Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
It was 1 o’clock in the morning when Muhammad Atif Syed, his wife and six children arrived at the Albuquerque International Sunport as Afghan refugees in 2016.
They were tired from the long journey but as their case manager tried to help the family load their luggage into a minivan, Syed began to argue with him.
“I have to see you face to face to show you the way he did it – just like to simplify it, like, ‘You don’t tell me what to do, wait for me to, I’ll get my luggage,’” Mazin Kadhim, a former case manager with Lutheran Family Services recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you know, I’m not trying to do anything offending you. I’m trying to serve you actually.’”
Kadhim took the family to an apartment in a neighborhood off East Central, and so their life in Albuquerque began.
Earlier this month, police announced Syed, 51, is the primary suspect in the brutal ambush-style fatal shootings of four Muslim men over the past nine months. He has been charged in two of the homicides.
The Journal combed through incident reports, lapel camera videos and court documents and talked with family members of the victims, leaders in the Muslim community and those who knew the Syed family to learn more about him and his time in the city.
Syed’s wife, in a brief conversation outside her apartment on Friday morning, said the situation has been terrible. She declined to do an interview, saying she spoke little English. The Journal is not identifying family members who have not been charged with a crime.
Over the past six years Syed and his family moved three times – occasionally falling behind on rent, according to court documents. Some of the children attended Highland High School and Central New Mexico Community College. Syed worked as a truck driver off and on.
The eldest daughter, now 25, met a man and got married.
Officers were called multiple times for reported fights between the father and his children but the cases – all involving misdemeanor domestic violence or battery charges – didn’t result in anyone being convicted.
Incident reports describe Syed and his wife as “very conservative Muslim parents” who primarily spoke Pashto and worried about their eldest daughter going out by herself. Videos show that in some cases the children seemed tearful and scared, but in others the entire family would not confide in the officers.
Tips from community
After four men from Afghanistan and Pakistan were shot to death around the city, the tips that led investigators to Syed’s doorstep came from within the Muslim community.
On the night of Aug. 8, investigators went to the family’s Southeast Albuquerque apartment to serve a search warrant and saw Syed drive away in a silver Volkswagen Jetta that they believe was used in the shootings.
Detectives, along with FBI agents, followed the car until just outside of Santa Rosa and then took Syed into custody, hitting him with a less-lethal 40mm rubber-tipped round. An APD spokesman said they didn’t detain Syed at his home because they were “working with outside agencies and units to set up contingencies for all possible outcomes for the apprehension, and that is time consuming.”
When he was arrested, Syed told detectives he was on his way to Houston because of the violence against Muslims in Albuquerque. He denied being involved in the shootings.
Syed is charged with two counts of murders in the deaths of 41-year-old Aftab Hussein on July 26 and 27-year-old Muhammad Afzaal Hussain on Aug. 1. Police say he ambushed the men near their homes, shooting each multiple times with a semi-automatic rifle. According to court documents, casings found at the two shootings matched guns Syed owned.
Investigators also say Syed is suspected in the Nov. 7 fatal shooting of Mohammad Zahir Ahmadi, 62, and the Aug. 5 fatal shooting of Naeem Hussain, 25, but he has not been charged in those killings.
Some of the victims share a common surname but are not related.
Shaheen Syed, Muhammad Syed’s 21-year-old son who also went by Maiwand, has been federally charged with giving a false address while buying a gun. Prosecutors allege that Shaheen Syed falsely claimed to live in Florida. However in response his attorney provided his driver’s license, which has the same address.
In court documents, prosecutors allege that Shaheen Syed was helping his father with the most recent shooting but he is not charged in that case. His attorney declined to comment but argued in court filings that the evidence is based on “exceedingly thin and speculative allegations.”
Both men have been ordered to be held behind bars while they await trial.
Muhammad Syed’s attorney, Tom Clark, stressed that a judge’s decision to detain Syed has nothing to do with his guilt or innocence. He said he has never had a client who is accused of multiple murders get released before trial so he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.
“We’ve seen the police documentation saying they have all this evidence but we haven’t seen these reports yet,” Clark said. “It’s hard to judge a case when its in such an early stage.”
Fear and panic
Fear and panic spread throughout Albuquerque’s Muslim community in early August after police announced that they believed the four men were shot to death by the same person. Many were concerned that the homicides were hate crimes or serial killings. Muslim community members said they stayed inside – or only went out in groups – or left the city, worried they could be next.
The investigation was reported on around the country and even internationally and drew condemnation from national figures, including the president, vice president and Islamic organizations, who said the hateful attacks have no place in America.
But the arrest of Syed, a Sunni Muslim, complicated the story and left the victims’ grieving family members struggling to find answers. Early reports indicated that some believed Syed was targeting Shiite Muslims, since three of the four victims were from that sect, but community leaders have expressed doubts about the theory.
Police have said Syed knew the victims “to some extent” and “an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings.” According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, Syed told detectives he had known Naeem Hussain since 2016 and knew Aftab Hussein from parties.
Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, the brother of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said he and his brother had met Syed and his children at the mosque but they did not have any disagreements and he doesn’t know why his brother was killed.
Unlike the other victims, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was not a Shiite Muslim and his brother, Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, rejected the idea of sectarian bias as a motive. Muhammad Afzaal Hussain had received his master’s degree from the University of New Mexico and was the planning and land use director in Española.
“We need to know why,” said Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, sitting in the living room of the apartment he had shared with his brother. “It is not important to give eternal punishment. It is important to know why – to save our kids from all those potential hate mongers and butchers. So I want to raise my voice, keep raising it louder and stronger. Please tell us why have they done that.”
After Aftab Hussein was shot to death in the parking lot of his apartment complex, the Journal spoke with his close friend.
