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In February 2020, a woman reported the tires on her family’s car had been slashed in the parking lot of the Islamic Center of New Mexico in Southeast Albuquerque. Security guards pulled up video surveillance and determined that Muhammad Atif Syed was responsible.
The center’s leadership admonished Syed and told him to leave the mosque — which he did for several months.
More than a year and a half later, the woman’s brother-in-law — 62-year-old Mohammad Zahir Ahmadi — was shot to death behind the Halal market he owned with his brother. Albuquerque police say Syed is the primary suspect, though he has not been charged.
Syed, 51, is charged with two counts of murder in the fatal shootings of two other Muslim men — Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26 and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1. Investigators say casings left at those scenes came from guns he owns.
Police say he is also the primary suspect in the Aug. 5 fatal shooting of Naeem Hussain, 25, although they are still investigating.
Syed’s son has also been arrested on a federal gun violation in an unrelated case.
Ahmadi’s brother did not respond to messages from the Journal, but Ahmad Assed, the center’s president, said that, at the time, the family did not report the slashed tires to police. Assed provided video of the incident to the Journal on Wednesday.
Police have said Syed knew the men “to some extent” and that “an interpersonal conflict may have led to the shootings.” Syed told investigators that he “has known Naeem Hussain since 2016 and recognized Aftab Hussein from parties in the community,” according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court.
Syed was arrested Monday night on his way to Texas. Prosecutors have asked for him to be held pending trial citing the fact that “his actions make it clear that human life holds no value” to him. His attorney did not respond to calls for comment.
‘No justification for this evil’
Officials estimate there are between 5,000 and 10,000 Muslims living in Albuquerque, representing various races, ethnicities and nationalities. Assed guessed about 80% are Sunni and 20% are Shiite. He said it’s common for members of both groups to visit the Islamic Center of New Mexico.
Of the four Muslim men who were killed, three were practicing Shiite Islam. Syed was a Sunni Muslim, as was Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.
Assed had told The New York Times following Syed’s arrest that members of the Muslim community were speculating about a sectarian motive.
From there, it spread like wildfire and numerous Muslim groups came forward to denounce the violence.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a news conference alongside Sunni and Shiite leaders in Washington, D.C., Wednesday morning to condemn anti-Shiite hatred.
“We have seen reports and some speculations about the motives about the perpetrator of these crimes,” said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. “There is no justification for this evil, there is no justification for taking an innocent life. In our faith, the taking of an innocent life is equivalent to the taking of the life of the entire humanity, and that’s what this perpetrator did. There is no way to explain, justify this deranged behavior and we, as a community, regardless of our background, are united against hate and violence.”
But Assed cautioned that speculation that Syed had targeted the men because they are Shiite Muslims is just that — a rumor. At a news conference Tuesday, an Albuquerque Police Department official said “we’re not really clear if that was the actual motive or if it was part of the motive, or if there’s a bigger picture that we’re missing.”
“It’s something that has not yet been proven, nor has there been any reliability offered to promote this rumor, or theory, no credibility given by law enforcement that I know of to these allegations,” Ahmad said. “This was one of the rumors among many. … I can attest clearly that there has been zero determination by law enforcement that it is, in fact, what happened.”
Domestic violence charges
Several years ago, Syed’s daughter married a Shiite man and the couple knew at least two of the victims. The daughter is the oldest of six and the family are refugees from Afghanistan who came to the U.S. about six years ago.
In 2017, Syed was charged with misdemeanor battery after his daughter’s then boyfriend — now husband — reported that Syed had beaten him up. He said Syed, his son and his wife found him in the car with Syed’s daughter, dragged him out, and punched and kicked him because they did not want her to be in a relationship with him, according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court at the time.
The state dismissed the case “in the best interest of justice.”
“If there was going to be anger by Mr. Syed as to a relationship the daughter had, it would probably be more about the nature of the relationship rather than the identity of who she’s having a relationship with,” Assed said. “Culturally speaking, and religiously speaking, having a boyfriend or girlfriend — it’s not normal.”
On Wednesday morning, a woman at Syed’s Southeast Albuquerque apartment declined to speak with the Journal. Another woman said the family were victims, too.
A neighbor told the Journal she had frequently heard screaming and fighting from the family’s apartment. Syed had been charged twice with misdemeanor domestic violence against his wife and son in the past.
Gun purchase prompts arrest
During the investigation into Syed, federal agents uncovered discrepancies in paperwork his son filed when he purchased a firearm.
Shaheen Syed, who used to go by “Maiwand Syed,” is now charged with providing a false address when he bought a gun last year and was arrested Wednesday.
According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court for New Mexico, when Shaheen Syed bought two guns from a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) gun store in Albuquerque in June 2021, he listed his address as being in Broward County, Florida.
When an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives checked that address, the resident said he had lived there several years and that Shaheen Syed had never lived there. Shaheen Syed told an Albuquerque homicide detective he had lived in Albuquerque since 2016.
The agent said it was important to give a correct address so the ATF could determine if it was legal to sell the gun to that person.
The guns Shaheen Syed is accused of buying using a false address are not mentioned in the criminal complaint charging his father with murder, but it does list other guns Shaheen Syed and his father bought, and a scope they bought the day Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was killed.
And, in that complaint, Shaheen Syed told investigators he knew about the fatal shootings, but had not shot the victims himself.