Muhammad Afzaal Hussain’s dreams were starting to come true in New Mexico.
The 27-year-old rising political star, who’d left Pakistan for America in 2017, was working on getting his green card and preparing to move into a beautiful ranch home surrounded by apple trees. For about a year, Afzaal had worked for the city of Española’s planning department, which helped arrange this new housing for him, so he wouldn’t need to continue commuting from his Albuquerque apartment. The drive was 90 minutes each way.
But on the night of Monday, Aug. 1, Afzaal was gunned down outside his apartment blocks from the University of New Mexico, where he attended graduate school and made friends easily. His older brother, Imtiaz, says he’d stepped out to take a phone call before someone ambushed him with bullets.
“What is the motive of that person who was shooting?” Imtiaz told The Daily Beast in an interview. “What has created that type of hatred against him? That is a big question that I want answered.”
It’s a question Albuquerque police and the FBI are exploring, too, as they investigate the deaths of two other Muslim men who’ve died in similar ambush–style attacks in as many weeks, and the unsolved homicide of a fourth Muslim man who was killed last fall.
Police say that on July 26, 41-year-old Aftab Hussein was killed in his apartment complex’s parking lot.
And on Aug. 5, Naeem Hussain was fatally shot just before midnight—hours after attending a funeral service for Afzaal Hussain and Aftab Hussein. According to a report in the Albuquerque Journal, the body of the 25-year-old Naeem, who’d just become a U.S. citizen two weeks before his death, was found in the parking lot of Lutheran Family Services.
A fourth victim, 62-year-old Mohammad Ahmadi, was also killed in November 2021 outside a market and cafe he operated with his brother.
Authorities believe all four deaths could be connected and that the same person, or persons, could be responsible for this senseless bloodshed. “While we won’t go into all the specifics of why we think that, there’s one strong commonality in all victims: the race and religion,” Albuquerque Police Department (APD) Deputy Commander Kyle Hartsock said last week.
APD said it’s too soon to classify these killings as hate crimes, but Imtiaz Hussain believes his brother was targeted for being Muslim. He points to the last names of the other recent victims: Hussein and Hussain. Imtiaz wonders if the gunman perused a phone book looking for certain surnames before shooting them within an 11–day window.
From Imtiaz’s conversations with neighbors and the medical examiner, he believes his brother was shot on a street corner down the block from his apartment, and that he tried to flee his attacker. “He had multiple shots on his head,” Imtiaz said. “He died on the spot.” According to Imtiaz, a neighbor saw a gray sedan drive by, though they couldn’t name the make and model.
“This shows the type of hatred against him that two weapons were used—one handgun, and one rifle. Who has such extreme anger against my brother, who is loved by everyone?” Imtiaz asked.
Imtiaz said that when he went to identify his brother’s body, the medical examiner told him two weapons were used. (The Office of the Medical Investigator referred questions to APD, which did not return messages from The Daily Beast.)
Still, Imtiaz and other Muslim residents told The Daily Beast that they’ve always felt safe and welcome in Albuquerque—or at least, up until recently. “Albuquerque is a land of peace,” he said. “This land of diversity. This place is a welcoming place for all communities, and all people from different colors and nationalities.”
“Those who have taken the life of my brother, they do not represent the majority. They are 0.01 percent of people in society.”
The apparent killing spree has shaken Albuquerque, especially members of the Muslim community, who told The Daily Beast they are staying home indefinitely or at least avoiding going out at night. If they do leave home, they’re looking over their shoulders, keeping aware of their surroundings.
The terror is enough that the Islamic Center of New Mexico—the city’s largest mosque and attended by all four victims—has hired armed security guards for its five daily prayers and is fielding phone calls from members anxious about whether it’s safe to travel. Some of the members have also reported suspicious activity and feared they were being followed or watched.
Ahmad Assed, the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, said the recent violence against Muslims—starting with a convicted arson attempting to burn down his mosque last year—is unprecedented. Before these crimes, he said his community has never been under attack in Albuquerque or anywhere in New Mexico.
“It's a welcoming community, everyone gets along here,” Assed said. “This hate is completely new and not what New Mexico is, from each of its four corners to everywhere in-between.”
Now, however, he says his community is living in fear. Even those who weren't friends or family of those killed are scared to attend prayer sessions, go to the grocery store or even be by the windows of their home. “We've changed everything about how we live,” Assed said. “Some have left the state entirely until this is all done. There is this sense of panic, hopelessness and fear that has permeated the entire community.”
Aneela Abad, the mosque’s general secretary, called the shootings “shocking” and said the victims were killed “brutally, without notice or any warning whatsoever.” She told The Daily Beast that the center is overwhelmed with calls from community members and university students and staff seeking guidance. “At least a couple of them reported they felt like they’re being watched, or they saw some vehicles that they have not seen before just standing outside for a few minutes when they arrived at the premises, and then they left,” Abad said.
According to Abad, two Muslim women reported that a motorcylist followed them after they left Wal–Mart. The women told her that the biker waited briefly when they arrived at their apartment complex. “He stayed there for about 30 seconds, and then he left,” Abad said, adding that this encounter was reported to APD.
On Tuesday night, the center is hosting an interfaith “community prayer” for the victims, and Abad said that authorities and newly hired security guards will be present.
She said that initially, when Ahmadi was killed in November, the community believed it was an isolated incident. “But then, what's more startling is, somebody who's here locally, can just lie low all this time, between November and now. And then now all of a sudden… this second, third and fourth shooting occurred,” she said.
One friend of Afzaal, a university student who asked to remain anonymous, said they saw a squad of police cars outside of Afzaal’s apartment the night he was found dead. The person lives a couple blocks from Afzaal and wasn’t informed until later that his friend was gone.
“Nobody’s coming out of their houses, even if they need to get something,” the friend told The Daily Beast. “When they do, they’re always looking around. Is this person looking at you? Following you? You’re always watching your back to see if you’re getting followed. It’s very scary.”
The student said that their friends have emailed academic supervisors, informing them they don’t want to come to the labs to work because most of them walk to school. “You’re a sitting duck for whoever wants to harm you,” the person said, adding that they wished the university would take more steps to protect international students.
“When fear strikes with such a hard blow you start speculating and you start to be afraid of everything you see,” they said. “And I encourage everyone around me to report anything, even if they think it’s insignificant. It’s better than losing your life.”
Imtiaz, who’s lived in New Mexico for nine years, felt safe enough to go jogging at night or take strolls with Afzaal to the university library.
“In Albuquerque, we feel that this city is ours. You belong to this city. And we wanted to raise our kids here,” he said. “But when this happened, all my brother’s dreams… everything was shattered.”
Imtiaz added that Afzaal loved living in New Mexico, taking Imtiaz’s children swimming and camping, and said he wanted to raise a family of his own there someday. He had also worked for U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s campaign and had aspirations for higher office himself.
“He had a passion to assimilate in this culture, to get into politics and to raise a voice for those who are unheard and to raise a voice for those who are marginalized and poor people of society,” Imtiaz said.
“I want to request the FBI and all other investigative agencies, please do not let this case end in all the folders and archives of detective offices which are unresolved. We want solutions and we want results in this case. We want to know who wanted to take my brother's life and why.”