Iftikhar Amirjan recounted how he met Aftab Hussein at the mosque after he moved to the U.S. in 2016 and how the two would go out to eat or go for a hike in the Sandia Mountains when they had free time.
The two were such close friends that after Amirjan got married in 2018 – leaving the state and going to Ohio because of conflict with his bride’s family – Aftab Hussein brought him clothes to wear.
Amirjan’s wife is Syed’s oldest daughter. Last week he filed for divorce. He declined to speak with the Journal again. Syed’s daughter has also declined to comment.
Both Amirjan and Aftab Hussein practiced Shiite Islam and many people have referenced witnessing Syed’s anger and disappointment at his daughter’s marriage. Syed was charged with battery in 2017 after he, his wife and son allegedly beat up Amirjan because they did not approve of the relationship.
It’s unclear what interactions Naeem Hussain had with Syed and his family but in court documents federal prosecutors paint a vivid picture of him leaving the mosque after attending funeral services for Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain on Aug. 5.
Like Syed, Aftab Hussein and Naeem Hussain were refugees who received assistance from Lutheran Family Services. Kadhim was their case manager. Supervisors at Lutheran Family Services did not respond to calls from the Journal.
According to court documents, security camera footage shows Naeem Hussain was followed by a car – what appeared to be a Volkswagen Jetta – as he drove to the nonprofit organization for a meeting.
Prosecutors say when Naeem Hussain parked his car he was shot to death in the driver’s seat. Officers found his body several hours later.
When Sharief A Hadi heard Syed had been arrested and was suspected of killing his brother Mohammad Zahir Ahmadi in November, at first he didn’t recognize the name.
But – after hearing Syed was from Afghanistan – it all clicked.
“Then I said, ‘Oh, he’s the one because he fight with my brother. He fights with me on the phone, cursing, whatever, you name it,’” Hadi said, speaking with the Journal at one of the six tables in the Ariana Halal Market & Cafe he and Ahmadi started together.
He said Syed and his wife were always complaining and Syed had grown angry when Ahmadi didn’t let him return a bag of rice that he had bought using an EBT card for cash because it is against the rules.
In February 2020, Syed was caught on a security camera video slashing the tires of a car that belonged to Hadi’s wife in the parking lot of the Islamic Center of New Mexico. The center’s leaders asked Syed to leave, and Hadi said he began asking an attorney who frequented his market to help him get Syed deported. Nothing ever came of that.
Then, in November 2021, Ahmadi – who specialized in Afghan dishes and took on catering jobs – stayed late at the shop one evening to finish cooking. When he stepped outside behind the store for a cigarette, he was shot to death.
The case appeared to lie dormant until investigators made the link between it and the other homicides.
Now Hadi keeps the door to the shop locked until a customer knocks. He doesn’t trust the police to show up if there’s a problem.
“I call them, they didn’t show up, they call late,” he said. “I say no more, please. I have to take care of myself. I bought the gun I have to carry with me anywhere I go.”
After he was arrested Syed told detectives he liked his AK-47 because it was similar to a gun he had back home. He said he had been with the Special Forces in Afghanistan and fought against the Taliban, but the Journal could not confirm this account.
The Associated Press reported that it had reviewed documents that indicated Syed graduated from Rehman Baba High School in western Kabul in 1990 and he worked as a cook for the Al Bashar Jala Construction Co. from 2010 to 2012. The documents did not list any military experience and when the Special Forces were formed in 2011 Syed was 40 – likely too old to be involved in the heaviest fighting.
Kadhim, himself a refugee from Iraq, said he worked with at least 350 people over his four years with Lutheran Family Services and he can’t remember most of them.
But Syed stood out for his combative nature and unwillingness to follow instructions on how to navigate the American system. Kadhim said Syed’s wife and children appeared to be under his control and acted like they were scared of him.
“One time he’s so happy with me, he is telling me good stories, and nine times he’s just mad for no reason,” Kadhim said. “Not just me, I remember, even the employment specialists and other people – they wanted us always to do more.”
He remembers being called to an English as a Second Language class because Syed was badgering other students from other sects of Islam about their beliefs.
Incident reports and videos obtained by the Journal paint a picture of a troubled family where fights sometimes turned physical.
In some cases, officers were called for reported abuse by Syed against his eldest daughter, his sons, and his wife. In other cases his two oldest sons were accused of battering family members or a girlfriend.
Earlier this year Syed’s son Shaheen Syed was arrested for battery against a household member for allegedly hitting his father and his sister. According to a criminal complaint it was not the first time he had injured his sister and previously she was hospitalized and taken into the custody of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department.
A CYFD spokesman could not answer questions about the family, citing confidentiality laws.
A prosecutor cited the previous incident in court on Wednesday, saying the girl was assaulted by Syed and his two sons and was “beaten so bad she was transported to UNMH” and “it’s alleged that she had at some point lost consciousness during this attack” and “had injuries consistent with a concussion.”
According to the prosecutor, ultimately everyone else in the family denied there was a confrontation and said the girl was lying so no one was charged.
The spate of shootings re-ignited fears among a refugee population who fled violence and destruction in their native lands.
‘That situation, trust me, it affected their brain, their feelings, everything …,” he said. “Even myself, you know, it’s still there that fear from Afghanistan. In my mind I remember what happened to us.”
Ansari said Syed and his family, as well as the men who were killed, had attended the society’s events and celebrations. He remembers Syed as calm and said he was shocked to hear he is accused of such crimes.
And Ansari strongly denounced the idea that the killings had anything to do with divisions between the Shiite and Sunni sects or among the Afghan community.
“We are a very united community in the past 20 years, still we are united,” he said. “This kind of a situation will not divide us will not separate us. We are one Muslim. We have the same book, the same Allah – the same God we worship.”