US bomb suspect's family life shadowed by financial troubles and violence

Mohammed Rahami, the father of Ahmad Khan Rahami, removes police tape from his car as FBI investigators gather evidence at the family's business, First American Fried Chicken, in New Jersey.
Mohammed Rahami, the father of Ahmad Khan Rahami, removes police tape from his car as FBI investigators gather evidence at the family's business, First American Fried Chicken, in New Jersey.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (THE WASHINGTON POST) - He lived with his family in an apartment above their fried chicken joint.

It seemed like the typical life of an immigrant son, said friends and neighbours. He worked at the family business alongside his father and brothers. He played basketball at the court down the street. He tried to hold his own in neighbourhood rap battles.

Then came last weekend's bombings in New York and New Jersey. And suddenly, nothing seemed typical about Ahmad Khan Rahami anymore.

On Monday local time (Sept 19), police tape surrounded the family's restaurant. FBI investigators could be seen through the windows padding in and out, removing evidence while wearing sanitised blue booties.

After a dramatic shootout with police, Rahami was left with gunshot wounds to his shoulder and leg and was filmed looking dazed as he was being put into an ambulance in Linden, the next town over.

In the wake of his arrest, those who knew him and his family are struggling to piece together what happened - how this boy they grew up with and went to school with became the alleged source of such terror.

 
 

Rahami, 28, was born on Jan 23, 1988, in Afghanistan, but he became a naturalised US citizen after his family moved here.

Public records show that the Rahamis bounced around New Jersey during their early years, living in Perth Amboy, Edison, Union Township and Elizabeth, south of Newark.

Their most recent address was at the Elizabeth apartment above a restaurant called First American Fried Chicken. Court records show the family has owned and operated the eatery since 2002.

A childhood friend said he used to play basketball with Rahami at a court a few blocks from the family's restaurant."I was shocked to see his picture. I said, 'No, not Mohammed's son.' They were really nice," said Mr Flee Jones, 27.

He and Ahmad used to do rap battles at the restaurant and hang out there late into the evening. He said the family nicknamed Ahmad "Med." And he recalled how the family would often give him free food and water.

The family home and business sits on Elmora Avenue - a street of small businesses, including a hair salon, dry cleaner and an international supermarket.

"He was always respectful to me," said owner Jaime Reyes of Sonia's Beauty next door to the chicken place.

Others, however, recounted a more volatile relationship with the Rahamis.

"They were angry," said Mr Marcella Perrotti, who owns a hair salon across the street. In a small town with a tight-knit community, the Rahami family stayed well outside of it all."They were outcasts," he said.

There were also signs of violence within the family, said Republican Congressman Peter King, who sits on the Homeland Security committee.

Mr King, who has been briefed by the FBI, said Rahami had once tried to stab his sister in a domestic violence incident.

"My understanding is she accused him of domestic violence," Mr King said. But when questioned by authorities, "the sister recanted."

He said authorities are also investigating several trips abroad that Rahami took in recent years. "I'm hearing that his trips to Afghanistan changed him. He also went to Pakistan at some point. There were a number of trips," he added,

Law enforcement officials said they were investigating whether Rahami could have been influenced by international terrorist groups or the ongoing conflict in his homeland.

A high school classmate said Rahami had become more religious of late.

Mr Amarjit Singh, 27, said Rahami clashed with his father in recent years after the son started going out with a Dominican woman; the couple had a daughter, who is now 6 or 7 years old.

"When he was younger, he had more Western values," Mr Singh said. "After he had his daughter, he became more religious. In the last few years, he was more into the Quran."

One neighbour, Andre Almeida, 24, who lives down the street and often ate at the restaurant, said the family had seemed westernised. But three or four years ago, he noticed that they started wearing more traditional clothes.

In a 2005 bankruptcy filing, Rahami's father Mohammed described himself as the parent of eight children who was separated from his wife.

He listed himself as a cook at the restaurant with an income of US$1,447 (S$1,970) a month. He said he had accumulated more than US$45,000 in debt and had just US$100 left in his bank account.

Court records show the Rahami family struggled to keep their business afloat and clashed repeatedly with town authorities over the eatery's late-night hours.

In 2011, the Rahamis sued the city of Elizabeth and several police officers, alleging that police were harassing them and inappropriately citing them for keeping their restaurant open past 10 pm.

According to the lawsuit - which continued in court for years and alleges civil rights violations - a year after the family opened the restaurant, the city passed an ordinance barring restaurants from operating past 10 pm.

The family claimed that a neighbourhood businessman told them: "Muslims make too much trouble in this country," "Muslims should not have businesses here" and "Muslims don't belong here."

Following the businessman's complaints to police, officers starting singling out the family "solely on animus against (their) religion, creed, race and national origin," according to the lawsuit.

The family said police and a local businessman "embarked on a course of conduct to harass, humiliate, intimidate, retaliate" over the 10 pm closing time.

In one instance, they alleged, two Rahami family members were arrested for attempting to record a conversation with police officers.

Talking to reporters on Monday, Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage confirmed the acrimony and said city officials kept getting complaints about rowdy customers and incidents stemming from the late-night hours.

According to classmates, Rahami attended Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, before moving later to Edison High School.

In a Facebook posting, Ms Hoda Mitwally, who attended Edison with Rahami and graduated with him in 2007, said she was "in a state of shock" when she saw the news, but she urged her fellow classmates not to rush to judgement and to get a lawyer if questioned by the FBI. She did not return calls or other attempts to reach her.

"There is a lot we don't know yet," she wrote. "Right now, all we do know is that he is a suspect wanted for questioning. So please do not jump to conclusions just yet about whether he did it, because he is innocent until proven guilty."

Just before Rahami's arrest on Monday, New Jersey State Police released several images of him, including surveillance footage from one of the bomb locations.

Outside the family's business on Monday afternoon, Rahami's father told MSNBC that he had "no idea" his son had been making bombs and planning an attack.