World

New York-area terror bombing suspect caught dozing in doorway

AP, Reuters

An Afghan immigrant wanted in the bombings that rocked a New York City neighborhood and a New Jersey shore town was captured Monday after being wounded in a gun battle with police that erupted when he was discovered sleeping in a bar doorway, authorities said as it appeared more likely that the crimes will be treated as acts of terrorism.

Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to the leg, and two officers were wounded but were not critically hurt in the shootout that followed a weekend of fear and dread across New York and beyond.

The arrest came just hours after police issued a bulletin and photo of Rahami, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan who lived with his Muslim family in an apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, over a fried-chicken restaurant owned by his father.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, chief federal prosecutor in New York, said New Jersey officials will probably bring charges against Rahami in the police officers’ shooting while federal authorities weigh charges of their own.

“We have every reason to believe this was an act of terror,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said after Rahami’s capture.

On Saturday night, a shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bomb similar to those used in the Boston Marathon attack exploded in New York’s Chelsea section, wounding 29 people, none seriously. An unexploded pressure-cooker bomb was found blocks away.

Earlier that day, a pipe bomb blew up in Seaside Park, New Jersey, before a charity race to benefit Marines. No one was injured.

Then on Sunday night, five explosive devices were discovered in a trash can at an Elizabeth train station. Investigators said they are still gathering evidence and have not publicly tied Rahami to those bombs.

With Rahami’s arrest, officials said they have no indication there are more bombs or suspects to find, though they cautioned that they are still working to understand Rahami’s connections. His motive remains unclear, New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

William Sweeney Jr., the FBI’s assistant director in New York, said there are no indications Rahami was on law enforcement’s radar at the time of the bombings.

As for how investigators zeroed in on him as a suspect, three law enforcement officials said the clues included a fingerprint lifted from one of the New York sites and “clear as day” surveillance video from the bombing scene that helped identify Rahami. The officials spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Five people were pulled over Sunday night in a vehicle associated with Rahami but were questioned and released, Sweeney said, declining to say whether they might later face charges. The law enforcement officials said at least one of Rahami’s relatives was in the car, which appeared headed toward Kennedy Airport in New York after coming from New Jersey.

Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said the break in the case came late Monday morning, when the owner of a bar reported someone asleep in his doorway. A police officer went to investigate and recognized the man as Rahami, police and the mayor said.

Rahami pulled a gun and shot the officer — who was wearing a bulletproof vest — in the torso, and more officers joined in a gun battle that spilled into the street, police Capt. James Sarnicki said.

Peter Bilinskas was standing by his desk at his Linden bowling-supply shop when he heard what sounded like gunfire and saw a man walking down the street with a gun in his hand.

As a police car pulled up at the traffic light in front of the shop, the man fired about six shots at the cruiser, then continued down the street with police following him, Bilinskas said.

As the East Coast was rattled by the bombings, a man who authorities say referred to Allah wounded nine people in a stabbing rampage at a Minnesota mall Saturday before being shot to death by an off-duty police officer. Authorities are investigating it as a possible terrorist attack but have not drawn any connection between the bloodshed there and the bombings.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim advocacy group, welcomed Rahami’s arrest. The organization and the Afghan Embassy in Washington condemned the bombings.

Around the time Rahami was captured, President Barack Obama was in New York on a previously scheduled visit for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. He called on Americans to show the world “we will never give in to fear.”

Rahami lived with his family on a busy street a few miles from the Newark airport. An AP reporter went to the building that houses the family’s restaurant and home, but it was cordoned off.

Rahami’s father, Mohammad, and two of Rahami’s brothers sued the city of Elizabeth in 2011 after it passed an ordinance requiring their restaurant, First American Fried Chicken, to close early because of complaints from neighbors that it was a late-night nuisance.

The Rahamis charged in the lawsuit that they were targeted by neighbors because they are Muslims. The lawsuit was terminated in 2012 after Mohammad Rahami pleaded guilty to blocking police from enforcing the restrictions on the restaurant.

