By Andrew Hay
TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) -Police in New Mexico on Tuesday arrested a man they called their prime suspect in the fatal shootings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque since November, a series of ambush killings that have shaken the Islamic community in the state’s largest city.
Police credited tips from the public in helping investigators locate a car that detectives believed was used in at least one of the killings and ultimately track down the suspect, identified as Muhammad Syed, 51, an Albuquerque resident.
Syed was formally charged with two of the homicides: those of Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, killed on July 26 and Aug. 1, respectively, but he is considered a suspect in all four murders, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said at a news conference.
The latest victim, Nayeem Hussain, 25, a truck driver who became a U.S. citizen on July 8, was killed on Friday, hours after attending the burial of the two men slain in July and August, both of them of Pakistani descent.
The first known victim, Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, a native of Afghanistan, was killed on Nov. 7, 2021, while smoking a cigarette outside a grocery store and cafe that he ran with his brother in the southeastern part of the city.
Police said the two killings with which Syed was initially charged were tied together based on bullet shell casings found at the two murder scenes, and the investigation branched out from there.
According to police, detectives were preparing to search Syed’s home in southeastern 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.”
In addition to recovering multiple firearms from the suspect’s home, detectives “discovered evidence that shows the offender knew the victims to some extent, and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings,” police said in a statement.
Albuquerque and state authorities have been working to provide extra police presence at mosques during times of prayer as the investigation proceeded in the city, home to as many as 5,000 Muslims out of a total population of 565,000.
The ambush-style shootings of the men, all of Pakistani or Afghan descent, have terrified 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 Aug. 1, said news of the arrest reassured many in the Muslim community.
“My kids 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.
The three most recent victims all attended the Islamic Center of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s largest mosque. They were all shot near Central Avenue in southeastern Albuquerque.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller thanked local, state and federal law enforcement for their work on the case.
“We hope their swift action brings an increased sense of safety for so many who are experiencing fear from the recent shootings,” he said in a statement.
The manner in which the victims were killed suggested to relatives that the murders were hate crimes.
“There is some extreme hatred in the mind of the shooter,” said Hussain.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico and Rami Ayyub in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)