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Officials to charge suspect in shootings of Muslim men in Albuquerque

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)

After a weeks-long search, Albuquerque police announced the arrest of a suspect in connection with four fatal shootings of Muslim men that had left the city’s Muslim community living in fear.

Officials said they plan to charge 51-year-old Muhammad Syed with murder in the slayings of Aftab Hussein, 41, and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27. Officers are still investigating a possible link between Syed and the fatal shootings of two other men.

Deputy Police Commander Kyle Hartsock said at a news conference Tuesday that police began investigating Syed following a tip from the community that led officers to get a warrant to search his house and car.

As officers arrived at Syed’s home Monday to execute the warrant, they saw Syed enter a Volkswagen Jetta — the same kind of vehicle they had earlier advertised to the public — and drive away. Some officers followed and detained Syed in Santa Rosa, N.M., Hartsock said. Police found multiple firearms in Syed’s home and vehicle, Hartsock added, including at least one that matches bullet casings found at the scenes of two killings.

Hartsock said police are still investigating a possible motive.

“Detectives discovered evidence that shows the offender knew the victims to some extent and an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings,” police said in a statement.

Police and other officials at the news conference said they were waiting for further firearm analysis in the two additional killings, one in November and one Friday, and left open the possibility of federal hate-crime charges. Hartsock called Syed the “most likely suspect” in those cases.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina lauded the public’s help with the investigation, as well as the cooperation of multiple state and federal law enforcement agencies.

“You put faith in us, you trusted us, you passed information on to us that was crucial,” Medina said. “And that led to us being able to make an arrest in this case.”

Four Muslim men of South Asian descent have been shot and killed in the city since November. Three of the shootings took place in the last two weeks.

“Hopefully this puts an end to these evil killings,” Rep. Yvette Herrell (R), who represents New Mexico’s largest congressional district, said on Facebook after police announced the arrest.

Killings sow fear and panic in Albuquerque’s Muslim community

Aneela Abad, general secretary at the Islamic Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque, spoke of a community in shock after the killings.

“Something like this has never happened in Albuquerque,” Abad said in an interview. “People living here for 50 or 60 years have never ever felt suspicion or threats like this.”

Three of those killed regularly attended the Islamic Center. They were all familiar faces to Abad. “Polite, wonderful people,” she said.

About 5,000 people make up the Muslim community in Albuquerque, a city of 560,000 residents. Police added that patrols of the community would continue until members feel safe.

Many Muslim residents in Albuquerque have changed their behavior in response to the killings, some by staying at home and not visiting their mosque, Abad said. Some families have been afraid to send their children to school, which begins later this week.

Armed guards are now present for all five prayers at the Islamic Center for the first time in the 31-year history of the mosque. Even with the added security, attendance remains down.

“We did that for the safety of our community, and still they are not comfortable coming,” Abad said.

Police have said they believe the string of killings may have begun on Nov. 7, when someone fatally shot Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, outside the business that he operated with his brother. Initially, police treated the attack as an isolated incident.

Months later, on July 26 and Aug. 1, respectively, Hussein, 41, and Hussain, 27, were slain. A fourth man, Naeem Hussain, was killed Friday, just hours after attending a funeral for the other two recent victims. The victims share a surname but are not related.

The homicides had drawn widespread condemnation and urgent calls for the police and the public to work together to find the person responsible.

“I am deeply disturbed by the killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque,” Vice President Harris said in a tweet Sunday. “As law enforcement continues to investigate these heinous attacks, we remain clear that we stand with the Muslim community in New Mexico and around our country. Hate has no place in America.”

On Tuesday, the Albuquerque mayor thanked police for their efforts to locate the primary suspect in the four killings.

“We are grateful for the unified effort of our state, federal, and [Albuquerque police] officers who made strong progress in the investigation,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a tweet shortly after police announced that they had taken a suspect into custody. “We hope their swift action brings an increased sense of safety for so many who are experiencing fear from the recent shootings.”

Nihad Awad, the national director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which advocates for the civil rights of Muslims in the United States, said Albuquerque’s Muslim community could finally rest after weeks of unease.

“Now our community can feel assured about its safety,” Awad said in a tweet. “Nothing can justify the taking of innocent lives PERIOD. We thank law enforcement for their heroic effort to put the suspect behind bars.”

Samuel Gilbert in Albuquerque contributed to this report. Shepherd reported from Washington.

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