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New Mexico man knew the 2 Muslim men he’s charged with killing, police say

Hundreds gathered at the Islamic Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque on Aug. 9 for a memorial service to honor four slain Muslim men. (Video: Reuters)

The man charged in the killings of two Muslim men this summer in Albuquerque knew the victims, according to court records.

Muhammad Atif Syed, 51, was charged with two counts of murder in the killings of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41. An investigation is ongoing into whether Syed was involved in the killings of two other Muslim men in the area.

Killings sow fear and panic in Albuquerque’s Muslim community

Syed was arrested Monday after authorities trailed him from a Costco to his Albuquerque home, where they found a Volkswagen Jetta matching the description of the vehicle that police had told the public to keep watch for.

Syed left the home in the Jetta before authorities detained him in Santa Rosa, N.M., about halfway between Albuquerque and the Texas border. He told officers that he was driving to Houston “to find a new place for his family to live because the situation in Albuquerque was bad” and mentioned the recent shootings of Muslims, according to the court records.

The shootings — a string of four killings within the past year, three of which occurred in a 10-day span — had rocked Albuquerque’s 5,000-strong Muslim community. Some closed businesses early, refused to go out after dark and stopped going to daily prayers at a mosque, the Islamic Center of New Mexico, where armed guards were installed. At least three of the shootings followed a pattern in which the victim was ambushed and left for dead, police said.

In the killing of Hussein last month, police said the shooter had lurked in a bush near a driveway, waiting for Hussein to park and exit his vehicle, at which point he was shot “through the bush multiple times.” Police found firearms in Syed’s home and vehicle, Deputy Police Commander Kyle Hartsock said at a news conference Tuesday, including at least one that matches bullet casings found at the scenes of two killings.

In an interview with a detective at Albuquerque police headquarters, Syed said he had known Hussain since 2016 and knew of Hussein from “parties in the community.” Both victims were regular members at the mosque, the center’s spokesman, Tahir Gauba, told The Washington Post. (Though the men share a similar surname, they were not related, Gauba said.)

The police said “an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings.”

Syed has denied having any involvement in the killings, police said. His daughter told KRQE, a local television news station: “I believe they will release my father. He didn’t do anything.”

His daughter and wife told the station that they knew three of the victims but that Syed was not responsible for the killings. Shaheen Syed, the elder Syed’s son, told police he was aware of the shootings but was not involved.

The elder Syed told authorities that he and his son would sometimes go to the desert to shoot his AK-47 — an activity he described to the police as “hunting” — and that he liked the weapon because he had one in Afghanistan. He told police that he had fought the Taliban there.