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Fear turns to shock among Albuquerque Muslims as police say the shooter is a Muslim

Participants in an interfaith memorial ceremony enter the New Mexico Islamic Center mosque to commemorate four murdered Muslim men, hours after police said they had arrested a prime suspect in the killings, in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday.
Andrew Hay
Participants in an interfaith memorial ceremony enter the New Mexico Islamic Center mosque to commemorate four murdered Muslim men, hours after police said they had arrested a prime suspect in the killings, in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday.

The killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque had already shaken the city's small Muslim community, prompting businesses to close and residents to temporarily move away amid fears of a deadly spate of Islamophobic hate crimes.

Then came Tuesday's news: The suspect, police say, is a 51-year-old man named Muhammad Syed, who is Muslim himself and whose motive may have been related to "interpersonal conflict."

"You would expect that learning that a suspect is found and has been detained, it would feel like a breath of relief," said Leena Aggad, the 23-year-old vice president of the University of New Mexico's Muslim Student Association.

Instead, she said, news of the arrest felt "like another chain was placed on my heart."

The suspect is well-known in the Muslim community

Syed is well-known to the Muslim community in Albuquerque, multiple people told NPR. He regularly came to the same mosque that the victims had attended.

"For months, this guy was praying next to other members of the community as if everything was normal," Aggad said. "It shocks you."

Syed has been charged in two of the four deaths, and police say he is the primary suspect in the other two killings. He was arrested during a traffic stop more than 100 miles from Albuquerque, authorities said Tuesday.

In a conversation with officers, Syed denied connection to the shootings. According to the criminal complaint, a gun recovered from his home matched bullet casings found at the crime scenes.

Police are working to determine a motive for the killings

Some reports have suggested the possibility that Syed, a Sunni Muslim, had targeted his victims over anger that his daughter had married a Shia Muslim. Authorities said Tuesday they are still working to determine the motive. ("Detectives discovered evidence that shows the offender knew the victims to some extent and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings," a police statement said.)

The suspect had lived in New Mexico for several years after immigrating from Afghanistan.

The crimes date to last November, when Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi, the 62-year-old Afghan-born owner of a halal market, was found shot to death near his store.

Then, over the past several weeks, three more men were killed: Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old truck driver and refugee services worker who had recently acquired his U.S. citizenship; Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, a 27-year-old planning director for the nearby city of Española; and Aftab Hussein, a 41-year-old café employee — "all really wonderful young men that enjoyed a very good reputation within their inner circles," said Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, in an interview with NPR.

All three were South Asian, and all three attended the same mosque. Their community was so small that Naeem Hussain, the most recent victim, had attended the funerals of the other two.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, whose brother Muhammad Afzaal was killed on Aug. 1, told NPR he did not believe the reports that the suspect had targeted the victims over anger about his daughter marrying a Shia.

"My brother is single," he said, and the siblings had been raised as Sunnis. They were born in Pakistan and had immigrated individually to New Mexico, where his brother came to study at the University of New Mexico, he said.

At school, his younger brother was elected president of the university's Graduate and Professional Student Association, and he proudly told his older brother about the election: " 'I'm an immigrant. I'm Muslim. I'm dark-skinned. English isn't my first language. And yet, look, people are appreciative. There's no discrimination,' " Hussain recalled.

For some, the killings renew worries about how Muslims are perceived

The three recent killings at such a rapid pace, with the latest death last Friday, had rattled the community of several thousand Muslims who live in the Albuquerque area.

Before the news of the arrest, Assed said, the fear had disrupted daily life. People stayed home from work and prayer services out of fear of becoming a target. Some had temporarily moved out of the state altogether, he added.

"It's a very scary situation, because their tranquility and peace has been taken away. You're always looking around, behind your shoulder, to see if somebody is following you," said Abdur'Rauf Campos-Marquetti, a local imam.

Aggad, who wears a hijab, said she was "very scared" to leave her house. "For me, walking outside with a scarf, I am a walking symbol of Islam. It's very obvious that I'm a Muslim," she said.

Now, residents say, the fear has dissipated, but tension remains. At a community vigil held Tuesday night, some residents expressed worry about the perceptions of Muslims in America — that when one Muslim commits a crime, non-Muslims may view the entire faith as violent or extreme.

"It took me back to September 11th, a time where I just wanted to hide under a rock," said Samia Assed, who helped to organize the Tuesday night event. "It was just so unexpected."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.