This story was reported by Maria Alvarez, Tom Brune, Vincent Barone, Zachary R. Dowdy, Robert E. Kessler, Chau Lam, Víctor Manuel Ramos and Ellen Yan.
A U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan and accused in Saturday’s Chelsea bombing was captured Monday in New Jersey after a running gun battle on rain-slicked streets that ended with him and the police officer who first confronted him shot and wounded, authorities said.
Investigators have so far found no solid links between the suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and international terrorism or any domestic terror cells but were searching through his activity in social media looking for possible co-conspirators.
FBI Special Agent William Sweeney said after the suspect’s capture that investigators are now trying to “completely understand Rahami’s social networks.”
Sources briefed on the investigation said Monday that Rahami traveled back and forth between Afghanistan and the United States in the past few years. The sources also said they have information indicating that he may have crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan but it was unknown whether he had any military training while in either country.
Investigators also continued pursuing whether additional explosive devices remain unaccounted for and whether others knew of the suspect’s bomb making or radicalization and didn’t report it, said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford).
King, who has talked with FBI and NYPD officials with knowledge of the investigation, said Christmas lights were used as detonators on a second, unexploded bomb in Manhattan, as well as the detonated device in Seaside Park, New Jersey, earlier Saturday.
The bomb that malfunctioned Saturday, blocks north of where the first bomb went off in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, allowed investigators to recover a fingerprint and a mobile phone that they traced to Rahami, King said.
“The main connection was the bombs themselves,” said King, chairman of the House counterterrorism subcommittee. “The bombs were very similar.”
In an interview Monday night, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told CNN that only Rahami’s fingerprints and DNA were found amid the explosives.
“The operating theory is that he was operating on his own,” Cuomo said.
Prosecutors in Union County, New Jersey, charged Rahami, who most recently worked at his family’s Elizabeth fried chicken restaurant, with multiple counts of attempted murder of a police officer and unlawful possession of a weapon. His bail was set at $5.2 million, and he is scheduled for his first court appearance Sept. 28, prosecutors said.
Hours earlier, a Linden, New Jersey police officer approached Rahami in the doorway outside a bar and restaurant after responding to a call about a vagrant. When confronted, Rahami opened fire, police said, hitting the wounded officer in the bulletproof vest and engaging in a running gunfight with pursuing officers before getting shot multiple times.
His capture ended a rapid-fire manhunt that gained speed and urgency by the hour after the bomb he is suspected of planting in Chelsea exploded Saturday night, injuring 29 people and giving New Yorkers another unwelcome reminder of the city’s ever-present status as the prime terrorism target in the United States.
Investigators also suspect that Rahami placed a package laden with explosives in a trash can discovered Sunday night near an Elizabeth train station. That device exploded early Monday as a police bomb squad robot attempted to disarm it. It was one of five such devices found near the train station, authorities said.
President Barack Obama, visiting New York City for the gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, praised the “tough” and “resilient” response of the people of New York and New Jersey and offered them up as an example of how Americans should respond.
“Folks around here, they don’t get scared,” Obama said. “They go about their business every single day. That’s the kind of strength that makes me so proud to be an American.”
Investigators had a strong indicator of who the prime suspect was just a day after the bombings because surveillance video captured images of the same man at the 23rd Street location in Chelsea and the area on West 27th Street where State Police found the unexploded device.
The hunt picked up speed late Sunday night after FBI agents and investigators with the NYPD stopped a “vehicle of interest” on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn in connection with the Chelsea bombing.
Investigators took five people into custody for questioning at an FBI facility in lower Manhattan and released them Monday without charges filed, officials said. The five were members of Rahami’s family, King said.
“They were family members who left the house last night,” King said. “They gave very significant information to the FBI.”
Sunday night, people in the metro area went to bed as news broke about the Brooklyn traffic stop. They awoke Monday morning to learn that the bomb near the Elizabeth train station had exploded at about 12:30 a.m.
