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Albuquerque police detain suspect in killings of Muslim men

The Islamic Center of New Mexico, where three victims of apparently targeted killings attended, in Albuquerque, Aug. 7, 2022. (Adria Malcolm/The New York Times)ADRIA MALCOLM/NYT

ALBUQUERQUE — The police have detained a man whom they consider to be the “primary suspect” in the killings of four Muslim men since last winter, the chief of the Albuquerque Police Department said on Tuesday.

Chief Harold Medina wrote on Twitter that the man had been driving a car that police said was linked to the fatal shootings.

The most recent killing took place on Friday, raising alarm in this southwestern city, which authorities had sought to shape into a haven for immigrants. Hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan have settled in the city over the past year, since the withdrawal of the US military presence in that country.

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For several days, residents have been reeling at the possibility that someone could be targeting Muslims in a city already upended by a harrowing spike in murders.

One of the victims, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, moved from Pakistan to attend the University of New Mexico. He had become president of its graduate student association before going into city planning. Another, Aftab Hussein, 41, worked at a local cafe.

Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old who was killed Friday, had started his own trucking business and become a US citizen just weeks earlier. The recent killings were preceded by the fatal shooting in November of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan, who was attacked outside the grocery store that he owned with his brother.

“There are recent arrivals who are fearful, and there are people who are US-born Muslims who are also are on edge,” said Michelle Melendez, director of the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. “The victims are everything from professionals to students to working-class people.”

Scrambling to respond, the Albuquerque Police Department began bolstering patrols around the businesses and places of worship that serve as gathering places for the city’s Muslims, estimated to number from 5,000 to 10,000 in a city of over half a million.

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In a plea for help from the public, the police over the weekend released a photo of a car, thought to be a dark gray Volkswagen sedan, which they believe was used in the killings.

The fatal shootings came amid a string of murders in the city, explaining, perhaps, why it did not seem unusual for the first two killings of Muslim men to go relatively unnoticed.

In 2021, 116 people in the city were killed, according to crime statistics from the Albuquerque Police Department, which exclude justified or negligent homicides. It was the city’s deadliest year on record; one person was killed an average of every three days in November 2021, when Ahmadi was found dead.

Things have only become worse this year. As of Monday, homicides are on pace to reach 131, surpassing last year by more than a dozen. That’s more than double the average number of homicides from 2010 to 2020, when the city recorded about 53 killings each year.

At the same time, Albuquerque, like other cities around the country, has struggled to fill vacancies in its police force. Since 2014, the department has been under a settlement agreement with the Justice Department to improve its practices, reached after accusations of civil rights violations and excessive force.

Police officials have remained largely quiet about their investigation into the recent killings beyond asking for help in finding the sedan and stating that they believe one individual carried out the acts.

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“While we won’t go into why we think that, there’s one strong commonality in all of our victims: their race and religion,” Kyle Hartsock, deputy commander of the department’s Criminal Investigations Division, said in a statement. “We are taking this very serious, and we want the public’s help in identifying this cowardly individual.”

Before going into truck driving, Naeem Hussain, the most recent victim, had worked as a case manager for Lutheran Family Services, helping refugees. It was in the parking lot of that organization where Hussain, a Pashto speaker who had family roots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was killed while in his car.

Ahmad Assed, who grew up in Albuquerque and is now president of the city’s largest mosque, the Islamic Center of New Mexico, described the community as a “welcoming melting pot.” He almost never felt that he stuck out as a Muslim, he said, until a woman was arrested and accused of trying to burn down the mosque last year.

Assed, who was born in Dearborn, Michigan, said that even with increasing xenophobia after the Sept. 11 attacks, the city seemed to continue to treat the Muslim community with respect, regardless of faith and nationalities.