Muslim Killings in Albuquerque Stir Sectarian Ghosts

ALBUQUERQUE — Five years ago, Muhammad Syed was eyeing a new life with his family in a new land. They had fled war-torn Afghanistan and resettled as refugees into a small duplex near the airport in Albuquerque. Mr. Syed found work as a truck driver. But then the troubles began.

Coming from a culture where women largely stayed at home, he grew enraged with his wife as she was learning how to drive, grabbing her hair and kicking her out of the car, according to one of several reports of domestic violence the police were called to investigate. A security camera showed him slashing the tires of another woman’s car outside Albuquerque’s largest mosque, and he was banned from coming back to their place of worship.

When his daughter enrolled in college, he tried to force her to bring her brother to class as a chaperone. And when she became romantically involved with an Afghan man from a different branch of Islam — a Shiite, while Mr. Syed and his family were Sunni — he attacked the young man and threatened to kill him, the man later told the police.

“Syed was explosive, violent, always seeking revenge,” said Sharif Ahmadi Hadi, an Afghan immigrant who, together with his brother, opened a halal market serving Albuquerque’s growing Muslim community and knew both the Syed family and the victims. “We left Afghanistan to get away from people like him. But they followed us here.”

Altaf Hussain Samadi at the grave of Aftab Hussein, his brother, on Friday.Credit…Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal, via Associated Press

Now Mr. Syed has been identified as the leading suspect in the harrowing string of murders of four men, including Mr. Hadi’s younger brother, three of them Shiite Muslims, and the authorities said on Monday that Mr. Syed’s son, Shaheen Syed, purchased weapons with his father and may have helped him surveil one of the victims before his death.

One year after the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the killings, now connected by the authorities to a man who had prayed in the same mosque as the murder victims, have shaken the Muslim community in New Mexico with frightening echoes of the violence many of them had traveled half a world away to escape.

In Albuquerque, which took in more than 300 evacuees from Afghanistan over the past year after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the possibility that a foundational dispute of Islam could have been a factor in the killings in recent weeks was shocking. Sunni and Shiite Muslims differ in their beliefs over who was the proper successor to the Prophet Muhammad when he died nearly 1,400 years ago. While the historic division has fueled strife in several countries, including Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, it has been rare in the United States.

Mr. Syed was charged in two of the killings, those of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, based in part on bullet casings found at the scenes. The police said Mr. Syed was also the main suspect in two more killings, including that of Mr. Hadi’s brother.

Shaheen Syed was charged last week with lying about his address when he purchased two guns in 2021. In a new court filing on Monday, federal prosecutors said he had lied to investigators about accompanying his father to gun stores when his father purchased weapons, including on Aug. 1, the day Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was killed.

The prosecutors also said that on Aug. 5, when Naeem Hussain was killed hours after attending a funeral for two of the most recent victims, cellphone tower data indicated that Shaheen Syed’s phone was in the “general area” of the funeral around 3:39 p.m., but 20 minutes later had moved closer to the area where Mr. Hussain was killed in his car. The data also showed that Muhammad Syed’s phone was in the area of Mr. Hussain’s killing shortly after 4 p.m.

The filing also noted that Shaheen Syed and one of his brothers, Adil Syed, were involved in a shooting at a Walmart in July 2021. During what Shaheen Syed had described as a road rage incident, Adil had fired a gun once at the car of a man who he and his brother said had also been armed. No one appeared to be charged in the incident.

Muhammad Syed has told the police he had no involvement in the murders, and lawyers for both him and his son declined to discuss the cases. But the son’s lawyer, John C. Anderson, told the court on Monday that his client should not be detained based on “exceedingly thin and speculative allegations” about crimes that he had not been charged with. He said the cellphone tower data gave no indication of whether Shaheen Syed was 100 yards or five miles from the murder scene.

The Killings of Muslim Men in Albuquerque

  • Suspect Arrested: After the fatal shootings of four Muslim men since last winter — three in recent weeks — the police detained a man who was himself a Muslim.
  • New Details Emerge: Authorities charged the man, an Afghan immigrant, in two of the shootings after they found a bullet casing in his car that matched those found at one of the crime scenes.
  • A Shaken Community: The slayings had Muslim residents fearing for their safety in a place where Muslim immigrants and refugees had felt at home.

