By Stefaniie Dazio and Mariam Fam
Authorities on Monday identified the fourth victim in a series of killings of Muslim men in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the deaths sent ripples of fear through the Islamic community nationwide.
Three of the slayings happened in the past week. Now law enforcement officials are seeking help finding a vehicle believed to be connected to the killings in New Mexico’s largest city, where the common elements were the victims’ race and religion, officials said.
Naeem Hussain was killed Friday night, and ambush shootings killed three other Muslim men over the past nine months. Police are trying to determine if they are linked.
The killings have spread fear beyond New Mexico, where Muslims comprise less than 1% of adults in the statewide population of 2.1 million, according to Pew Research Center.
“The fact the suspect remains at large is terrifying,” Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim community leader in New York, wrote on Twitter. “Who is next?!”
This Wanted poster released Sunday, Aug 7, 2022, by the Albuquerque Police Department shows a vehicle suspected of being used as a conveyance in the recent homicides of four Muslim men in Albuquerque, N.M. Police investigating whether the killings are connected say they need help finding the vehicle believed to be connected to the deaths. Police say the vehicle sought is a dark gray or silver, four-door Volkswagen Jetta with dark tinted windows. (Albuquerque Police Department via AP)
In a phone interview, Almontaser said that a female friend who lives in Michigan and wears the hijab shared with her over the weekend just how rattled she was. “She’s like, ‘This is so terrifying. I’m so scared. I travel alone,’” Almontaser said.
Hussain, 25, was from Pakistan. His death came just days after those of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41, who were also from Pakistan and members of the same mosque.
The earliest case involves the November killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan.
Police said the same vehicle is suspected of being used in all four homicides — a dark gray or silver four-door Volkswagen that appears to be a Jetta with dark tinted windows. Authorities released photos hoping people could help identify the car.
“We will bring this person or these persons to justice,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Sunday.
Investigators did not say where the images were taken or what led them to suspect the car was involved in the slayings.
“We have a very, very strong link,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said Sunday. “We have a vehicle of interest … We have got to find this vehicle.”
President Joe Biden said he was “angered and saddened” by the killings and that his administration “stands strongly with the Muslim community.”
“These hateful attacks have no place in America,” Biden said Sunday in a tweet.
The conversation about safety has also dominated WhatsApp groups and email groups that Almontaser is on.
“What we’ve seen happen in New Mexico is very chilling for us as a Muslim minority community in the United States that has endured so much backlash and discrimination” since the 9/11 attacks, she said. “It’s frightening. It’s scary.”
Last year, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 found that 53% of Americans at the time had unfavorable views toward Islam, compared with 42% who had favorable ones. That stood in contrast to Americans’ opinions about Christianity and Judaism, for which most respondents expressed favorable views.
Albuquerque authorities say they cannot determine if the recent shootings were hate crimes until they have identified a suspect and a motive. Police did not return calls or emails seeking comment Monday.
Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said bias killings are often perpetrated by a small group of people, typically young white men. A lone perpetrator is rare in these types of crimes.
“These are basically total losers by every dimension, whether it’s social, economic, psychological, what have you,” he said. “They’re filled with hatred for one reason or another and target a particular group that they see, in their mind, to blame for all their problems in life.”
Even though two of the Albuquerque victims attended the same mosque, they were killed in separate shootings days apart.
It’s was not clear whether the victims were known to the suspect or suspects prior to their deaths. Schlesinger said the assailant may have deliberately targeted them one by one.
“It’s easier to kill one person. It’s less risk for yourself getting apprehended,” he said. “If you go into a mosque and shoot the place up, someone may shoot you.”
The most recent victim was found dead after police received a call of a shooting. Authorities declined to say whether the killing was carried out in a way similar to the other deaths.
Police confirmed last week that local detectives and federal law enforcement officers were looking for possible ties between the killings.
Muhammad Afzaal Hussain had worked as a field organizer for a local congresswoman’s campaign.
Rep. Melanie Stansbury issued a statement praising him as “one of the kindest and hardest working people” she has ever known. She said the urban planner was “committed to making our public spaces work for every person and cleaning up legacy pollution.”
As land-use director for the city of Española — more than 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of Albuquerque — Hussain worked to improve conditions and inclusivity for disadvantaged minorities, according to the mayor's office.
“Muhammad was soft-spoken and kind, and quick to laugh,” Española Mayor John Ramon Vigil said in a news release. The city staff “has lost a member of our family, and we all have lost a brilliant public servant who wanted to service and improve his community.”
Dazio reported from Los Angeles and Fam from Winter Park, Florida. Associated Press news researchers Rhonda Shafner and Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
Updated on August 8, 2022, at 4:32 p.m. ET with details on demographics, comment from expert.