Bomber’s transformation after trip overseas

Rahami is suspected of being responsible for bombings over the weekend in both New York and New Jersey

Image Credit: AP
Ahmad Khan Rahami is taken into custody after a shootout with police Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Linden, N.J. Rahami was wanted for questioning in the bombings that rocked the Chelsea neighborhood of New York and the New Jersey shore town of Seaside Park.
Gulf News

Washington: He presided behind the counter of a storefront New Jersey fried chicken restaurant, making his home with his family in an apartment above it. To some of his friends, Ahmad Khan Rahami was known as Mad, an abridgement of his name rather than a suggestion of his manner, and they liked that he gave them free food when they were short on money.

Beyond that, his other known obsession was souped-up Honda Civics that he liked to race. In recent years, though, some friends noticed a marked change in his personality and religious devotion after what they believed was a trip to Afghanistan, where he and his relatives are from.

In fact, a federal official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Rahami had actually travelled to Pakistan, for three months in 2011 and, most recently, to Quetta, for nearly a year, where he stayed with family, returning to the United States in March 2014. While there, he is believed to have married.

Back home in New Jersey, he and his relatives had a fractious relationship with neighbours and the police in Elizabeth, New Jersey, because of the always-open hours of their restaurant and the rackety customers it attracted. The long-standing friction led to the Rahami family’s filing a federal lawsuit in 2011 against the city and its Police Department in which they alleged that they were harassed and intimidated because of their religion. In the suit, they accused a local businessman of complaining to them, “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”

Now, Rahami is suspected of being responsible for the bombings over the weekend in both New York and New Jersey. He was taken into custody on Monday after being discovered asleep in a bar doorway in New Jersey and then wounded in a gun battle with the police.

A 28-year-old naturalised citizen, Rahami lived in Elizabeth, about 20 kilometres from New York, above First American Fried Chicken, a family business apparently owned by his father, Mohammad. Several brothers may also have worked there.

Ahmad Rahami was born on January 23, 1988, in Afghanistan and came to the United States as a child.

Jonathan Wagner, 26, who has known the Rahami family since childhood, said Mohammad Rahami told him he was from Kandahar and had been part of the mujahideen in Afghanistan that fought the Soviet army. While the father said he did not harbour anti-American feeling, he opposed the war in Afghanistan. But, Wagner said, the elder Rahami was dubious of the Taliban and detested Daesh.

Flee Jones, 27, grew up with Ahmad Rahami, and when they were young played basketball with him. As an adult, Jones, a rapper, was a regular at the chicken place, where the food was plain but cheap. He said the Rahamis would let him and his friends host rap battles in the back of the restaurant. Jones helped write a song called “Chicken Joint” about the restaurant.

At this point, little is known of Rahami’s ideology or politics. He used to wear Western-style clothing, and customers said he gave little indication of his heritage.

Around four years ago, though, Rahami disappeared for a while. Jones said one of the younger Rahami brothers told him that he had gone to Afghanistan. When he returned, some patrons noticed a certain transformation. He grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim robes. He began to pray in the back of the store.

His previous genial bearing turned more stern.

“It’s like he was a completely different person,” Jones said. “He got serious and completely closed off.”

Andre Almeida, 24, who lives nearby and eats at the chicken restaurant once or twice each week, said he found the change quite striking but was hesitant to reach any conclusions.

Unbeknown to them, their friend had gotten married in Pakistan. Rep. Albio Sires, said Rahami had contacted his office in 2014 for help bringing his pregnant wife over from Pakistan. The matter was complicated by the fact the US Embassy in Islamabad told her that she needed to wait until her baby was born for both of them to come, said Sires, who added that he did not know whether they eventually did.

Rahami kept little social media presence that the authorities have been able to locate.

“He’s a little bit of a wraith, a ghost,” a law enforcement official said.

There is no evidence yet that Rahami received any military training abroad, the federal official said, but investigators remain intent on learning more about his time overseas. “Where did he really go and what did he do overseas that a kid who lived a normal New Jersey life came back as a sophisticated bomb-maker and terrorist?” the official said.

Besides his most recent trip to Quetta, Rahami visited Karachi, Pakistan, in 2005.

The events on Monday were not Rahami’s first encounter with law enforcement. He was arrested in 2014 on weapons and aggravated assault charges for allegedly stabbing a relative in the leg in a domestic incident, according to court documents. He spent over three months in jail on the charges, according to a high-ranking law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation. A grand jury, however, declined to indict Rahami. He also spent a day in jail in February 2012 for allegedly violating a restraining order, the official said.