To neighbors and customers of his family’s storefront chicken takeout, Ahmad Khan Rahami was a quiet, friendly presence behind the counter who liked talking about cars and was generous with free food. So when the 28-year-old Afghan immigrant was named Monday as the lead “person of interest” in bombings in New York and New Jersey, then apprehended hours later in a shootout with police, people in this gritty neighborhood a few miles from Newark’s airport could scarcely believe it.
Rahami’s father and brothers had long nursed tensions with local officials in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and some neighbors over the restaurant’s late hours. But Ahmad Rahami’s demeanor, religiously devout, but far more likely to talk about worldly pursuits than his faith, never hinted at anything but good will, customers said.
“He’d always talk about his cars. He loved his Civics, he loved going fast,” said Ryan McCann, a frequent customer at First American Fried Chicken, the restaurant that Rahami’s father, Mohammed, has run since 2002. “He was so friendly he’d give us free chicken here and there, just because we shopped there so much.”
Rahami, a naturalized US citizen from Afghanistan, was taken into custody Monday after a shootout with police in the nearby town of Linden. A law enforcement official says fingerprints and surveillance video helped investigators identify him as the man suspected of setting off bombs in the New York area over the weekend. The official says Ahmad Khan Rahami is seen in surveillance footage “clear as day” at the scene of the Saturday night bombing in Manhattan.
The official says investigators were also able to recover his fingerprints from the scene. Rahami was not on any terror or no-fly watch lists, a law enforcement official said, but he had been interviewed by officials for immigration purposes. Another law enforcement official says investigators pulled over a car, carrying three men and two women, that was “associated” with Rahami when it appeared headed toward an airport Sunday.
The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the case. As FBI agents removed bags of evidence from the restaurant Monday afternoon, officials and residents recalled Rahami and his family, who shared an apartment over the business. Flee Jones, 27, who said he’d known Rahami since they were teenagers, told reporters gathered at the scene Monday that he had noticed a change in Rahami’s personality after a trip to Afghanistan in 2014. When Rahami returned, he “got more religious” and dressed differently than before, Jones said.
“He was more quiet and more mature,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Oh where have you been?’ And he said, ‘Oh, vacation.’ But I knew he went to Afghanistan because his little brother said it.”
Andre Almeida, a customer at the restaurant for the past eight years, said he noticed when Rahami stopped wearing western clothes after returning from Afghanistan a few years ago and started wearing “a little more ethnic clothing.” Neighbors had complained to Elizabeth officials that the Rahamis’ restaurant was a late-night nuisance, Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage said. Rahami’s father and two brothers sued the city in 2011 after Elizabeth police cited the restaurant for staying open past 10 pm, allegedly in violation a local ordinance. The Rahamis charged in the lawsuit that they were targeted by local police because they are Muslims.
The harassment, the lawsuit alleged, was based largely on the complaints to officials by one neighbor who regularly walked into the restaurant to tell them that “Muslims don’t belong here,” and “Muslims are trouble.” Adjudication of the lawsuit was put on hold in 2011 when the elder Rahami traveled to Pakistan and was unable to return to the US in time, court filings show. The lawsuit was eventually terminated in 2012 after one of the brothers, Mohammed K. Rahami, pleaded guilty to blocking police from enforcing restrictions on the restaurant. But neighbors aware of tensions over the restaurant said Ahmad Rahami, a 2007 graduate of nearby Edison High School, was easy to get along with, if somewhat reserved.
“He was just very quiet,” said Jorge Vasquez, who owns a business a block over and frequently visited the restaurant. As police searched for Ahmad Rahami on Monday, the owner of a bar in Linden found a man sleeping in his hallway. The man was initially presumed to be a vagrant, but police officers who responded quickly realized it was Rahami, Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said. Armstead says the man pulled out a handgun and fired at the officers, hitting one in a bulletproof vest. The man then began firing as he ran down the street and police shot him in the leg.
“It’s shocking,” Vasquez said. “No one expected anything like that. He was just a very quiet kid.”