Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, center thanks Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, left, following a press conference Tuesday to announce the arrest of Muhammad Syed, the suspect in a string of killings of Muslim men in Albuquerque. Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain’s brother, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, was killed Aug. 1. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Five days after Albuquerque investigators disclosed that they believed the recent killings of Muslim men around the city may be related, they took a suspect into custody.

Muhammad Syed following a 2020 arrest. (Source: MDC)

Muhammad Syed, 51, from Afghanistan, was arrested late Monday night outside of Santa Rosa. He was heading east on Interstate 40, toward Texas.

At a news conference in Albuquerque on Tuesday afternoon, police announced that Syed is charged in two of the four recent homicides – that of Aftab Hussein on July 26 and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain on Aug. 1. They said bullet casings found at the two scenes were likely fired from the same gun – which was found as investigators executed a search warrant.

A criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court on Tuesday night revealed that the suspect had hidden behind a bush near where Aftab Hussein typically parked his car, waited for him to get home and then shot him multiple times through the bush. In Muhammad Afzaal Hussain’s case, the shooting was a drive-by while he was walking near his apartment.

Aftab Hussein. (Courtesy APD)

Detectives are working with the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office to determine if Syed should be charged in the two other homicides – the Nov. 7 fatal shooting of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, and the Aug. 5 fatal shooting of Naeem Hussain, 25. Investigators say he is the “most likely person of interest or suspect in the case.”

The crimes gained national and international attention, and a combined $30,000 reward was being offered for information that led to a suspect’s arrest and conviction. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris denounced the killings on Twitter, saying “hate has no place in America.”

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27 (Courtesy of Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain)

And the city’s Muslim community was deeply shaken and scared – with many saying they were staying home or leaving town, afraid that they could be the next target of what at first appeared to be a series of random attacks.

On Tuesday, investigators disclosed that, in fact, the evidence showed Syed knew the victims “to some extent” and “an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings.”

After he was arrested, Syed told investigators he “has known Naeem Hussain since 2016 and recognized Aftab Hussein from parties in the community,” according to the complaint. Detectives do not say if he knew Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.

He denied being involved in their deaths. It’s not clear who his attorney will be.

Addressing questions about whether the conflict was due to tensions between members of different sects of Islam – Syed was reportedly a Sunni Muslim and his daughter reportedly married someone practicing Shia Islam – Deputy Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said the motive for the shootings is still being fully explored.

“We do have some information about those events taking place,” Hartsock said. “But we’re not really clear if that was the actual motive or if it was part of the motive, or if there’s a bigger picture that we’re missing. So what’s really important is we’re still investigating.”

Hartsock said that, at this time, Syed is the only person facing charges. He said detectives interviewed his two sons and they have been released.

One of his sons told investigators he went with his father to a gun store in July, where they each bought an AK-47. He said that,on Aug. 1 – the same day Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was killed – his father bought a scope for the gun.

When asked if he was with his father when he shot the four men, Syed’s son said “he knew about the shooting and that he did not shoot the victims in this case,” according to the complaint.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez said Syed could face additional charges as the investigation continues.

“We’re also working with our federal partners on the possibility of filing and pursuing federal charges at the same time if there is an appropriate federal statute,” Torrez said, addressing the bulk of his comments specifically to Muhammad Afzaal Hussain’s brother who was sitting on the sidelines at the news conference.

Hundreds of tips

Tips that led to Syed’s arrest came from within the Muslim community.

“Hundreds of tips have come in at the very least that have been thoroughly reviewed and gone through, dozens of interviews took place,” Hartsock said. “We started to focus in on Mr. Syed and last night secured a search warrant for his residence near Gibson and Carlisle in Southeast Albuquerque. As we were getting ready to execute that search warrant, we saw him load into a vehicle – as a matter of fact, a vehicle we believe was used in the homicides that we put out on the poster – and we followed him.”

New Mexico State Police, APD and the FBI stopped Syed’s car outside of Santa Rosa, about 115 miles from his home, and he was taken into custody as a SWAT team executed a search warrant on the apartment he shared with his family.

“Multiple firearms were recovered from that home that are continually being tested,” Hartsock said. “But, right now, we believe that at least one of them inside the home and one of them inside the car that was pulled over are matching to our two crime scenes on Rhode Island and Cornell.”

When he was stopped, Syed told police he was going to Houston to find a new place to live for his family because of the recent violence against Muslims in Albuquerque, according to the complaint. All he had with him was clothing, shoes and a gun.

Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, left, speaks at a press conference to announce the arrest of Muhammad Syed on Tuesday. At right is Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Police said they believe Syed came to New Mexico about five or six years ago. He told detectives he had been with the special forces in Afghanistan and fought against the Taliban.

Court documents show Syed had been arrested three times on misdemeanor battery charges, two of which involved domestic violence against his wife and son. Otherwise, his only other contacts with law enforcement were for traffic violations, although he was once arrested for resisting an officer during a traffic stop.

In 2017, Syed was charged with battery after his daughter’s boyfriend reported Syed, his son and wife found them in a car together, pulled him out and started punching and kicking him.

The boyfriend told police at that time that the family did not want them to be in a relationship. He did not say why.

That case was dismissed because the victim did not want to proceed.

In May 2018, Syed was arrested following a fight with his wife at the New Mexico Human Services Department office in Albuquerque. Syed’s wife told police that it had been her first time driving and Syed began to “curse, scream and yell as to why she is not a good driver and as to why she cannot learn quickly,” according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court.

Syed’s wife said he pulled her hair and kicked her out of the car, and made her walk. Then, she said, when she got to the office an hour and a half later, he grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. HSD staff corroborated the story and Syed was charged with battery against a household member. Those charges were later dismissed because the victim did not wish to proceed.

Later that year, Syed was arrested again, this time charged with aggravated battery, not causing great bodily harm.

In that case, Syed’s son reported his father was hitting his mother and that his sister tried to restrain him, according to another criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court. Syed’s son said that, when he got involved, his father struck him on the back of the head with a large metal slotted spoon, cutting him. He said his father routinely beat him and his mother, but she did not want to report it to police.

That case was dismissed because Syed complied with the prosecution’s conditions.

Cooperation key

Tuesday’s news conference was packed with political and law enforcement leaders who said over and over again that cooperation between multiple agencies was the key to the arrest. The FBI formed a task force of more than 100 investigators, intelligence analysts and other experts from many different federal agencies.

“I stand with everyone here today feeling positive about the work of law enforcement officers about what happens when we are really clear about public safety and focusing on communities, particularly in this situation that we know were – and can be – at risk,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “This is the kind of work, this collaboration, that yields real results. This is law enforcement and all partners at their best – it is what the state and this community both deserve and should expect in any context.”

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, who knew Muhammad Afzaal Hussain from when he worked on her campaign, addressed “the national profile that these tragedies have garnered across the United States.”

“The terror has not only affected New Mexico’s Muslim community, but all Muslim communities across the U.S.,” Stansbury said. “Our communities have been bracing to respond to the potential of hate-driven crimes, and the impacts of Islamophobia and other racist acts that have impacted our communities for far too long.”

Ahmad Assed, a defense attorney and president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, thanked law enforcement on behalf of the Muslim community and said he had teared up with gratitude as he heard about their work.

“We hope and pray that things are brought to a conclusion and there’s closure for the families soon,” Assed said. “We respect, certainly, the criminal justice system and the presumption of innocence, and we understand that this is just the beginning.”