Hundreds of tips helped police identify and charge 'primary suspect' in killings of Muslim men, police say. Now they're searching for motive

·6 min read

Hundreds of tips poured in after Albuquerque police sounded an alarm about the shooting deaths of four Muslim men in the city, leading to an arrest in the killings on Tuesday.

Though authorities are still searching for a motive and working to confirm whether they’re all related, police have arrested 51-year-old Muhammad Syed, describing him as the “primary suspect.”

Muhammad Syed was arrested in connection to the deaths of Muslim men in New Mexico. This images is from a previous arrest on February, 3, 2020. - Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center

“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 news release Tuesday.

Tips pointed investigators toward Syed, who police believe was in possession of at least two firearms that matched two of the crime scenes, according to Kyle Hartsock, deputy commander of the city police department’s criminal investigations division.

One of the firearms recovered in his home has been linked to bullet casings found at the scenes of two of the killings, while casings from a handgun found in his car were linked to one of the scenes, according to the arrest affidavit.

The killings took place between November 2021 and August of this year, with the latest three occurring within the span of two weeks.

Police said that three of the victims – Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, Aftab Hussein, 41, and Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi, 62 – were “ambushed with no warning, fired on and killed.” A fourth man, 25-year-old Naeem Hussain, was shot and killed after attending a funeral for Hussain and Hussein.

A criminal complaint obtained from CNN affiliate KOAT sheds more light on two of the killings.

On July 26, police responded to Rhode Island Street, where they found Aftab Hussein with multiple gunshot wounds, lying next to a car. Detectives learned that the gunman had waited behind a bush near the driveway where the victim usually parked his vehicle and fired through the bush multiple times when Hussein got out of his vehicle, according to the complaint.

On August 1, police got a call about a drive-by shooting near the intersection of Cornell Drive and Garfield Avenue. They found Muhammad Afzaal Hussain with multiple gunshot wounds, the complaint states.

The suspect, Syed, is being charged with two of the homicides: the July 26 killing of Aftab Hussein and the August 1 killing of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, according to the police.

As for the two other killings, police said there is evidence that Syed as the “most likely person of interest or suspect” in those as well, Hartsock said.

According to the complaint, Syed denied any involvement in the killings during an interview with police on Tuesday.

How the investigation unfolded

Police first noticed similarities between the deaths of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, which took place just days apart.

“We were able to relate the casings found on both the scenes that are likely fired from the same firearm,” Hartsock said. “We quickly started looking at other cases that could be similar and identify that there might be a really active public threat.”

The shootings spurred police to examine whether they were connected to a killing that happened November 7, 2021. That day, officers found an Afghan man, Mohammad Ahmadi, with a gunshot wound in the parking lot behind the business he ran with his brother.

As the investigation unfolded, another killing happened just before midnight on August 5 in the area of Truman Street and Grand Avenue where police found Naeem Hussain dead from a gunshot wound.

Police increased patrols near mosques and other areas and the governor sent state police to the city.

Police released images of a “vehicle of interest” that they said may be tied to the shootings. They asked for the public’s help tracking down the silver sedan.

The city’s Muslim community was on edge. Some stopped going to their local mosques or going out late a night, and some even avoided going out to shop for food.

At the same time, scores of tips began rolling in to law enforcement.

“We’ve had a total of about 230 tips,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Raul Bujanda said Tuesday.

Residents also began voluntarily uploading surveillance videos from their homes to an online portal that was set up specifically for the investigation. Police sifting through the footage ended up finding video that captured the gunshots and vehicles leaving the scene, according to Hartsock.

A tip from the community eventually came in that led investigators to identify Syed as a suspect and track down the car.

Albuquerque police and the FBI got multiple tips about Syed and his vehicle, a Volkswagen Jetta, according to the complaint.

As police were waiting to execute a search warrant at the suspect’s home, they saw him get into what they believed to be the same vehicle that had been linked to the homicides.

Officers stopped the vehicle and detained Syed near Santa Rosa, New Mexico. That’s when they saw firearms inside the vehicle, according to Hartsock.

Police executing the search warrant at Syed’s home found more weapons, according to police.

“Multiple firearms were recovered from that home that are continually being tested. 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 … two crime scenes on Rhode Island and Cornell, and that is the basis of the charges that are going forward today,” Hartsock added.

According to the complaint, Syed told police “he was driving to Texas to find a new place for his family to live because the situation in Albuquerque was bad. Muhammad then referenced the shooting of Muslims on the news.”

CNN was at the suspect’s home

Hours before police announced Syed was a suspect, CNN was inside his home and spoke to his daughter, who offered insight on her father and what happened when they last saw each other, which was before his arrest and before authorities executed a search warrant on their family’s home.

The daughter, one of Syed’s six children, spoke to CNN Tuesday morning, while the family was still cleaning up the mess left behind by investigators who had poured over the contents of the house the night before. CNN has chosen not to name the daughter out of concern for her safety.

“My father is not a person who can kill somebody. My father has always talked about peace. That’s why we are here in the United States. We came from Afghanistan, from fighting, from shooting,” she told CNN.

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