HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Houston Police Department said they are increasing patrols at mosques around the city and meeting with Muslim community leaders later this week after a fourth Muslim man was killed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, over the past nine months. Law enforcement is now looking for a suspect's vehicle that they believe is involved in these murders.
Officials said the common factors among these cases were the victims' race and religion, but they cannot confirm if these were hate crimes until a suspect or motive has been identified. Still, the senseless killings have sent shockwaves through Muslim communities across the country, fearing that another Islamophobic attack could happen in their area.
According to ABC News and the Associated Press, authorities say three of the murders happened in the past week. The victims -- Naeem Hussain, 25; Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27; and Aftab Hussein, 41 were all from Pakistan and members of the same mosque. Mohammed Ahmadi, 62, who was from Afghanistan, was killed back in November. Muslim leaders in Albuquerque said Ahmadi was well-known in the community.
Albuquerque Police said the same vehicle is suspected of being used in all four homicides. It's described as a dark gray or silver four-door Volkswagen that appears to be a Jetta or Passat with dark-tinted windows. They released photos in hopes someone from the public could help identify the car and offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Here in Houston, William White with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said they are fasting Monday in honor of Ashura, a day of mourning and reflection in their religion. During this solemn time, they are also thinking about the four Muslim men who were killed and what they can do to keep their own communities safe.
"To the Muslim community, I'll say, be vigilant. Please don't travel alone, especially at night. If you're traveling somewhere that's very popular for the Muslim communities, such as a halal meat market or mosque, be sure that you leave with someone. Be sure people know where you are," White said.
Imam Qasim ibn Ali Khan, who leads the prayer services at Masjid At-Tawhid in Fifth Ward, feels a sense of sorrow after hearing about the news in Albuquerque.
"Every time something happens, it's an emotional burst. But the sad reality is that this is becoming a problem, not only in the country but throughout the world where violence is increasing," Khan said. "I'm afraid that the people will be getting a dose of media novocaine, meaning that the young people are beginning to become more insensitive to what's happening."
Houston Police's Assistant Chief Yasar Bashir, who is also Muslim, said their department doesn't want that to be a reality for Houstonians who worship Islam. That's why he said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and HPD Chief Troy Finner issued a response on Twitter about their efforts to help Muslims living in our area feel safe and secure. They are hoping to be proactive, instead of reactive.
"Any type of crime like that, it just breaks everybody's heart. It's not acceptable to be able to harm someone because of the way they look or their belief system. In the U.S., first of all, it's a crime. Second, as community leaders, we're not going to tolerate that," Bashir said.
Khan said they already have a security system in place at their mosque. But he looks forward to the discussions with HPD to help ease concerns for our local Muslim community. Every time something devastating like this happens, he said it just encourages them to do more good in the community to help break down negative stereotypes and misconceptions about those who practice Islam.
"Let people know that no matter what happens, that there is hope for the community. There is hope for America. There's hope for Texas. There's hope for Houston. There's hope for this Fifth Ward, northeast corridor of Houston," he said.
White, who serves as the director of operations for CAIR, said their organization is also stepping in to help bring closure to the victims' families in New Mexico. They're offering a $15,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest of the person(s) responsible for these murders. Tips should be submitted to the FBI or Albuquerque Police Department.
"I think that Texas and New Mexico have a very close relationship. While Houston is pretty far from New Mexico, I think there are a lot of people that may go back and forth, go for vacation, they may have friends there," he said.