By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, STEFANIE DAZIO and JULIE WATSON
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — In the six years since he resettled in the United States from Afghanistan, the primary suspect in the slayings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque has been arrested several times for domestic violence and captured on camera slashing the tires of a woman’s car, according to police and court records.
The lengthy pattern of violence — which began not long after Muhammad Syed arrived in the states — has shocked members of the city’s small, close-knit Muslim community, some of whom knew him from the local mosque and who initially had assumed the killer was an outsider with a bias against the Islamic religion. Now, they are coming to terms with the idea that they never really understood the man.
“I think based on knowing his history now — and we didn’t before — he’s obviously a disturbed individual. He obviously has a violent tendency,” said Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico.
Police say Syed, 51, was acquainted with his victims and was likely motivated by “interpersonal conflicts.”
He was arrested Monday night and remains in custody. Prosecutors say he is a dangerous man and plan to ask a judge next week to keep him locked up pending trial on murder charges in connection with two of the shooting deaths. Syed is also the primary suspect in the other two homicides, but police say they will not rush to charge him in those cases as long as he remains in jail and doesn’t pose a threat to the community. The married father of six has denied involvement in the killings; his defense attorneys have declined to comment.
Few details have emerged publicly about Syed’s life before he and his family came to America in 2016, but a U.S. government document obtained by The Associated Press says he graduated from Rehman Baba High School in western Kabul in 1990. Between 2010 and 2012, he worked as a cook for the Al Bashar Jala Construction Company.
In December 2012, Syed fled Afghanistan with his wife and children, the report states. The family made its way to Pakistan, where Syed sought work as a refrigerator technician. A native Pashto speaker who was also fluent in Dari, he was admitted to the United States in 2016 as a refugee.
The very next year, according to court records, a boyfriend of Syed’s daughter alleged that Syed, his wife and one of Syed’s sons pulled him out of a car and punched and kicked him before driving away. The boyfriend, who was found with a bloody nose, scratches and bruises, told police he was attacked because Syed, a Sunni Muslim, did not want his daughter in a relationship with a Shiite man.
In 2018, Syed was taken into custody after a fight with his wife about her driving. Syed told police that his wife had slapped him in the car, but she said he pulled her by the hair, threw her to the ground and made her walk two hours to their destination.
Months later, Syed allegedly beat his wife and attacked one of his sons with a large slotted metal spoon that left his hair blood-soaked, according to court documents. Syed’s wife told police everything was fine. But the son, who was the one who called them, told officers that Syed routinely beat him and his mother.
Two of the cases were dismissed after the wife and boyfriend declined to press charges. The third was dismissed after Syed completed a pretrial intervention program. In 2020, Syed was arrested after he allegedly refused to pull over for police after running a traffic light, but that case was also eventually dismissed.
“If you’re trying to understand how violence in a particular person evolves, you just have to know that he didn’t wake up last year and become a serial killer,” said former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole. “He had experience with violence. And that’s the challenge of law enforcement … to identify what is your experience with violence and when did it start?”
Syed told detectives that he’d served with the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, a small, elite group of Afghan soldiers who fought the Taliban. He said he likes the AK-47-style weapon police found at his house because he’d used one in Afghanistan.
Yet the U.S. government profile the AP reviewed did not list any military experience, and Syed turned 40 the year the elite force was formed in 2011 — likely too old to be selected for combat in the heaviest fighting.
“That sounds a little fishy,” said Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, who served two tours in Afghanistan and is a senior fellow and military expert at the Defense Priorities think tank. He said while Syed may have been a soldier, “special forces guys are usually 22, 25 years old, maybe 30, because it is so physically demanding.”
The Syed family lives in a small duplex on the city’s south side, a working-class part of town where many of the older homes and apartments have security bars affixed to their doors and windows. The area has become a magnet for Afghan refugees and other immigrants looking to make a new home in New Mexico’s largest city.
The slayings of the four men — the first in November and the other three occurring in rapid succession over a period of less than two weeks in July and the first week of August — set off ripples of terror in Albuquerque’s Muslim community of about 4,500. Residents were afraid to go out of their homes — to the point where city officials offered to deliver meals — and some considered leaving town.
That was what Syed told investigators he was doing when he left in his Volkswagen Jetta on Sunday: heading out of state to find a safer place for his frightened family.
Police say he was, in fact, skipping town after killing Naeem Hussain just days before.
Syed is the primary suspect — but hasn’t been charged — in the death of Hussain, a 25-year-old man from Pakistan who was fatally shot on Aug. 5 in the parking lot of a refugee resettlement agency in southeast Albuquerque; and the slaying of Muhammad Zahir Ahmadi, a 62-year-old Afghan immigrant who was fatally shot in the head last November behind the market he owned in the city.
Ahmadi is the brother-in-law of the woman whose tires Syed slashed in 2020, while Syed and Hussain had known each other since 2016, police said.
Syed has been charged with murder in the deaths of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain. Hussein, 41, was slain on the night of July 26 after parking his car in the usual spot near his home. Afzaal Hussain, a 27-year-old urban planner who had worked on the campaign of a New Mexico congresswoman, was gunned down on the night of Aug. 1 while taking his evening walk.
While Syed told police he recognized Hussein from parties in the community, it was unclear how he knew Afzaal Hussain.
Despite the violence he allegedly inflicted on his wife and children, Syed’s family is standing by him.
“My father is not a person who can kill somebody,” his daughter recently told CNN, which did not disclose her identity to protect her safety. “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.”
Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Watson from San Diego.