It was a modern murder mystery: Who had killed four Muslim men in Albquerque, New Mexico, since November? And was the same person responsible?
There were no solid tracks at the start. Some guessed the killings were hate crimes, possibly committed by a far-right white supremacist, as fear struck the hearts of the local Islamic community.
Yet now the prime suspect is one of the close-knit community members, perhaps furious that his daughter married into the “wrong” Islamic sect.
The authorities’ theory sent shockwaves beyond New Mexico’s largest city, where longtime resident Alaw Aldhilemi couldn’t relate.
“We have a free country here – why did he do this?” says 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 small measure of peace to a community whose members have begun to avoid going out at night when it was unclear whether they might fall prey to a predator during a kill. And it also meant that deaths were not ignored, regardless of the national origin or religion of the victims, as some – including their relatives – feared they might be.
Among those who feared their loved one’s death would be forgotten was Sharief Hadi, 73, now sole owner of Ariana, after his brother Mohammad “Zahir” Ahmadi, 62, was murdered there last year. last.
The two brothers, originally from Afghanistan but longtime residents of Albuquerque, ran the grocery store and cafe together for many years before their partnership came to a tragic end, he explained recently while paying a cup of hot tea.
On November 7, 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 job. He cooked for people all the time. He was perfect.
Hadi remembers virtually every detail of the day Ahmadi was murdered. He remembers coming home early to meet a friend and seeing Ahmadi napping on a sofa in the cafe before leaving – his last memory of his brother. He hasn’t forgotten the terrible shiver that ran through his body when a nearby retailer called and told him to check out his store – especially because Ahmadi had never been home.
When Hadi arrived, an officer told him, “Your brother committed suicide.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? ‘” Hadi added, recounting how investigators took his brother’s body before he tried to wipe away the dried blood and brain matter that remained.
Hadi was crying. He set up a camera behind the store, near where an Afghan woman wearing a purple headscarf had molded dough into the large flatbread displayed in the storefront.
He empathizes with a nearby jeweler who identified only with Jennifer, a Native American woman with a dark, slicked-back braid who reported Ahmadi’s body to the police and – completely pissed off – abandoned plans to publicize her business. .
What troubled her about Ahmadi’s violent death was that ‘he was…happy to be here’, she said, adding that he had tried to teach her how to bake bread what the store was selling. “He had a dream. He worked hard. He worked harder than some Americans.
Nonetheless, like Hadi, she feared investigators would never challenge the officer’s initial assumption that Ahmadi had committed suicide.
That began to change when Aftab Hussein, 41, was shot dead less than three miles from Ahmadi and Hadi’s store on July 26. Six days later, just over six kilometers away, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, was shot dead outside his apartment building.
And, hours after attending a funeral service for Hussein and Hussain on August 5, Naeem Hussain, 25, was shot dead in the same general area.
The police could not ignore the similarities between the murders and their investigation accelerated. All three men were Albuquerque residents of Pakistan. They weren’t related, but they had different variations of the same surname and were killed within a few miles of each other.
Authorities have acknowledged that their religious faith and national origin may have made them targets. It sparked rumors of a series of hate-fueled killings that may trace back to Ahmadi’s death, in a state where hate crimes targeting race and religion have the highest number of victims among others types of hate crimes reported.
Even Joe Biden weighed in. The president tweeted that he was “irritated and saddened by the horrific murders of four Muslim men in Albuquerque”.
Police released a description and surveillance photos of a silver four-door Volkswagen that appeared to be linked to at least two of the killings 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 killer.
Hundreds of car whereabouts information poured in. On August 9, authorities spotted Syed driving the vehicle 100 miles from the New Mexico border with Texas and arrested him. They found shell casings matching those recovered from the scene where Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Hussain were killed, as well as a firearm.
He was charged with both murders, although he pleaded not guilty while saying he fought alongside US forces in Afghanistan.
Police said they are continuing to investigate whether to charge him with any further murders.
Detectives say they haven’t determined a motive, though they believe those killed were watched and ambushed, which Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos called a ‘unusual’ for these regions.
“Most murders tend to be solely related to dealing drugs or road rage,” Gallegos remarked.
But the small Afghan community to which Syed belonged looks at him with suspicion.
Although his family supports him, Syed has a long history of domestic violence, according to newly released police records. His past charges include assaulting his wife, son and a man who was allegedly dating his daughter at the time, although prosecutors eventually dropped those cases.
Hadi said he, his brother and their employees had problems with Syed – a regular customer at their store – before the killing spree broke out.
Regardless of the charges against Syed, Alzahra Islamic Center president Mizan Kadhim, a former Lutheran Family Services social worker whose organization helps resettle refugees in the area, said he was “shocked and disgusted” by his past.
“When you come to this country, all you want is to be successful and live a peaceful life,” Kadhim said. “My mind never went to violence.”
Kadhim – a refugee himself – wanted to give back to other refugees and to the city he called home. He worked with Naeem Hussain at Lutheran Family Services. He said that of all the recent murders in his community, that of his former friend and colleague was the most hurtful.
“It was like a huge relief for us when they caught [Syed] because the fear in the community was so great,” Kadhim added. “But the fear is still there. Some in my community said they didn’t know if there were more… We never thought this would happen in America.
Kadhim is uniquely placed to feel the horror of the killings intensely. 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 house calls to check if Syed and his family were assigned to him. But while Kadhim said Syed “was not a good person”, he did not expect him to be charged with murder.
Speculation about possible motives for Syed’s murder began to surface in media outlets across the country and by acquaintances. Kadhim said it was well known that Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was very upset that his daughter had married a Shia.
Hussein and Hussain can be Shia surnames, and Ahmadi can be one too. Community members say they suspect family names may have been considered in the selection of victims, although authorities have not officially confirmed that was Syed’s motive.
“He was going crazy about it,” Kadhim added.
It’s an explanation that – if true – will never sit well with Alaw Aldhilemi, a Shia Muslim who regularly frequents the Sunni-owned Yasmine’s Cafe on Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s “main street,” located on a stretch of Route 66, the historic American Highway.
Aldhilemi alluded to how the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam agree on most of the fundamental tenets of the religion, and the split basically comes down to the parties’ beliefs about who should succeed the founder of the faith, the prophet Muhammad.
For most Muslims in Albuquerque, it’s a distinction hardly worth arguing about — let alone killing, Aldhilemi said.
“We are all Sunni and Shia here,” Aldhilemi added, pointing to the entire restaurant. “But this guy…he’s not a Shia. He is not Sunni. He’s like people who have no brains.
Meanwhile, Albuquerque’s Muslim community – Sunni and Shia – united again on the first Friday since Syed’s arrest, neck and neck, as the Civic Square echoed with the weekly call to prayer. .