A Muslim man from Afghanistan was charged Tuesday with killing two other Muslim men in Albuquerque, authorities said, and he is suspected in two similar slayings that sparked fear in Muslim communities nationwide.
Officials announced the arrest of 51-year-old Muhammad Syed a day after he was taken into custody.
Police Chief Harold Medina said authorities found the suspect while tracking down a vehicle believed to be involved in one of the killings in New Mexico's largest city.
“The driver was detained, and he is our primary suspect for the murders,” he said in a tweet.
Investigators received tips from the city’s Muslim community that pointed toward Syed, who has lived in the U.S. for about five years, police said.
The motive and exact nature of the relationships between Syed and the victims – and the victims to one another – remained unclear. But police continued to investigate how they crossed paths before the shootings.
“Detectives discovered evidence that shows the offender knew the victims to some extent, and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings,” police said in a news release.
The slayings drew the attention of President Joe Biden, who said such attacks “have no place in America.” They also sent a shudder through Muslim communities, where some people questioned their safety and limited their movements.
When told about the announcement, Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, brother of one of the victims, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said he felt relieved but needed to know more about the suspect and the motive.
“This gives us hope that we will have (the) truth come out,” he said. “We need to know why.”
It was not immediately clear whether Syed had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
Naeem Hussain was killed Friday night, and the three other men died in ambush shootings. Three of the four slayings happened in the last two weeks.
Hussain, 25, was from Pakistan. His death came just days after those of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41, who were also from Pakistan and members of the same mosque.
The earliest case involves the November killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan.
The police chief said it was not clear yet whether the deaths deserve to be called hate crimes or serial killings.
“We still don’t have any indication that either of these incidents or topics, labels, would have been appropriate,” he said.
For now, Syed was charged in the killings of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain because bullet casings found at the crime scenes were linked to a gun found at his home, authorities said.
Investigators consider Syed to be the primary suspect in the deaths of Naeem Hussain and Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi but have not yet filed charges in those cases.
Police are investigating whether Sunni-Shiite tensions fueled Syed’s violence or if he was motivated by other ideas.
“The motives are still being explored fully to understand what they are,” Deputy Police Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said.
Police said they were about to search Syed’s Albuquerque home on Monday when they saw him drive away in a Volkswagen Jetta that investigators believe was used in at least one of the slayings.
Officers followed Syed to Santa Rosa, about 110 miles east of Albuquerque, where they pulled him over in a traffic stop. Multiple firearms were recovered from his home and car, police said.
Syed’s sons were questioned and released, according to authorities.
Prosecutors expect to file murder charges in state court and are considering adding a federal case, authorities said.
“It’s quite shocking,” Aneela Abad, general secretary at the Islamic Center of New Mexico, said of the arrest. “We are still trying to comprehend.”
She said she believed the suspect attended her mosque and that he had also been to other mosques.
Asked about possible Sunni-Shiite tensions, she said: “We don’t want to create that chaos about Shiite and Sunni.” She said the suspect’s “personal agenda” is “what caused this whole chaos.”
The two Muslim communities in New Mexico enjoy warm ties, she said. “Our Shiite community has always been there for us and we, Sunnis, have always been there for them.”
Few anti-Muslim hate crimes have been recorded in Albuquerque over the last five years, according to FBI data cited by Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a professor of criminal justice at California State University at San Bernardino.
From 2017 to 2020, there was one anti-Muslim hate crime a year. The highest recent number was in 2016, when Albuquerque police recorded six out of a total of 25 hate crimes.
That largely tracks with national trends, which hit the lowest numbers in a decade in 2020, only to increase by 45% in 2021 in a dozen cities and states, Levin said.
The most recent victim was found dead after police received a call of a shooting. Authorities declined to say whether the killing was carried out in a way similar to the other deaths.
Muhammad Afzaal Hussain had worked as a field organizer for Democratic Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s campaign.
“Muhammad was kind, hopeful, optimistic,” she said, describing him as a city planner “who believed in democracy and social change, and who believed that we could, in fact, build a brighter future for our communities and for our world.”
Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Fam from Winter Park, Florida. Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington and AP news researchers Rhonda Shafner and Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.