ELIZABETH, N.J (USA TODAY) - A complicated and conflicting portrait emerged of the New Jersey man suspected of planting bombs from Manhattan to Seaside Park, N.J., in a weekend terror spree.
Ahmad Khan Rahami, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Afghanistan, was known to some old friends as a friendly and funny guy, and an auto enthusiast.
But others said the 28-year-old, whose family had once sued Elizabeth, N.J., alleging they were the targets of anti-Muslim bias, had changed after recent trips to south Asia, becoming more religious and conservative in his dress.
On Monday, Rahami was arrested in Linden, N.J., after a shootout with police — not far from his home above a restaurant his family owned and operated on Elmora Avenue in Elizabeth. Officials say there is video of Rahami planting pipe bombs and a jerry-rigged pressure cooker in lower Manhattan and Seaside Park, where people were gathering for a 5K run.
Investigators will now try to piece out how the friendly high school boy who emigrated from Afghanistan may have become America’s latest domestic terrorist.
Friends at Edison High School — where the yearbook for the Class of 2007 shows Rahami sporting a red satin vest and tie and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache — said there was no sign that Rahami had a bent for violence.
“There isn’t anyone who knew him in high school who would say he is anything less than a great guy," said Luis Poveda, a former classmate. “We’re all just in shock.’’
Rahami had attended Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., in his freshman year, and classmate Hakeem Ezzouhairy remembered him as a class clown who got along with everybody.
“He was a very nice person at the time,” said Ezzouhairy, a Maplewood resident. “Never were there any signs of hate towards America or triggers that would make you say, ‘This guy is gonna be a terrorist.’ ”
“He was a cool guy ... super into cars,” said Devin Sanchez, 20, who said he went to school with Rahami’s younger brother and got to know the family. He described them as “serious” and “strict,” very much devoted to the family restaurant.
“The father was very religious,” Sanchez said, adding that he doubted highly that the family had anything to do with the bombings. “He was very about his business, his kids, and that’s it.”
Sanchez, who said he has had no contact with the suspect for roughly a year, said Ahmad Rahami also did a stint driving for an app-based car service but was unsure for how long.
Meanwhile, Andre Almeida, a longtime customer at the Rahami family restaurant, First American Fried Chicken, where Rahami was working, 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.”
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 his 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,” said Jones. “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.”
Questioned by U.S.
Rahami visited Afghanistan a number of times in the last few years and was questioned upon his return each time, a U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times. He raised no red flags, the official said.
Rahami appears also to have been married and was a father, based on information supplied by the congressman for his district in New Jersey.
U.S. Rep. Albio Sires told The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record that Rahami had contacted his office in 2014 by email from Pakistan, where he was having a problem getting his wife into the country because of an expired passport.
Sires, a Democrat from West New York whose district includes Elizabeth, wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, and was later informed they would send a passport to Rahami’s pregnant wife. He said it was a routine inquiry to ask for the status.
“The consulate told her she would have to renew her passport before she could get an immigrant visa, but then they found out she was 35 weeks pregnant,” Sires said. “So they told her she had to have the baby, and then renew her passport and apply for an immigrant visa for her and the baby.”
Sires said he personally called the FBI on Monday morning after his office heard there was a manhunt for the suspect. The FBI declined to answer the congressman when he asked if Rahami’s wife ever came to the United States, Sires said.
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