A Bangladesh-origin imam of a Queens mosque and his assistant have been killed as a lone gunman attacked them from close range in what members of the mosque quickly denounced as a hate crime.
The duo were dressed in Muslim garb when the killer “approached from behind and shot in the head” from point-blank range just one block from the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid Mosque in Ozone Park after Saturday afternoon prayers, New York Daily News reported. The mosque is frequented primarily by people of Bangladeshi origin.[caption id="attachment_10253" align="alignleft" width="300"] Khairul Islam Khokon, 33, surrounded by other members of the mosque, leads a chant against Donald Trump after the imam was killed in Ozone Park, Queens. Photo: NY Daily News[/caption]
Alaluddin Akonjee, 55, and his assistant and brother-in-law, 65-year-old Thara Uddin, succumbed to their injuries at a hospital.
Akonjee arrived in Queens from Bangladesh less than two years ago. He was leaving for Bangladesh in 10 days to attend his son’s wedding.
On January 16, a Bangladeshi man Mujibur Rahman, 43, on a Bronx street was assaulted by two teenagers when he walked his nine-year-old niece from school. The teens – a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old – were later arrested and charged with misdemeanour assault and harassment as a hate crime.
The gunshots rang out around 1:55pm local time on 79th St., said police sources. It was unclear if the killer said anything before he started shooting. The two victims were apparently headed to Akonjee’s house when they were attacked.
The shooter fled the scene on foot. Police say there was no argument or exchange of words before the shooting – just gunfire. Witnesses say a man with a medium complexion and Polo-style shorts was seen fleeing the scene with a gun in his hand.[caption id="attachment_10254" align="alignleft" width="169"] Thara Uddin. Photo: NY Daily News[/caption]
“We are all crying,” said his brother Mashuk Uddin. “There’s so much crying.”
Scores of worshippers from the mosque gathered within hours at the murder scene to denounce the cold-blooded ambush as a hate crime – with the two religious leaders specifically targeted.
“That’s not what America is about,” said local resident Khairul Islam, 33. “We blame Donald Trump for this ... Trump and his drama has created Islamophobia.”
The motive for the shooting was not immediately known and no evidence has been uncovered that the two men were targeted because of their faith, said Tiffany Phillips, a spokeswoman for the New York City Police Department. Even so, police were not ruling out any possibility, she added.
"We are currently conducting an extensive canvass of the area for video and additional witnesses," Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner said in a statement.
Local residents described the imam as a pious, well-respected member of the community. Akonjee was head of the local mosque for four years, said Ahmed Zakria, a member of the mosque.
The imam’s nephew said Akonjee had no problems with anyone in the neighbourhood.
“I’m not sure what kind of an animal would kill that man,” said Rahi Majid, 26. “He would not hurt a fly. You would watch him come down the street and watch the peace he brings.”
Witnesses described a chaotic scene where the shooter started blasting at the two unarmed victims in the middle of a blistering August afternoon.
“We are devastated,” said Kobir Chowdhury, president of a second neighbourhood mosque. “We need to get to the bottom of this. We need to know if they did this just because of our religion.”
Another witness said the gunfire seemingly came from nowhere.
“All of a sudden I heard five shots,” said the witness, who declined to give his name. “I knew it wasn’t firecrackers. And then the commotion of the emergency [vehicles], and that’s when I knew.
“When I came here, they were doing CPR to both of the people on the ground.”
The imam was “a very sweet, soft-spoken, humble man,” said Chowdhury, 40. “He’s a role model as an imam, as a father, as a community member. He didn’t have any disputes with anybody.”
The men were transported to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center and died "while life-saving procedures were being performed," said Andrew Rubin, a hospital spokesman.[caption id="attachment_10250" align="alignleft" width="224"] Imam Alaluddin with his eldest daughter Musammot Akonjee. Photo: NY Daily News[/caption]
“I’m very shocked,” said Mashuk Uddin. “I’m shaking, my whole body. Not any problems with anybody. He just goes to the mosque, prays and goes home.”
Police and witnesses described the shooter as tall and Hispanic, carrying a large handgun, and wearing a dark blue shirt and short pants. Police received a 911 call with a report of shots fired.
“I mean, I was scared,” said witness Steven Nauth, 27. “I had my little cousin out here and I told him to run.”
Police, without providing a motive, said initially that the shooting was not a hate crime. The gunfire erupted near a storage facility and a block away from the elevated A train station, officials said.
“People being shot in the head in broad daylight is unheard of,” said Millat Uddin, a 25-year resident of the neighbourhood. “Killing people brutally, like they’re an animal.”[caption id="attachment_10251" align="alignleft" width="300"] Al-Furqan Jame Mosque in Ozone Park, where the victims had just left after afternoon prayers. Photo: NY DAILY NEWS[/caption]
Donna Jag, 49, heard the shots and thought they were a car backfiring until she left her house to find a huge crowd of distraught people on the street.
“It was chaos,” she told the News. “I was nervous. The neighbourhood is quiet, but now, it’s kind of scary, right at my doorstep in broad daylight.”
The neighbourhood is a mix of residences and businesses, but people of different faiths have long gotten along peacefully, she said.
“We have Hindus and Muslims here, and we have no problems. This is really, really shocking,” she said.