A fear of attacks that had rippled through Muslim communities nationwide in the United States after the fatal shootings of four men in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gave way to shock and sadness when it turned out the suspect in the killings was himself a Muslim.
Muhammad Syed, 51, of Albuquerque, was arrested Monday after a traffic stop more than 160 km (100 miles) from his Albuquerque home. The Afghan immigrant denied any connection to the crimes that shook the city and its small Muslim community.
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In court documents, he told police that he was so unnerved by the slayings that he was driving to Houston to find a new home for his family.
But investigators have said they have ample evidence to prove his guilt, though they have yet to uncover the motive. The first ambush-style shooting happened in November and was followed by three more between July 26 and August 5.
According to the criminal complaint, police determined that bullet casings found in Syed’s vehicle matched the calibre of the weapons believed to have been used in two of the killings and that casings found at the crime scenes were linked to guns found at Syed’s home and in his vehicle.
Of the more than 200 tips police received, it was one from the Muslim community that led them to the Syed family, authorities said, noting that Syed knew the victims and “an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings”.
The news of Syed’s arrest stunned Muslims in Albuquerque.
“I wanted a little closure for the community, as we saw it going out of hand and people were really panicking, but, I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked,” said Samia Assed, a community organiser and member of the Islamic Center of New Mexico.
“I was angry, frustrated,” Assed said, adding that she did not want “these heinous crimes to be in any way, in any capacity used to divide a community”. But she also said that the Muslim community in New Mexico is “going to have a more united front”.
Prosecutors on Wednesday filed a motion to detain Syed without bond pending trial. “He is a very dangerous person, and the only way to protect the community is to hold the defendant in custody,” they said.
Authorities seized a 9 mm handgun from his vehicle and said they found an AK-47-style rifle and a pistol of the same calibre at the family home while serving a search warrant, according to court documents, which indicate the weapons were legally purchased last month. Syed bought the rifle, and his son Shaheen Syed purchased the pistol, at a local gun shop.
On Wednesday, Shaheen Syed was charged by federal prosecutors with providing a false Florida address when he bought two rifles last year. He has denied any role in the killings and has not been charged in connection with them.
Muhammad Syed has lived in the US for about five years, police said. When interviewed by detectives, Syed spoke through a Pashto interpreter and said he had been with the special forces in Afghanistan and fought against the Taliban, the criminal complaint said.
Police say they are looking at a number of possible motives. When asked at a news conference Tuesday if Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was angry that his daughter married a Shia Muslim, Deputy Police Commander Kyle Hartsock did not respond directly. He said, “motives are still being explored fully to understand what they are.”
Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, on Tuesday acknowledged that “there was a marriage,” but he cautioned against coming to any conclusions about the motivation of the suspect, who occasionally attended the centre’s mosque.
CNN interviewed Syed’s daughter shortly before the announcement of his arrest. She said her husband was friends with two of the men who were killed. She also acknowledged her father initially was upset about her 2018 marriage but recently had been more accepting.
“My father is not a person who can kill somebody,” the woman told CNN, which did not disclose her identity to protect her safety. “My father has always talked about peace. That’s why we are here in the United States. We came from Afghanistan, from fighting, from shooting.”
In 2017, a boyfriend of Syed’s daughter reported to police that Syed, his wife and one of their sons had pulled him out of a car, punching and kicking him before driving away, according to court documents. The boyfriend, who was found with a bloody nose, scratches and bruises, told police that he was attacked because they did not want her in a relationship with him.
Syed was arrested in May 2018 after a fight with his wife turned violent, court documents said. Prosecutors said both cases were later dismissed after the victims declined to press charges.
Syed also was arrested in 2020 after he was accused of refusing to pull over for police after running a traffic light, but that case was eventually dismissed, court documents said.
The Albuquerque 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 across the US as some people questioned their safety and limited their movements.
“There is no justification for this evil. There is no justification to take an innocent life,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations, said at a Tuesday news conference in Washington, DC. He called the killings “deranged behavior”.
The earliest case involves the November killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan.
Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old man from Pakistan, was killed last Friday. 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.
Investigators consider Syed to be the primary suspect in the deaths of Naeem Hussain and Ahmadi but have not yet filed charges in those cases.
Ehsan Chahalmi, the brother-in-law of Naeem Hussain, said he was “a generous, kind, giving, forgiving and loving soul that has been taken away from us forever”.
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.