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Killings sow fear and panic in Albuquerque’s Muslim community

People sprinkle dirt over the grave of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, at Fairview Memorial Park in Albuquerque on Aug. 5. (Chancey Bush/AP)

The main mosque in Albuquerque has urged its members to avoid walking alone at night and make sure no one is following them home. Some Muslims in the city are closing their businesses early. Others say they won’t go out after dark.

In the past two weeks, three Muslim men have been shot and killed in Albuquerque in what authorities think were targeted attacks. The police have appealed to the public for help finding a vehicle linked to the crimes but have made no arrests, leaving the Muslim community feeling panicked and helpless.

Albuquerque police chief Harold Medina announced they have detained a suspect in the killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque, N.M. (Video: The Washington Post)

Authorities suspect the three recent killings may be connected to an earlier unsolved homicide in November 2021. The victims in all four incidents were men of South Asian descent.

The police have not determined a motive for the killings. At least three of the shootings followed a pattern in which the victims were ambushed and killed, said Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the Albuquerque police.

Police on Sunday released a photo of the car that they believe was “used as a conveyance” in the four shootings and asked the public for assistance, saying the vehicle had tinted windows and appeared to be a Jetta.

The FBI’s Albuquerque office is assisting the city’s police in the investigation, said Frank Fisher, a spokesman for the office. The New Mexico State Police and the local sheriff’s office are also lending resources.

There are about 5,000 Muslims in Albuquerque, many of them immigrants, representing a tiny fraction of the city’s overall population of 560,000.

Now they are united by a feeling of disquiet.

“People are just fearful, and rightfully so, because you don’t know where the next attack” is going to take place, said Ahmad Assed, the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, a mosque attended by all four of the victims.

The most recent victim, Naeem Hussain, was killed on Aug. 5. His body was discovered in the parking lot of Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, a nonprofit that provides adoption and refugee services.

Hussain was a truck driver in his 20s who had immigrated to the United States from Pakistan and took the oath of citizenship on July 8, said Ehsan Shahalami, his brother-in-law.

Just hours before he was killed, Hussain had attended the funerals of two of the earlier victims, Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, at the Islamic Center of New Mexico. The three men share similar surnames but are not related. All regularly attended prayers at the center, said Tahir Gauba, its director of public affairs.

Gauba said the string of killings has been “horrific” for Albuquerque’s Muslim community.

“I’ve been in the United States since ’95,” he said. “I’ve been through 9/11. I’ve been through the Trump era. I’ve never felt this helpless and in fear.”

Last year’s killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, outside his family-owned business was initially viewed as an isolated crime. That changed after the shootings of Aftab Hussein on July 26 and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain on Aug. 1.

Assed, the Islamic Center’s president, said police told him that the second and third killings were linked and the perpetrator was possibly targeting Muslims. The collective reaction was, “Oh, my God, what are we dealing with here?” he recalled.

Since the fourth killing on Friday, the city’s Muslim community has been in a state of panic.

Ahmed Hasan, president of Salam Academy, a local school affiliated with the Muslim community, said that he had received a flood of calls from parents asking about the security of their children, whose classes start on Wednesday.

The school has reactivated an access code system that it had stopped using during the pandemic and there is now a police presence on campus, Hasan said. Meanwhile, he and his family have stopped leaving home in the evening and have urged their relatives to do the same. “It’s a stressful time,” said Hasan.

The families of the victims are in shock. Naeem Hussain left behind a wife, parents and siblings, said Shahalami, his brother-in-law. Hussain loved fishing and always carried a rod in his truck, taking time between deliveries to seek out rivers and lakes. He had planned to bring his wife over from Pakistan and they hoped buy a house together.

Hussain was a “genuine, pure-hearted” individual who was “in love with America,” Shahalami said.

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, who was fatally shot Aug. 1, worked on the campaign team of Rep. Melanie Ann Stansbury (D-N.M.), the congresswoman said during a news conference Sunday.

She described him as “a kind, funny, brilliant, amazing young man from Pakistan who came to the United States to pursue his career and his life’s dream and to study at the University of New Mexico.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) pledged Sunday that the perpetrator would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, adding that authorities needed community support to identify the vehicle of interest.

“We will bring this person or to justice,” she said at a news conference. “We will provide justice to the families who have lost everything.”

President Biden said Sunday that he was “angered and saddened by the horrific killings” in Albuquerque.

“While we await a full investigation, my prayers are with the victims’ families, and my Administration stands strongly with the Muslim community,” he said on Twitter. “These hateful attacks have no place in America.”

“The lives of Albuquerque Muslims are in danger,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the deputy director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Whoever is responsible for this horrific, hateful shooting spree must be identified and stopped — now.”

CAIR, which advocates for the civil rights of Muslims in the United States, said in a statement Saturday that it was offering $10,000 for information “leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.” The organization called on the Biden administration to “take a direct role” in the matter.

Praveena Somasundaram contributed to this report.

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