By Andrew Hay and Steve Gorman
ALBUQUERQUE, NM (Reuters) – A Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan has been arrested as the prime suspect in the serial killings of four Muslim men that rocked the Islamic community in New Mexico’s largest city, police said on Tuesday.
After days of beefing up security around Albuquerque-area mosques in an effort to quell fears of a shooter fueled by anti-Muslim hatred, police said Tuesday they had arrested 51-year-old Muhammad Syed, one of the city’s Muslim immigrant community.
Authorities said the killings may have been rooted in a personal grudge, possibly with intra-Muslim sectarian undertones.
All four victims were of Afghan or Pakistani descent. One was killed in November, and the other three in the last two weeks.
A search of the suspect’s home in Albuquerque uncovered “evidence indicating that the offender knew the victims to some degree and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings,” police said in a statement announcing the arrest.
Investigators are still working to piece together a motive for the murders of the four men, Albuquerque Police Department Deputy Chief Kyle Hartsock said at a news conference.
In response to reporters’ questions, Hartsock said sectarian animus by the suspect toward his fellow Muslim victims may have played a role in the violence. “But we’re not entirely clear if that was the actual subject, or if it was part of a subject, or if it’s just a bigger picture that we’re missing,” he said.
Syed has a record of criminal misdemeanors in the United States, including a case of domestic violence, in the past three or four years, Hartsock said.
Police credited a series of tips from the public with helping investigators find a car that investigators believed was used in at least one of the murders, and eventually tracking down the man they called their “prime suspect” in all four murders.
Syed was formally charged with two of the murders: those of Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, killed on July 26 and Aug. 1, respectively, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina told the briefing.
The latest victim, Nayeem Hussain, 25, a truck driver who became a US citizen on July 8, was killed on Friday, hours after he attended the funerals of the two men killed in July and August, both of Pakistani descent.
The last three victims all attended the Islamic Center of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s largest mosque. They were all shot near Central Avenue in southeast Albuquerque.
The first known victim, Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, a native of Afghanistan, was killed on November 7, 2021, while smoking a cigarette outside a grocery store and cafe he ran with his brother in the southeastern part of the city.
Police said the two murders Syed was originally charged with were tied together based on bullet casings found at the two murder scenes, and the gun used in those shootings was later found in his home.
According to police, investigators were preparing to search Syed’s residence in southeast 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.”
Albuquerque and state authorities have worked to provide extra police presence at mosques during times of prayer while the investigation continued in the city, home to as many as 5,000 Muslims out of a total population of 565,000.
The ambush-style shooting of the men has alarmed 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.
Imtiaz Hussain, whose brother worked as a city planning director and was killed on August 1, said news of the arrest reassured many in the Muslim community.
“My children asked me, ‘Can we sit on our balcony now?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and they said, ‘Can we go out and play now?’ and I said, ‘Yes,'” he said.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Washington; Tyler Clifford in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Cynthia Osterman, Daniel Wallis and Raju Gopalakrishnan )