New Mexico’s Muslim community recovers from arrest for murders

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Fear of attacks that had spread among Muslim communities across the country after the shooting deaths of four Muslim men in Albuquerque gave way to shock and sadness. when it turned out that the suspect in the murders is one of them.

Muhammad Syed, 51, was arrested Monday night after a traffic stop more than 100 miles from his home in Albuquerque. The Afghan immigrant denied any connection to the crimes that rocked the city and its small Muslim community.

In court documents, in fact, he told police that he was so nervous about the murders that he was driving to Houston to find a new home for his family, which includes six children.

But investigators said they have ample evidence to prove his guilt, though they have yet to discover a motive for the ambush-style killings, the first of which was in November and then three between July 26 and last Friday.

According to the criminal complaint, police determined that shell casings found in Syed’s vehicle matched the caliber of weapons believed to have been used in two of the murders and that shell casings found at the crime scenes were linked to the weapons found in Syed’s house and in his house. vehicle.

Of the more than 200 tips police received, it was one from the Muslim community that led them to the Syed family, authorities said, noting that Syed knew the victims and “an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings.” ”.

News of Syed’s arrest stunned Muslims in Albuquerque.

“I wanted a little shutdown for the community as we saw it getting out of control and people were really panicking. But, I’ll be honest with you, I was surprised,” said Samia Assed, a community organizer and member of the Islamic Center of New Mexico. She said that she did not want “these heinous crimes to be used in any way, in any capacity, to divide a community.”

Salim Ansari, president of the Afghan Society of New Mexico, said he was relieved by the news that an arrest had been made. But he was especially surprised because he knew Syed through social gatherings and was shocked to learn of the accusations against him and that court documents showed three cases of domestic violence against the man.

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“We never knew,” he said.

Ansari said he first met Syed and the family when they invited him to their home in 2020 to tell them about the local Afghan community and the group he leads. The couple ended up joining the society as members. As recently as last month, Syed and his family brought food and joined a shared gathering, Ansari said.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said.

On Wednesday, Syed made his first court appearance during a virtual arraignment. He was chained up and wearing a jumpsuit that said “HIGH RISK” on the back. His case has been transferred to the state District Court, where a judge will consider a motion by prosecutors to hold him without bail pending trial.

“He is a very dangerous person, and the only way to protect the community is to keep the defendant in custody,” prosecutors said in court documents.

Syed, through an interpreter, asked permission to speak, but his lawyer asked that the court not take his statement. He was not asked to plead guilty.

Syed has lived in the United States for about five years. When interviewed by detectives, Syed said that he had been with special forces in Afghanistan and that he fought against the Taliban, according to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday night.

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

In the complaint, authorities said a 9mm pistol was seized from their vehicle and an AK-47-style rifle and a 9mm pistol were found in the family’s home while serving a search warrant. Syed bought the rifle and his son Shaheen Syed bought the pistol at a local gun shop.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged Shaheen Syed with providing a false Florida address when he bought two rifles last year. He has denied any role in the murders and has not been charged in connection with them. He and another brother were interviewed by police on Monday.

The first of the four people fatally shot was Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, an immigrant from Afghanistan. Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old man from Pakistan, was killed last Friday. His death came a few days after those of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41, also Pakistanis and members of the same mosque.

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

Investigators consider Syed to be the main suspect in the deaths of Naeem Hussain and Ahmadi, but have not yet filed charges in those cases. Albuquerque police said Wednesday that as long as the suspect is in custody, homicide detectives will not rush the case.

Police say they are investigating a number of possible motives. Asked at a news conference Tuesday whether Muhammad Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was angry that his daughter had married a Shiite Muslim, the deputy police commander. Kyle Hartsock did not respond directly. He said “the reasons are still being fully explored to understand what they are.”

CNN interviewed Syed’s daughter shortly before the announcement of her 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 their 2018 marriage, but had recently been more accepting.

“My father is not a person who can kill someone,” the woman told CNN, who did not reveal her identity to protect her safety. “My father has always talked about peace. That is why we are here in the United States. We come from Afghanistan, from the fighting, from the shooting.”

In 2017, a boyfriend of Syed’s daughter reported to police that Syed, his wife and one of their children had pulled him out of a car, punching and kicking him before driving off, according to court documents. The boyfriend, who was found with a bloody nose, scratches and bruises, told police they attacked him because they didn’t want her in a relationship with him.

Syed was arrested in May 2018 after a fight with his wife turned violent, according to court documents. Prosecutors said both cases were dismissed after the victims refused to press charges. Syed was also arrested in 2020 after being accused of refusing to stop for police after running a light, but that case was ultimately dismissed, according to court documents.

Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole said the crimes Syed is suspected of committing fit the definition of a serial killer, although Albuquerque police have not classified him as such. She said serial killers often have red flags like past domestic violence or sexual assaults that precede the murders.

“People don’t wake up one morning and become a serial killer,” he said. “We would go back and see other crimes that were happening in the area before the serial killings happened. Because there are periods of time where they have to practice being violent. And that practice can start at home.”

O’Toole said the motives for the four murders may have varied from victim to victim. O’Toole said he would like to know what led to three murders in quick succession eight months after the first.

“This behavior that we’re seeing in this case is cold-blooded, premeditated, and involves hunting behavior, actually hunting human beings, which is probably as cold-blooded as it gets,” he said.

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Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Fam from Winter Park, Florida. Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and researchers Rhonda Shafner and Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religious coverage is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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