Muslims relieved and bewildered after Albuqerque murders case arrest

<span>Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

It was a modern-day murder mystery: who had killed four Muslim men in Albquerque, New Mexico, since November? And was the same person responsible?

There were no strong leads initially. Some guessed the murders were hate crimes, maybe by a far-right white supremacist, as fear struck the hearts of the local Islamic community.

Related: New Mexico police detain primary suspect in killings of four Muslim men

Yet now, the prime suspect is one of that tight-knit community’s very own, possibly infuriated that his daughter married into the “wrong” Islamic sect.

Authorities’ theory has sent shock waves beyond New Mexico’s largest city, where longtime resident Alaw Aldhilemi couldn’t comprehend it.

“We have a free country here – why did he do that?” said Aldhilemi, a Shia Muslim who regularly frequents his Sunni friend’s cafe. “We don’t live in Iraq or Afghanistan. We live in America.”

Nonetheless, the arrest of suspect Muhammad Syed, 51, offers a slight measure of peace to a community whose members began avoiding going out in the evening when it was unclear whether they might fall prey to a predator on a killing spree. And it also meant the deaths were not ignored, regardless of the victims’ national origin or faith, as some – including their loved ones – worried they might.

Among those who fretted their relative’s death might be forgotten was 73-year-old Sharief Hadi, now the sole owner of Ariana, after his brother Mohammad “Zahir” Ahmadi, 62, was murdered there last year.

The two brothers, originally from Afghanistan but longtime residents of Albuquerque, ran the grocery store and cafe for many years together before their partnership came to a tragic halt, he explained recently as he poured a cup of hot tea.

Muslims worship during Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Muslims worship during Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

On 7 November, Ahmadi went behind the store to smoke a cigarette when he was shot and killed.

“This business was his hope,” Hadi said. “He loved this business. He cooked all the time for people. He was perfect.”

Hadi remembers virtually every detail about the day Ahmadi was murdered. He recalls going home early to meet with a friend and seeing Ahmadi napping on a sofa in the cafe before he left – his last memory of his brother. He hasn’t forgotten the terrible chill that coursed through his body when a neighboring retailer called him and told him to check on his store – especially because Ahmadi had never made it home.

When Hadi arrived, an officer told him, “Your brother’s killed himself.”

“I said, ‘What you’re talking about?’” Hadi added, recounting how investigators took his brother’s body before he then tried to wipe up dried blood and brain matter that still remained.

Hadi mourned. He installed a camera behind the store, near where an Afghan woman in a purple headscarf had molded dough into the large flatbread displayed in the storefront.

He commiserated with a neighboring jeweler who identified herself only as Jennifer, a Native American woman with a dark, slicked-back braid who reported Ahmadi’s body to the police and – thoroughly unnerved – ditched plans to publicize her business.

What disturbed her about Ahmadi’s violent death is that “he was … happy to be here,” she said, adding that he tried to teach her how to make the bread that the store sold. “He had a dream. He worked hard. He worked harder than some Americans.”

Nonetheless, like Hadi, she feared investigators wouldn’t ever challenge the initial officer’s assumption that Ahmadi died by suicide.

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27.
Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27. Photograph: AP

That began to change when 41-year-old Aftab Hussein was shot to death less than three miles away from Ahmadi and Hadi’s store on 26 July. Six days later, a little more than four miles from there, 27-year-old Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was shot dead outside his apartment building.

And, hours after attending a funeral service for Hussein and Hussain on 5 August, 25-year-old Naeem Hussain was shot to death in the same general area.

The police couldn’t ignore the similarities among the slayings, and their investigation went into overdrive. All three men were Albuquerque residents from Pakistan. They were unrelated, but they had different variations of the same last name and were killed within just a few miles of each other.

Authorities acknowledged their religious faith and national origin may have made them targets. That ignited rumors of a hate-fueled killing spree that could date back as far as the death of Ahmadi, in a state where hate crimes aimed at race and religion have the highest number of victims among other kinds reported hate crimes.

