakfast held at the Albuquerque Convention Center on August 11, 2022.

But community leaders say attempts at shattering Albuquerque’s unique sanctuary for Muslims and other minorities had the opposite effect.

"I think also our Muslim community has been reinvigorated in some sense," Keller said.

Faith leaders agreed.

At a city-hosted interfaith breakfast last week, Elsayed said he was hopeful relationships had strengthened. Whether it was the police patrols near mosques, communication from investigators about the case, or words of support from the community and even President Joe Biden – the country showed they cared about the Muslim community.

It will just take time, Gauba said. "It's going to be a long healing process."

Contributing: Ashley Williams, USA TODAY; Associated Press

Justin Garcia is a public safety reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News, part of the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JEGarcia@lcsun-news.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Muslim killings in Albuquerque: Why suspect identity caused more pain