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SAT: Muslim killings suspect has a long trail of violence, Judge revives Obama-era regulation on coal sales, + More

Albuquerque Muslim Killings
AP
/
Albuquerque Police Department
FILE - This Aug. 9, 2020, still image taken from officer video provided by the Albuquerque Police Department shows the arrest of Muhammad Syed. Syed, the main suspect in the slaying of four Muslim men in Albuquerque has committed regular acts of violence in the six years since he fled war-ravaged Afghanistan and resettled in the United States, according to police documents and court records. (Albuquerque Police Department via AP, File)

Suspect in 4 New Mexico killings left trail of violenceBy Susan Montoya Bryan, Stefanie Dazio, Julie Watson, Associated Press

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."

Judge revives Obama-era ban on coal sales from US landsBy Matthew Brown, Associated Press

A federal judge on Friday reinstated a moratorium on coal leasing from federal lands that was imposed under former President Barack Obama and then scuttled under former President Donald Trump, in an order that marked a major setback to the already struggling coal industry.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris requires government officials to conduct a new environmental review before they can resume coal sales from federal lands. Morris faulted the government's previous review of the program, done under Trump, for failing to adequately consider the climate damage from coal's greenhouse gas emissions and other effects.

Almost half the nation's annual coal production — some 260 million tons last year — is mined by private companies from leases on federal land, primarily in Western states such as Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

Few coal leases were sold in recent years after demand for the fuel shrank drastically. But the industry's opponents had urged Morris to revive the Obama-era moratorium to ensure it can't make a comeback as wildfires, drought, rising sea levels and other effects of climate change worsen.

Coal combustion for electricity remains one of the top sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, even after many power plants shut down over the past decade because of concerns over pollution and changing economic conditions.

The coal program brought in about $400 million to federal and state coffers through royalties and other payments in 2021, according to government data. It supports thousands of jobs and has been fiercely defended by industry representatives, Republicans in Congress and officials in coal- producing states.

Among President Joe Biden's first actions in his first week in office was to suspend oil and gas lease sales — a move later blocked by a federal judge — and he faced pressure from environmental groups to take similar action against coal.

The administration last year launched a review of climate damage from coal mining on public lands as it expanded scrutiny of government fossil fuel sales that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. But no changes had been announced as a result of that review.

"This decision gives the Biden administration the opportunity to make good on its commitment to seriously battle the climate crisis," said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, who represented environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in the case. "No progress has been made to reform the program or do what's needed to phase out existing leases."

The Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana is near several major strip mines. Tribal members have long fought against further development. Tribal President Serena Wetherelt said in a statement that Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland need to fulfill their trust obligation and take a hard look at the effects of the U.S. federal lands energy program.

"Our lands and waters mean everything to us," Wetherelt said.

Interior Department officials were reviewing the ruling, spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said.

National Mining Association President Rich Nolan said the industry lobbying group would appeal Friday's ruling.

"This is a deeply disappointing decision with energy-driven inflation, energy affordability and energy security top concerns for Americans," Nolan said. "Denying access to affordable, secure energy during an energy affordability crisis is deeply troubling."

Officials from Montana and Wyoming had intervened in the case on the side of the federal government and argued against reviving the moratorium.

A spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said the Biden administration's defense of the federal coal program was only "half-hearted" because of its close alignment with environmentalists. Knudsen spokesperson Kyler Nerison added that the decision was an example of environmentalists taking advantage of federal laws to endlessly delay energy development.

Extracting and burning fossil fuels from federal land generates the equivalent of 1.4 billion tons (1.3 billion metric tons) annually of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Geological Survey. That's equivalent to almost one-quarter of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Obama Interior Secretary Sally Jewell suspended coal sales in large part over climate concerns in 2016. After Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revived the program in 2017, California, New York, New Mexico and Washington state sued. The Northern Cheyenne, joined by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, also filed a legal challenge.

In 2017 and 2018, the most recent years for which data was available, the U.S. government sold leases for 134 million tons of coal on public land in six states, according to figures provided by the Interior Department. That's a relatively small amount compared with previous years, for example 2011 and 2012, when more than 2 billion tons were sold in Wyoming alone.

Demand for coal has plummeted as many utilities switch to natural gas or renewables to generate power.

Albuquerque zoo sees first gorilla birth in almost 20 years Associated Press

The Albuquerque BioPark Zoo is celebrating the first birth of a gorilla in nearly 20 years.

Zoo officials say a baby western lowland gorilla was born Wednesday to mother Samantha and father Kojo.

Bob Lee, the zoo's associate director. says the zoo does not yet know the new baby's gender because the mother is keeping it very close. As a result, the zoo has temporarily shuttered the ape walk area so mother and baby can bond with some privacy.

The zoo's total number of western lowland gorillas is now up to eight. The last time a gorilla was born here was in 2004.

The parents have only been together a few years. Fifteen-year-old Samantha moved from Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, in April 2019. Twenty-year-old Kojo was born at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., and moved here in April 2021.

They were paired as part of a species survival plan.