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‘I cannot go outside’: Brother of victim speaks out after spate of killings targeting Muslim men in Albuquerque

Police began connecting the dots between three killings last week – then came another, Richard Hall reports

Monday 08 August 2022 23:50 BST
(City of Albuquerque/Islamic Centre of New Mexico)

In the hours and days after Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain learned that his brother had been shot dead, he struggled to comprehend why anyone would have targeted him. He thought it might have had something to do with his work in politics, but that seemed unlikely.

It wasn’t until he heard that two other Muslim men had been gunned down in the same area of Albuquerque, with the same last name, just days apart, that a terrible possibility began to emerge.

“Then we thought something was happening against Muslims,” he told The Independent on Monday.

The ambush-style killings of four Muslim men from the Albuquerque area, three of them in the last nine days, has sent shockwaves through the city’s close-knit Muslim community and beyond. Residents in the city are living under a shadow of fear, some afraid to go out for groceries.

The FBI and local police are now investigating the possibility that the killings are connected. But already New Mexico’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has condemned what she described as “targeted killings of Muslim residents.”

While Mr Hussain is reserving final judgment until the police have confirmed a motive, he said everything has changed for him and his community in the last week.

“No one went to work, no one went outside for groceries, people cancelled their meetings. I cannot sit on my balcony. I cannot go outside of my apartment. This is very painful for us,” he said.

Police began to connect the dots between the killings in the last few days. Aftab Hussein, 41, was found with gunshot wounds in the southeast of the city on 26 July. Just days later, 27-year-old Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, Mr Hussain’s younger brother, was fatally shot in the same area of the city.

On Thursday, police made the shock announcement they were investigating whether the two killings were connected to the fatal shooting of Mohammad Ahmadi, a 62-year-old Muslim man from Afghanistan, on 7 November, 2021.

“Our homicide detectives and our investigators currently believe there is a strong possibility that the same individual committed all three of these crimes,” said Kyle Hartsock, deputy commander of Albuquerque police department’s Criminal Investigations Division.

“While we won’t go into why we think that, there’s one strong commonality in all of our victims, their race and religion,” he said, adding that all the victims “were ambushed with no warning, fired on and killed.”

Then came another killing. Just a day after that announcement, Naeem Hussain, 25, was found dead with gunshot wounds in the city. The day he was killed, he had attended a funeral for the two most recent victims, according to a spokesman for a mosque in Albuquerque, cited by CNN.

The only thing connecting all the victims was that they were Muslim. Three were of South Asian descent.

Despite the tragic death of his brother, Mr Hussain said New Mexico had always been very welcoming.

“It has always been peaceful and welcoming for everyone from different nationalities, colour, religions, or any kind of sexual orientation,” he said. “This society has no hate in its roots.”

Mr Hussain said his brother moved to the US from Pakistan in 2017, when he was 22, to study at the University of New Mexico. He had a passion for politics and later found work on the planning team for the city of Española, New Mexico.

He described his brother as an outgoing person who loved fishing and playing cricket with his friends. He had dreams of running for Congress one day.

On the night of his death, Mr Hussain said his brother was at his house. He went outside, possibly to answer a phone call, and never came back.

Mr Hussain called his brother’s phone for hours but got no response. Meanwhile, police cars were lined up down the street from his house, and he began to seriously worry. He called police, who eventually confirmed that his brother had been shot dead. He was killed just a short way along the road from his house.

Mr Hussain and the wider community were already in mourning when police announced that another Muslim man, Naeem Hussain, had been killed. The latest killing on Friday only heightened fears among Albuquerque’s Muslim community.

Aneela Abad, general secretary of the Islamic Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque, told The Independent that the three most recent victims were regular visitors to the centre.

“They were wonderful people, just normal people, nothing different about them at all,” she said. “We are still shocked and trying to comprehend what is the motive? Because these were young men, the last three especially, were brilliant rising stars, hardworking, no enemies.”

Ms Abad said Albuquerque has always been a welcoming and tolerant place, and that it was precisely because of that tolerance that it took so long for people to connect the dots between the killings.

“We were caught completely off guard,” she said. “This state has been one of the most welcoming, kind, diversified, more accepting of immigrants, refugees from all over. So it took us a while to understand and connect the dots.”

Since it became apparent that the killings might be connected, the centre has introduced strict new security protocols to protect worshippers, fearing that a serial killer may be on the loose.

“We have five prayers daily, and for the first time ever we have acquired armed security for all five prayers. And of course there is a lockdown in between. We never did that historically,” she said.

“Our centres have always been open. We have an open door policy, but with these incidents, no more. We are taking extreme caution over who comes in,” she added.

It is not just the centre taking extra precautions. Ms Abad said that Muslims across the city were fearing the worst. She is part of a WhatsApp group with other leaders from the Muslim community and interfaith groups to share information about possible threats quickly.

“The whole dynamic has changed. Everybody’s scared,” she said. “I’ve asked our community to be very vigilant, look for things that they didn’t notice before, look around before you go out watch and see if they’re being followed,” she added.

Ms Abad said some Muslim students and faculty members from the University of New Mexico had left the state over fears they will be targeted by the killer.

“They’re asking questions like should we go, should we not go? Can you walk from the campus to our housing, or is it not safe? Should we carpool? Should we go alone? Some of them left the state and went to the neighbouring states to their families,” she said.

Police said on Sunday they were searching for a dark-coloured, four-door Volkswagen, possibly a Jetta or a Passat, in connection with the killings. They are also increasing patrols in certain areas of the city, but did not specify where.

President Joe Biden said on Sunday that he was angered and saddened by the horrific killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque.”

“While we await a full investigation, my prayers are with the victims’ families, and my Administration stands strongly with the Muslim community. These hateful attacks have no place in America,” he said in a statement.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said that the city is taking steps to increase security.

"We have heard from the community that the fear is so strong, there is a concern about even things like groceries and getting meals for certain folks in certain areas of town," he said.

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