Afghan man charged with murder of Muslims in New Mexico

The ambush killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque, New Mexico, shocked the community but inspired a flood of information, including a tip that led to the arrest of a local Muslim man originally from Afghanistan who knew the victims, authorities said.

Muhammad Syed, 51, was arrested Monday after a traffic stop more than 100 miles from his Albuquerque home. He was charged with killing two victims and was identified as the prime suspect in the other two murders, authorities announced Tuesday.

The Muslim community is breathing “an incredible sigh of relief,” said Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico. “Life has been turned upside down.”

It was not immediately clear if Syed had an attorney to speak on his behalf.

The first murder last November was followed by three more between 26 July and 5 August.

Police Chief Harold Medina said it is not yet clear whether the deaths should be classified as hate crimes or serial killings or both.

Syed was from Afghanistan and had lived in the United States for about five years, police said.

“The driver knew the victims to some extent and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings,” a police statement said, although investigators were still working to identify how they had crossed paths.

When asked specifically if Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was angry that his daughter married a Shia Muslim, the deputy police chief. Kyle Hartsock did not respond directly. He said that “motives are still being fully explored to understand what they are.”

Assed acknowledged that “it was a marriage,” but he cautioned against drawing any conclusions about the motivation of Syed, who occasionally attended the center’s mosque.

Police said Syed gave them a statement, but did not disclose details.

The killings drew the attention of President Joe Biden, who said such attacks “have no place in America.” They also sent a shiver through Muslim communities across the United States. Some people questioned their safety and restricted their movements.

“There is no justification for this evil. There is no justification for taking an innocent life,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said at a news conference Tuesday in Washington, DC.

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He called the killings “disturbed behavior.”

The earliest case concerns the murder of Mohammad Ahmadi (62) from Afghanistan in November.

Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old man from Pakistan, was killed on Friday night. His death came just days after Muhammad Afzaal Hussain (27) and Aftab Hussein (41), who were also from Pakistan and members of the same mosque.

Ehsan Chahalmi, Naeem Hussain’s brother-in-law, said he was “a generous, kind, giving, forgiving and loving soul who has been taken from us forever.”

Syed is currently charged with the murders of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain because bullet casings found at the crime scenes were linked to a gun found at his home, authorities said.

Investigators consider Syed to be the prime suspect in the deaths of Naeem Hussain and Ahmadi, but have yet to press charges in those cases.

The announcement that the shootings appeared to be linked produced more than 200 tips, including one from the Muslim community that police credited with leading them to the Syed family.

Police said they were searching Syed’s home in Albuquerque on Monday when they saw him drive away in a Volkswagen Jetta that investigators believe was used in at least one of the killings.

Officers followed him to Santa Rosa, about 110 miles (177 kilometers) east of Albuquerque, where they pulled him over. Several firearms were found from the home and his car, police said.

Syed’s sons were questioned and released, according to authorities.

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

Shia Muslims make up the second largest branch of Islam after Sunnis.

Aneela Abad, secretary general of the Islamic Center, said the two Muslim communities in New Mexico have warm ties.

“Our Shia community has always been there for us, and we, Sunni Muslims, have always been there for them,” she said.

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain had worked as a field organizer for Democratic Representative Melanie Stansbury’s campaign.

“Muhammed was kind, hopeful, optimistic,” she said, describing him as an urban planner “who believed in democracy and social change, and who believed that we could actually build a brighter future for our communities and for our world.”

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Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Fam from Winter Park, Florida. Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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