ALBUQUERQUE, NM — In the case of four murdered Muslim men in Albuquerque, Muhammad Syed, an Afghan refugee, has now been charged with the murder of three of the victims.
New Mexico prosecutors used cell phone evidence to link Syed, 51, to the Aug. 5 murder of truck business owner Naeem Hussain. Police previously charged Syed with the killings of cafe employee Aftab Hussein on July 26 and urban planning director Muhammad Afzaal Hussain on Aug. 1 in the same area of southeast Albuquerque.
On Monday, a grand jury charged Syed with three counts of first degree murder and four counts of tampering with evidence for the killings of the immigrants of Pakistani and Afghan descent.
Police have said Syed is the primary suspect in a fourth murder, that of grocery store and cafe owner Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, last year. Federal prosecutors have also linked Syed’s 21-year-old son to the murder of Naeem Hussain.
Officials have alluded to a complex mix of motives, including personal feuds and even revenge as the motive behind the string of murders, which rocked the Muslim community in New Mexico and across the country this month.
Local Muslim community rejects sectarian conflict
There have been speculations and outright claims that sectarian violence played a part in the murders. Syed is Sunni, while three of the victims were Shi’a. Afzaal Hussain, a city planning director, was Sunni.
Some national Muslim groups have espoused the possibility of sectarian violence, including the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR). Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said the killings were clearly anti-Shi’a and the Shi’a Racial Justice Coalition “condemned the heinous targeted killing of Shia’s.”
But friends and family of the victims and the even local Muslim leaders in New Mexico have said such claims are completely inaccurate.
“The simplicity of saying this is Sunni-Shi’a hate crime is so reckless,” said Samia Assed, a Palestinian American human rights activist who hosted an interfaith vigil for the victims, told Reuters this week.
Detectives have said also said an “interpersonal conflict” may have driven the shootings of the men of Afghan or Pakistani descent.
In a detailed report from Reuters, Muslims who knew the victims have instead pointed to revenge and personal feuds as possible motives.
Shi’as and Sunnis pray together at the Islamic Center of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s main mosque, which three of the victims and their families attended, as did the suspect, who was banned from the mosque over disturbing behavior.
The simplicity of saying this is Sunni-Shi’a hate crime is so reckless. ¯ Samia Assed, New Mexico Palestinian American activist
Following the announcement of the manhunt for the suspected shooter, Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, cautioned against coming to any conclusions about the motivation of the suspect, who he said attended the center’s mosque “from time to time.”
Mazin Kadhim was Syed’s refugee resettlement case worker when he arrived in Albuquerque about six years ago. When Syed’s daughter Lubna Syed married Iftikhar Amir, a Shi’a, against his will in 2018, Syed’s traditional male authority was challenged and he was humiliated, Kadhim said.
Syed has been charged with the July 26 murder of Amir’s friend Aftab Hussein, 41, a cafe manager and recent immigrant.
Kadhim said Syed harbored hatred toward Shi’a Muslims, but believes Hussein’s death was a revenge killing for his daughter and son-in-law’s defiance.
“It wasn’t Sunni and Shi’a, it was extremism,” said Kadhim, a Shi’a who helped organize a Muslim unity march on Friday.
Afghan American business owner Mula Akbar said Syed, a truck driver, treated women as “property”, seldom worked and would try to illegally exchange digital food stamps for cash at stores, including his own.
The food stamp scheme led to a dispute with supermarket owner Ahmadi, Akbar said. Ahmadi was shot dead Nov. 7, 2021, in a killing police linked to the three other deaths in July and August of this year.
Imtiaz Hussain does not believe sectarian hate played any role in the Aug. 1 killing of his brother Afzaal Hussain, 27, who was Sunni. He dismisses claims he was mistaken as a Shi’a.
Hussain, a 41-year-old Pakistani lawyer, said he met Syed a few times at Albuquerque’s main mosque. He also said he and his brother once talked to Syed about Syed’s time as a refugee in Quetta, Pakistan after he left Afghanistan.
“He must have observed us praying in the same pattern as all other Sunni do,” said Hussain, who believes his brother was shot by more than one person.
— Reuters and staff. Edited for style.