Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, say an “interpersonal conflict” may have motivated the prime suspect in a series of murders of Muslim men that have terrorized the city.
Muhammad Syed, 51, is charged with the murders of Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, who were shot on August 1 and July 26 respectively. Police believe Syed may also be linked to the murder of two other Muslim men in the city – Naeem Hussain, 25, who was shot dead just before midnight on Friday, hours after attending the funerals of two other victims, and Mohammad Ahmadi , who was killed in November outside a store where he worked with his brother.
Police Chief Harold Medina announced the arrest Tuesday afternoon, noting that authorities had located a vehicle believed to be linked to Naeem Hussain’s latest homicide.
Police released an image of a dark silver Volkswagen Jetta with tinted windows on Sunday. Deputy Police Commander Kyle Hartsock said a tip from the community led police to Syed.
He said several firearms were recovered from Syed’s home and car, including weapons linked to the murders of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.
In a Press releasepolice said the evidence showed “the offender knew the victims to some degree and that an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shooting.”
Aftab Hussein, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain and Naeem Hussain are all from Pakistan and all attended the same mosque, the Islamic Center of New Mexico.
President of the Ahmad Assed Mosque say it New York Times police told him the suspect was a Sunni Muslim who may have been targeting the victims because he was angry that his daughter had married a Shia Muslim.
At the press conference, Hartsock said “we’ve heard these things” but that police are still investigating the suspect’s motives.
Hartsock said Syed left Afghanistan for the United States a few years ago and had previously been charged with crimes including domestic violence.
Police have not yet said what Syed will be charged with, other than murder, but said they may also pursue federal charges.
The FBI was helping with the case and determining if the crimes were hate crimes.
Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, the brother of shooting victim Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, told VICE News he feels relieved after the arrest.
“Now we can get out of our house safely,” said Imtiaz Hussain. “The environment of fear is gone.”
He said the medical examiner who worked on his brother said his brother was shot with both a rifle and a handgun. He said half of his brother’s head was gone when he saw it.
“We wanted to bury him in Pakistan, but when we saw his body and his condition, we decided no, we couldn’t.”
Samia Assed, a human rights activist and member of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, said the community was “terrified and scared”.
Naeem Hussain was killed near Truman St. and Grand Ave. just before midnight Friday.
Assed said he was killed near his work, prompting community members to fear they were being watched.
She said attendance at prayer services had dropped and some people had fled the city.
“Most of these people have left war-torn areas. All they want is to have peace,” she said. “This kind of violence triggers so much.”
She said the city was considering launching a buddy system for Muslim students returning to school and there had been discussions about self-defense training for locals.
In a statement, the Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the killings may have been motivated by anti-Shia hatred.
“We are troubled by early indications that the alleged killer may have targeted particular members of the Shia community. If true, it is completely unacceptable, and we encourage law enforcement to bring any appropriate hate crime charges against the suspect,” the statement said.
The mosque hosts a memorial for the four victims on Tuesday evening.
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