Albuquerque Welcomed Muslims. Then Four of Them Were Killed.
ALBUQUERQUE — Tahir Gauba attended funerals on Friday for two members of Albuquerque’s largest mosque, victims in a spate of apparently targeted killings that have shaken this Southwestern city, which in recent years has welcomed a growing community of immigrants and refugees.
Afterward at the mosque, Mr. Gauba ran into Naeem Hussain, a 25-year-old from Pakistan. “Naeem asked me, ‘Brother, what’s happening in Albuquerque?’” said Mr. Gauba, 43, who also came to New Mexico from Pakistan. “I told him, ‘It’s crazy right now, don’t leave your house if you don’t have to.’”
Hours later, Mr. Hussain was also dead, shot in a parking lot. It was the third killing of a Muslim man in recent weeks, and the fourth since November.
The killings, which law enforcement officials believe are connected, have raised alarm in a city that the authorities had sought to shape into a haven for immigrants and refugees, including hundreds who resettled from Afghanistan in the past year, since the withdrawal of the U.S. military presence there.
The possibility that someone could now be targeting Muslims, in a city already reeling from a harrowing spike in murders, has many in Albuquerque asking how this could happen.
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, the 25-year-old who was killed on Friday, had started his own trucking business and become a U.S. 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 U.S.-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 has begun 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.
Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, spoke at a news conference about the killings of Muslim men. Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times
The fatal shootings came amid a string of murders in the city, explaining, perhaps, why it didn’t 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 Mr. 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.
“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 Mr. 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.
Mr. Assed, who was born in Dearborn, Mich., 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.
Now many Muslims in the city feel like targets, and fear is even driving some people to make plans to leave New Mexico.
Indeed, the killings have jolted an increasingly diverse city, where immigration, largely from Mexico and other Latin American countries, is a major source of population growth and integral to the city’s history. Immigrants from the Middle East, including Muslims and Christians from Lebanon and Syria, put down stakes in Albuquerque and other parts of New Mexico in the late 19th century.
The city gradually saw a new wave of Muslim immigrants in recent decades, with many coming to study at the University of New Mexico. A group of Muslim students came together in the mid-1980s to form the Islamic Center of New Mexico, which the three most recent victims attended.
Many in the city’s Muslim community come from Pakistan and Afghanistan, while others are from countries including India, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Sri Lanka. During the Trump administration, when concerns grew over bigotry directed against Muslims, officials passed a bill affirming Albuquerque’s status as an “immigrant friendly” city. It restricted federal immigration agents from entering city-operated facilities and city employees from collecting immigration status information.
At least 300 Afghan refugees have arrived in Albuquerque over the past year, bolstering a growing community reflected today by at least eight different places of worship for Muslims. Albuquerque strengthened outreach efforts through translators speaking Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto — languages that officials have prioritized in recent days when sharing information about the killings.
Although Muslims in the United States faced violence and discrimination after Sept. 11 and during Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, the apparent serial nature of the attacks in Albuquerque — and the stubborn mystery of who is responsible — is uniquely disconcerting, said Sumayyah Waheed, senior policy counsel at Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group.
“I can’t think of any incident like this,” she said.
Ms. Waheed said it was concerning that the police in Albuquerque had apparently made a possible connection between the attacks only after three Muslim men were killed.
Statistics from the Albuquerque Police Department show that the racial breakdown of its employees, including officers and civilians, are roughly in line with that of the city, where about half of the residents are Latino and 38 percent are white. As of June 2021, there were 17 Asian employees out of nearly 1,480 people in the department. It is unclear how many officers are Muslim, and a spokesman said the department did not collect data on religious affiliation.
Although Naeem Hussain’s death on Friday heightened the concerns of his community, Ehsan Shahalami, his brother-in-law, said the killing came as a shock.
“There was never any indication of him feeling threatened or being scared of anything,” Mr. Shahalami said. “On the contrary, he was very fond of Albuquerque. He wanted to give back to the place that took him in.”