Ryan McCann, of Elizabeth, said that he often ate at the restaurant and recently began seeing the younger Rahami working there more.

“He’s always in there. He’s a very friendly guy, that’s what’s so scary. It’s hard when it’s home,” McCann said.

On Sunday, a federal law enforcement official said the Chelsea bomb contained a residue of Tannerite, an explosive often used for target practice that can be picked up in many sporting goods stores.

One of the five devices found at the Elizabeth train station exploded while a bomb squad robot tried to disarm it. No one was hurt.

Long before the FBI made Ahmad Rahami notorious as a suspect in this weekend’s bombings around New York, his family was well known in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for frequent skirmishes with neighbors over its fried chicken restaurant.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation plans to question Rahami, a 28-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Afghanistan, in the bombings that wounded 29 people in New York City on Saturday, as well as other devices that exploded in New Jersey without causing injury.

Rahami was taken into custody in Linden, New Jersey, about 20 miles (32 km) outside New York, after an exchange of gunfire with police officers on Monday.

Rahami was not listed on U.S. counterterrorism databases, three U.S. officials told Reuters. But he was well known to Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage for the frequent complaints about noise at the family’s restaurant, on a commercial strip of a racially diverse, working-class neighborhood.

“The suspect was not on the radar of local law enforcement, but the fried chicken place that … the family owned, we had some code enforcement problems and noise complaints,” Bollwage told reporters.

His father, Mohammed Rahami, registered the business as Khan Fried Chicken in 2006, but four years later changed the name to First American Fried Chicken, citing “popularity,” according to state records.

The family lived above the store, which is wedged between a beauty salon and a shop advertising money transfers and computer help. On Monday authorities cordoned off an area around the building and were removing boxes. Officers were on the restaurant’s roof, going in and out of the residence, and one officer leaned out of a window, taking pictures.

The restaurant’s employees were serious and businesslike, rarely interacting with customers more than they had to, said Josh Sanchez, 24, and Jessica Casanova, 23, who called themselves frequent customers.

By 2008, Elizabeth police were battling with First American Fried Chicken over the restaurant’s 24-hour schedule. A city ordinance barred take-out stores from staying open past 10 p.m.

The restaurant was cited, and although the family appealed the decision, a New Jersey appeals court ruled against the family in 2014, according to records.

A lawyer who represented the Rahami family in the dispute could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The family filed a lawsuit around 2010, claiming they were being discriminated against, Bollwage said, adding that the city’s actions involving the restaurant were in no way related to the family’s religion or ethnic origin.

Rahami traveled to Afghanistan several years ago and afterward grew a beard and began wearing religious clothing, Flee Jones, a childhood friend, told Reuters.

The reason for the trip and its full impact on Rahami was not immediately known, but Jones said Rahami became more serious and quiet. Jones said he learned about the travel from one of Rahami’s brothers and last saw Rahami about two years ago.

“He was way more religious,” Jones said, adding, “I never knew him as the kind of person who would do anything like this.”

Investigators are meanwhile trying to determine if more people were involved in the New York and New Jersey bomb plots, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

In the immediate aftermath of that bombing, de Blasio and Cuomo were careful to say there was no evidence of a link to international terrorism. Both said Monday that appears to be changing.

On Sunday, a federal law enforcement official said the Chelsea bomb contained a residue of Tannerite, an explosive often used for target practice that can be picked up in many sporting goods stores. The discovery of Tannerite may be important as authorities probe whether the two New York City devices and the pipe bomb at the Jersey shore are connected.

Cellphones were discovered at the site of both bombings, but no Tannerite residue was identified in the New Jersey bomb remnants, in which a black powder was detected, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to comment on an ongoing investigation and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.

On Sunday night, five devices were found in a trash can near a train station in Elizabeth. The men had reported seeing wires and a pipe coming out of the package. One of the devices exploded as a bomb squad attempted to disarm it with a robot. There were no reports of injuries.