Even Joe Biden weighed in. The president tweeted that he was “angered and saddened by the horrific killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque”.

Police published a description and surveillance pictures of a silver, four-door Volkswagen that appeared to be linked to at least a couple of the slayings as some Albuquerque Muslims locked themselves in their homes or considered fleeing. Crime Stoppers and the Council on American Islamic Relations offered a combined reward of $30,000 for information leading to the murderer.

Hundreds of tips about the car’s whereabouts poured in. On 9 August, authorities spotted Syed driving that vehicle 100 miles from New Mexico’s border with Texas and stopped him. They found bullet casings matching those recovered at the scenes where Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Hussain were killed, along with a gun.

He has been charged in those two murders, though he has pleaded not guilty while claiming that he fought alongside American forces in Afghanistan.

Police have said they continue investigating whether there is reason to charge him with any other slayings.

Detectives say they haven’t determined a motive, though they believe those slain were watched and ambushed, something the Albuquerque police spokesperson, Gilbert Gallegos, called “unusual” for these parts.

“Most of the murders tend to be just toward drug sales or road rage,” Gallegos remarked.”

But the small Afghan community to which Syed belonged eyes him with suspicion.

Though his family is standing by him, Syed has an extensive history of domestic violence, according to newly released police records. His past charges include assaulting his wife, his son and a man allegedly dating his daughter at the time, though prosecutors eventually dropped those cases.

Hadi said he, his brother and their employees had trouble with Syed – a regular customer of their shop – before the spate of killings erupted.

Independent of the charges against Syed, the Alzahra Islamic Center president, Mizan Kadhim, a former Lutheran Family Services caseworker whose organization helps refugees resettle in the area, said he was “shocked and disgusted” by his background.

“When you come to this country, all you want to do is be successful and to live a peaceful life,” Kadhim said. “My mind never went to violence.”

Kadhim – a refugee himself – wanted to give back to other refugees and the town he called home. He worked with Naeem Hussain at Lutheran Family Services. He said of all the killings in his community recently, that of his former friend and colleague hurt the most.

“It just was like a huge relief for us when they caught [Syed] because the fear in the community was so big,” Kadhim added. “But the fear is still here. Some of my community members said they don’t know if there’s more of them … We never thought this is going to happen in America.”

Kadhim is uniquely positioned to intensely feel the killings’ horror. He welcomed Syed when he first arrived in Albuquerque from Afghanistan nearly six years ago – and he did the same for some of the victims.

He often made home visits to check in on Syed and his family when they were assigned to him. But while Kadhim said Syed “was not a nice person”, he never expected he would be accused of murder.

Speculation about Syed’s possible motives for murder began to surface in news media around the country and from acquaintances. Kadhim said it was well-known that Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was greatly displeased with his daughter for marrying a Shia.

Hussein and Hussain can be Shia surnames, and Ahmadi can be one, too. Community members say they suspect the last names possibly factored into the victim selection, though authorities have not officially confirmed that this was Syed’s motive.

“He was going crazy over it,” Kadhim added.

It’s an explanation that – if true – won’t ever sit well with Alaw Aldhilemi, a Shia Muslim who regularly patronizes the Sunni-owned Yasmine’s Cafe on Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s “Main Street”, sitting on a portion of Route 66, the historic US highway.

Aldhilemi alluded to how Islam’s Sunni and Shia sects agree on most of the religion’s fundamentals, and the split essentially comes down to the sides’ beliefs over who should succeed the faith’s founder, the prophet Muhammad.

To most of the Muslims in Albuquerque, it’s a distinction hardly worth arguing over – much less killing for, Aldhilemi said.

“We’re all Sunni and Shia here,” Aldhilemi added, gesturing at the entire restaurant. “But this guy … he’s not Shia. He’s not Sunni. He’s like people who don’t have brains.”

Meanwhile, Albuquerque’s Muslim community – Sunnis and Shias alike – stood together again on the first Friday since Syed’s arrest, shoulder to shoulder, as the civic plaza reverberated with the weekly call to prayer.