The police said they were not sure whether the crimes could be considered either serial killings or hate crimes until they had done more investigating. Mr. Syed’s long trail of violence and interpersonal conflict since his arrival in Albuquerque seemed to defy easy categorization.

A Friend Goes Missing

For weeks as the killings unfolded, Albuquerque’s small Muslim community — no more than 10,000 people in a city of half a million — had been on edge. Some families were hunkering down in their homes; others were making plans to leave New Mexico altogether.

Members of the Albuquerque community attending a vigil at the Islamic Center of New Mexico on Tuesday.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

But Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old immigrant from Pakistan who had recently started his own trucking business, made a point of being back in Albuquerque on Aug. 5 to mourn the loss of two of the murdered men: a fellow Pakistani, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, a city planner who had moved to Albuquerque to attend the University of New Mexico, and an Afghan, Aftab Hussein, 41, who had worked at Flying Star, a well-known Albuquerque cafe.

Naeem Hussain had donned a black T-shirt and blue trousers and headed to the funerals early that afternoon. Afterward, he and a few friends who were fellow truck drivers parted ways and agreed to meet at Naeem’s apartment a little later.

When Naeem didn’t show up, his friends drove around to the Mahdavi Center, a Shiite mosque, for holiday services, at around 6 p.m. As Shiites, they were observing Muharram, to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Naeem never arrived. Later that night, when he wasn’t answering his cellphone or texts, his friends grew nervous. They turned to Zenly, a transportation app that they often used to track one another on the road. It indicated Naeem’s car was parked near the intersection of Truman Street and Grand Avenue.

At about 11:20 p.m., the men spotted Naeem’s white 2020 Toyota 4Runner in the parking lot of Lutheran Family Services, where he was once employed as a case worker helping refugees resettle in Albuquerque. As they approached, they noticed the S.U.V.’s lights were on, the engine still running.

Naeem was slumped in the driver’s seat, his blood spread across the front seats. The police opened a fourth murder investigation.

“My eyes were burning,” said I. Hussein, one of Naeem’s friends, one of several who feared giving their full names for fear that Shiites could continue to be targeted. “I couldn’t go to sleep, the whole thing was coming to my head.”

He and other Shiite Muslims in the city contacted one another nervously, wondering whether the killer could be not only a fellow Muslim, but a Sunni targeting his victims to coincide with the Shiite holiday.

Lutheran Family Services in Albuquerque, where Naeem Hussain was killed in the parking lot. Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

The three victims killed in a 10-day span shared variations of the name Hussain, popular in the Shiite community because of its association to the prophet’s grandson. Two of the victims were Shiites, but the realization that the only Sunni victim, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, also shared the name led many to wonder if the killer may have targeted him by mistake.

Naeem’s friends left town in fear, driving to Virginia to stay with a friend.

“We came all the way from that side of the world because of this whole situation,” said I. Hussain, referring to the discrimination they suffered at the hands of Sunnis in Afghanistan, “and now they are doing the same thing they were doing there.”

The mystery of who had committed the crime may have been at least initially answered when the police announced that Naeem’s death was one of the four in which Mr. Syed was a primary suspect. The question of why remained unanswered.

A Father’s Violent Discipline

Though Mr. Syed claimed to have fought the Taliban in Afghanistan, no record of military service has emerged so far. After arriving in the United States in 2016, the family struggled to make ends meet, according to an Afghan friend who visited their home on numerous occasions. Mr. Syed, who had worked as a cook for a construction company in Afghanistan, eventually became a truck driver, though it was unclear how often he worked.

Starting almost immediately, though, police records detail a trail of troubling altercations between Mr. Syed and those around him.

His daughter, Lubna Syed, then 19 years old, reported to the police in May 2017 that her father had slapped her because she had made a phone call while he was talking to her. One of her brothers, perhaps covering for her father, told the police that she had “imagination issues,” and no one was charged.

That July, she called the police again to report “ongoing verbal and physical disputes with her very conservative Muslim parents.”

Ms. Syed told the officers that she had been arguing with her parents after they insisted that one of her brothers escort her to class at the University of New Mexico. Mr. Syed denied hitting his daughter, the officer wrote, but Ms. Syed appeared to have some redness on her arm and swelling around one eye.

