Afghan refugee pleads not guilty in slayings of Albuquerque Muslims

A man with black and gray hair and a striped shirt
Muhammad Syed in a photo released Aug. 9 by the Albuquerque Police Department. He is charged in the slayings of three Muslim men and is a suspect in the killing of a fourth.
(Albuquerque Police Department via Associated Press)
Share via

A lawyer for an Afghan refugee accused in the slayings of three Muslim men in Albuquerque entered a plea of not guilty Friday on her client’s behalf, as the community continues its struggle to understand the motives behind the killings.

Muhammad Syed, 51, appeared remotely for the court hearing and will remain held without bond pending trial. He is charged with three counts of murder and tampering with evidence; additionally, police have identified him as the suspect in the killing of a fourth Muslim man.

Syed, who has been in the U.S. with his family for several years, denied involvement in the killings when authorities detained him earlier this month.


Authorities have not disclosed a motive for the killings, but prosecutors have described Syed as having a violent history. Syed’s public defenders have argued that previous allegations of domestic
violence never resulted in convictions.

Authorities have said they linked bullet casings found at two of the crime scenes to casings found in Syed’s vehicle and to guns found at his home and in his vehicle.

Syed was arrested Aug. 8 more than 100 miles from his Albuquerque home after tips led investigators to his family. He told authorities he was on his way to Texas to find a new home for the
family, saying he was concerned about the ambush-style killings.

Syed has been charged with three killings. Aftab Hussein, 41, was slain July 26 after parking his car in his usual spot near his home. Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, a 27-year-old urban planner who had worked on the campaign of a New Mexico congresswoman, was gunned down Aug. 1 while taking his evening walk. Naeem Hussain was shot Aug. 5 as he sat in his vehicle outside a refugee resettlement agency on the city’s south side, following funeral services for the other shooting victims. Shots were fired at Hussain’s SUV, striking him in the head and the arm.

Syed is the primary suspect in November’s slaying of Muhammad Zahir Ahmadi, a 62-year-old Afghan immigrant who was shot in the head while he was behind a market he owned.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, older brother of Afzaal Hussain, said in an interview Friday that his family is heartbroken and frustrated because they have no idea why the young man from
Pakistan was targeted or how he would have crossed paths with Syed, who speaks Pashto and no English. Afzaal Hussain, the son of an elementary school teacher, studied law and human resource management at the University of Punjab before coming to the U.S. in 2017.

“These questions are rattling in my mind,” the victim’s brother said. “If you punish [Syed] for 10 years, 20, 30, 1,000 or a million years, how would I satisfy myself if I don’t know why he killed my brother? What happened to him? For me, for justice, we need to know why.”

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was working as the city of Española’s planning and land-use director after receiving a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico. During his time at the university, he became a student leader and an advocate for the international community. His colleagues and those in political circles described him as having a bright future.


Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain said his brother’s goal was to open a school in their hometown in Pakistan.

He said that mission will continue.

“My brother died, but we will aim to make more brothers and sisters like him who can inspire people, who work for the benefit of humanity, who help others, who raise their voice for others,” he said.