It was a contemporary murder mystery: who had murdered four Muslim men in Albquerque, New Mexico, since November? And was the same person responsible?
There were no strong leads initially. Some suspected the murders were hate crimes, perhaps by a far-right white supremacist, as fear struck the hearts of the local Muslim community.
But now the prime suspect is one of that tight-knit community, possibly outraged that his daughter married into the ‘wrong’ Islamic sect.
The authorities’ theory has sent shockwaves beyond New Mexico’s largest city, where longtime resident Alaw Aldhilemi couldn’t contain it.
“We have a free country here – why did he do that?” said Aldhilemi, a Shia Muslim who regularly visits his Sunni friend’s cafe. “We don’t live in Iraq or Afghanistan. We live in America.”
Nevertheless, the arrest of suspect Muhammad Syed, 51, offers some peace of mind to a community whose members stopped going out at night when it was unclear whether they could fall prey to a predator during a killing spree. And it also meant that the dead were not ignored, regardless of the nationality or creed of the victims, as some – including their loved ones – were concerned.
Among those worried that their relative’s death might be forgotten was 73-year-old Shareef Hadi, now Ariana’s sole owner, after his brother Mohammad “Zahir” Ahmadi, 62, was murdered there last year.
The two brothers, originally from Afghanistan but longtime Albuquerque residents, ran the grocery store and cafe together for years before their partnership tragically ended, he recently explained as he poured a cup of hot tea.
On November 7, Ahmadi was smoking a cigarette behind the shop when he was shot dead.
“This company was his hope,” Hadi said. “He loved this company. He always cooked for people. He was perfect.”
Hadi remembers almost every detail of the day Ahmadi was assassinated. He recalls going home early to meet a friend and seeing Ahmadi sleeping on a couch in the cafe before leaving – his last memory of his brother. He has not forgotten the terrible cold that swept through his body when a neighboring shopkeeper called and told him to look in his shop, especially since Ahmadi never came home.
When Hadi arrived, an officer told him, “Your brother committed suicide.”
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?'” Hadi added, telling how researchers took his brother’s body away before he then tried to sweep up dried blood and brain tissue that was left.
Hadi mourned. He installed a camera behind the shop, near where an Afghan woman in a purple headscarf had formed dough into the large flatbread in the shop window.
He felt sorry for a nearby jeweler who identified herself only as Jennifer, a Native American woman with a dark, smooth plait who turned over Ahmadi’s body to the police and – completely nervous – cut off plans to disclose her business.
What troubled her about Ahmadi’s violent death is that “he was… glad to be here,” she said, adding that he was trying to teach her how to make the bread the shop sold. “He had a dream. He worked hard. He worked harder than some Americans.”
Nevertheless, she, like Hadi, feared that investigators would never challenge the first officer’s assumption that Ahmadi had died by suicide.
That began to change when Aftab Hussein, 41, was shot dead on July 26 less than three miles from Ahmadi and Hadi’s shop. Six days later, just over four miles away, 27-year-old Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was shot dead outside his apartment building.
And hours after attending a funeral service for Hussein and Hussain on Aug. 5, 25-year-old Naeem Hussain was shot dead in the same general area.
The police could not ignore the similarities between the murders, and their investigation gained momentum. All three men were Albuquerque residents from Pakistan. They were unrelated, but they had different variants of the same last name and were killed within just a few miles of each other.
Authorities recognized their religious beliefs and national origins may have targeted them. That sparked rumors of a hate-fuelled killing spree that could go back to Ahmadi’s death, in a state where hate crimes targeting race and religion have the highest victimization rate, among other types of reported hate crimes.
Even Joe Biden weighed in. The president tweeted that he was “angered 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 some of the murders when some Muslims in Albuquerque locked themselves in their homes or considered fleeing. Crime Stoppers and the Council on American Islamic Relations offered a combined $30,000 reward for information leading to the killer.
Hundreds of tips about the car’s whereabouts poured in. On August 9, authorities saw Syed driving 100 miles from New Mexico’s Texas border and stopped him. They found bullet casings that matched those found at the sites where Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Hussain were killed, along with a handgun.
He has been charged with those two murders, although he has pleaded not guilty while claiming he fought alongside US troops in Afghanistan.
Police have said they are continuing to investigate whether there is any reason to prosecute him for other murders.
Detectives say they have not identified a motive, although they believe the dead were watched and ambushed, something Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos called “unusual” for these parts.
“Most murders tend to be just selling drugs or having road rage,” Gallegos noted.
But the small Afghan community to which Syed belonged looks at him with suspicion.
Although his family stands by him, Syed has an extensive history of domestic violence, according to recently released police files. His past charges include assaulting his wife, his son and a man who was dating his daughter at the time, although prosecutors eventually dropped those cases.
Hadi said he, his brother and their employees were having trouble with Syed, a regular at their store, before the spate of murders erupted.
Independent of the charges against Syed, the president of the Alzahra Islamic Center, Mizan Kadhim, a former Lutheran Family Services caseworker whose organization helps refugees resettle in the area, said he was “shocked and disgusted” by his background.
“When you come to this country, you just want to be successful and live a peaceful life,” Kadhim said. “My mind never went to violence.”
Kadhim – himself a refugee – wanted to give something back to other refugees and the city he called home. He worked with Naeem Hussain at Lutheran Family Services. He said that of all the murders in his community recently, that of his former friend and colleague hurt the most.
“It was just 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 of my community members said they don’t know if there are more of them… We never thought this would happen in America.”
Kadhim is uniquely positioned to feel the horror of the murders 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 home visits to check in with Syed and his family when they were assigned. But while Kadhim said Syed was “not a nice person,” he never expected to be charged with murder.
Speculation about Syed’s possible motives for murder surfaced in news media across the country and from acquaintances. Kadhim said it was common knowledge that Syed, a Sunni Muslim, was very dissatisfied with his daughter because she married a Shia.
Hussein and Hussain can be Shia surnames, and Ahmadi can also be one. Community members say they suspect the last name may have played a role in the victim’s selection, although authorities have not officially confirmed that this was Syed’s motive.
“It drove him crazy,” Kadhim added.
It’s a statement that—if true—will never sit well with Alaw Aldhilemi, a Shia Muslim who regularly patronizes the Sunni-owned Yasmine’s Cafe on Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s “Main Street,” sitting on part of Route 66, the Historic American Highway.
Aldhilemi alluded to the way the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam agree on most of the religion’s foundations, and the split essentially boils down to the beliefs of the parties over whom the founder of the faith, the Prophet Muhammad, should follow.
For most Muslims in Albuquerque, it’s a distinction hardly worth discussing — let alone killings for it, Aldhilemi said.
“We’re all Sunni and Shia here,” Aldhilemi added, gesturing to the entire restaurant. “But this man… he’s not a Shiite. He is not Sunni. He is like people who have no brains.”
Meanwhile, Albuquerque’s Muslim community — both Sunni and Shia — gathered together on the first Friday since Syed’s arrest, shoulder to shoulder, as the public square echoed with the weekly call to prayer.