A Linden police officer came upon Rahami 10 hours later in the doorway outside Merdie’s, a bar and restaurant, after responding to a call about a vagrant sleeping there, said Linden Police Capt. James Sarnicki.
Rahami shot and wounded an officer and was shot himself after a chase, Sarnicki said, adding that the suspect was shot in a leg and arm.
Rahami, who had been turned over to FBI custody, underwent surgery, officials said, but his condition was not known Monday night.
The link that authorities said identified him as the possible bomber was partly a byproduct of his own handiwork.
Three of the bombs had one component in common: a flip-style cellphone, a federal official said, adding that the pipe bomb that exploded in Seaside Park was constructed with a threaded pipe and black powder. The official said the two devices found in New York City included pressure cookers, similar to the devices used in the 2013 attack at the Boston Marathon that killed three and wounded hundreds more.
Despite collecting what they have said is DNA and fingerprints of Rahami from the exploded bomb fragments, the physical evidence is just a piece of the wider investigation. Federal and local law enforcement still are searching for a motive. They are hoping the justification for the bombings can be found poring over Rahami’s various associations, investigators said.
Among the many unanswered questions, King said: Was Rahami on the terrorist watch list? Was the Chelsea bombing a decoy for an attack on the United Nations General Assembly meetings? Also, King said, what possible affiliations could the suspect have in Afghanistan, where the Islamic State group does not have a strong presence?
Cuomo told CNN Rahami’s wife lives in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, just two days after the bombings, Manhattan residents and those with business in the city tried to take the advice of Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and others to move on with their lives as investigators continue their efforts. Easier said than done, said Jose “Danny” Collador, 51, of New Jersey as he dined inside the Malibu diner, just two doors down from where the Chelsea device blew up in a garbage bin.
“I am happy but I hope business will get better. It’s not easy when you have to close your business,” he said.
Shalev Katzav, 32, owner of the “Wrapido,” a falafel stand, said, the weekend’s terror explosion “can happen anywhere.”
Katzav said he came to New York from northern Israel to get away “from the war and fighting.” His experience with terror in the Middle East is emotionally draining, Katzav said, and the weekend bombing “brought back those feelings.”
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
- 9:30 a.m.: A pipe bomb explodes in Seaside Park, New Jersey, just before the start of a charity 5K race. No one was injured.
- 8:30 p.m.: An improvised explosive device explodes inside a dumpster on 23rd Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, according to police. A total of 29 people are injured.
- 11 p.m.: Mayor Bill de Blasio says in a news conference from the scene that the Chelsea blast was an “intentional” act.
- 12:13 a.m.: The NYPD asks residents on 27th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, to stay clear of their windows as police remove a suspicious package.
- 2:20 a.m.: The suspicious device, which was found by responding New York State Police troopers and turned out to be a pressure cooker with a cellphone and wires attached to it, is removed and taken by the NYPD Bomb Squad to a facility in the Bronx.
- 10:15 a.m.: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces about 1,000 more State Police and National Guard members to patrol the bus terminal airports and subway stations.
- 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.: The secondary device is rendered safe at the Rodman’s Neck Range in the Bronx. The device is sent to the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Virginia.
- 8:30 p.m.: Five devices are found in a bag in a trash can near the Elizabeth, New Jersey, train station. One of the devices later explodes as a bomb squad attempts to disarm it with a robot.
- 8:45 p.m.: FBI agents pull over a car on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, taking five people into custody for questioning in connection with the Chelsea bombing, according to reports. The five people in the vehicle were relatives of suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami, but it’s not clear whether they were involved in the bombing.
- 8 a.m.: Police release the photo and description of Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, a U.S. citizen who was born in Afghanistan, according to the FBI. His last known address was in Elizabeth.
- 10:30 a.m.: Police in Linden, New Jersey, respond to a call of a man sleeping in the hallway of a bar at 700 East Elizabeth Ave., Linden. The man turns out to be Rahami, who then fires at officers, wounding two before he is taken into custody.