Ayman Musleh, center, and Ali Kazimi, right, handing out roses during the solidarity event at the Islamic Center of New Mexico. Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

“Based on cultural differences and a statement from Lubna saying that she did not want her father arrested because it would only make their family dynamic worse, we decided to not make an arrest,” the officer wrote.

But just five months later, the police charged Mr. Syed with battery after Iftikhar Amir, his daughter’s boyfriend at the time, said that Mr. Syed, along with Mr. Syed’s wife and one of his sons, had beaten him after finding him in a car with the daughter.

Mr. Amir told the police that Ms. Syed’s family did not want her to date him, and he told police two months later that Mr. Syed had threatened to kill him. In both cases, he did not want to press charges.

Later, he and Lubna Syed were married, friends said; they bought a house together in November 2021. Both declined to comment.

The police were called back to the Syed home repeatedly: when Mr. Syed’s wife said Mr. Syed grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the floor; when his son said he hit him on the head with a spoon. Friends of Mr. Amir said he felt threatened by his father-in-law because he did not want his daughter associating with a Shiite.

Mr. Amir had been a close friend of Aftab Hussein, the cafe worker who was fatally shot in late July. Aftab Hussein’s brother Altaf Hussain Samadi, 32, said Mr. Amir told him that he believed his marriage to Lubna Syed had prompted Mr. Syed’s fury. “He said, ‘He should do something back to me, not to others if he has a problem with me,’” Mr. Samadi recalled.

‘A Place We Could Feel at Home’

The first death — one that Mr. Syed has not been charged with, though the police said he was the leading suspect — occurred in November, months before the other three shootings. Mohammad Zahir Ahmadi, the younger brother of the halal market’s owner, Mr. Hadi, was shot in the head while smoking a cigarette in the parking lot behind their business.

The brothers had made Albuquerque their home after trying out Philadelphia and Tucson, Ariz. New Mexico’s largest city, with its dry climate, monsoon rains and large Hispanic population, “looks like Kabul,” Mr. Hadi said. “The people look like Afghan people. I knew this was a place we could feel at home.”

With their business, Mr. Hadi said they got to know many people in the Muslim community, including the Syed family. One day when Mr. Ahmadi was working the cash register, his brother said, Mr. Syed came in with four bags of rice he had purchased days earlier using food stamps. Mr. Syed demanded a cash refund, but Mr. Ahmadi explained that doing so would constitute food stamp fraud.

All four of the victims attended the Islamic Center of New Mexico.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

Mr. Syed was clearly angry, Mr. Hadi said, and came to the store in person to threaten the family on three separate occasions. Mr. Syed would call the brothers “kafir.” The word, intended to be derogatory, refers to nonbelievers who understand religion but opt to hide from it. Popularized in Saudi Arabia to denigrate Shiite Muslims, the term was later adopted by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“When we’d tell him to leave, he’d just go to his car and sit in the parking lot waiting for us for hours,” Mr. Hadi said. “We called the police but they never showed up.”

The police said they had no record of any such calls for assistance. But in February 2020, surveillance images from the Islamic Center of New Mexico showed Mr. Syed slashing the tires of the car Mr. Hadi’s wife had parked outside the mosque there. Leaders of the mosque told Mr. Syed to stay away, and he did so for months.

Mr. Syed now stands accused of murder in the killings of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, and the police said they were still compiling their cases on the other two killings. Leaders of the Afghan community have said they are relieved that a suspect has been identified, but some have been reluctant to ascribe the killings to sectarian violence; the reasons for murder, they learned after decades of war, are often too complicated to fit simple labels.

Salim Anseri, a leader of the city’s Afghan community who knew Mr. Syed as well as all the victims, is one of those who is not ready to make a judgment. “Maybe he’s mentally ill, or had personal issues with the victims,” he said of Mr. Syed. “From what I can tell, it was personal issues.”

For Mr. Hadi, such distinctions matter little. Between fits of tears, he said he still had trouble going back to the spot where his brother’s life ended so abruptly.

“I still see him every day when I come to work,” Mr. Hadi said. “But he’s dead. Nothing is going to bring him back.”

Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Back to top button