This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Anthony M. Destefano, Alison Fox, and Robert E. Kessler. It was written by Bart Jones.
The NYPD was searching Wednesday for two men captured on a surveillance camera removing an explosive device from a travel bag on a Manhattan street Saturday, blocks from where investigators said Ahmad Khan Rahami left a bomb in a garbage container before it blew up.
A photo released by the NYPD shows the two men walking side-by-side, in the hope that someone will come forward to identify them.
Investigators said the pair came upon the airline travel bag Saturday night, took the device out, and continued on with the luggage. Police said they want to examine the bag for possible evidence connected to the Chelsea bombing but the men are not considered suspects.
“They are witnesses,” said NYPD chief James Waters, who heads the department’s counterterrorism operations. “There are no criminal charges. They are not in jeopardy of being arrested.”
Waters asked the two men to contact police and also requested that anyone who might know them to reach out to detectives.
The Chelsea bomb detonated at about 8:30 p.m. Saturday on West 23rd Street, injuring 29 people and setting off an intense multiagency manhunt that ended two days later with the arrest of Rahami in Linden, New Jersey after a shootout with police officers.
Rahami shot and wounded an officer who returned fire, hitting the bombing suspect.
Shortly after the Chelsea blast, the unexploded device was found on West 27th Street.
A request by the NYPD for information on the men came as local and federal law enforcement continued hunting for clues in the Chelsea bombing and a blast earlier Saturday in Seaside Park, New Jersey.
A complex web of legal proceedings also emerged Wednesday in the case against Rahami, an Elizabeth, New Jersey resident facing a wide range of federal and state charges. And in New Jersey, those who did business with Rahami’s family or knew him from their fried chicken restaurant offered up a portrait that belied the image of him depicted in court papers as a man bent on waging globally-inspired terrorism in New York and New Jersey.
The FBI continued Wednesday with their theory that Rahami acted alone but were not closing off the possibility that he had help, said William Sweeney, the new FBI Special Agent in Charge for the New York office.
“As far as whether he’s a lone actor,” Sweeney said, “that’s still the path we are following but we’re keeping all the options open.”
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the first prosecution of Rahami will take place in Manhattan federal court, and his office has filed court papers to have U.S. Marshals bring the 28-year-old from New Jersey where he remained hospitalized Wednesday.
“This is the appropriate and right place for the case to proceed initially,” Bharara said, adding that the most damage occurred in Manhattan, despite bombs blowing up in New Jersey and Rahami engaging in a shootout when he was caught.
Investigators have said that Rahami placed an explosive device in Seaside Park Saturday morning before the start of a charity running race. No one was injured when the device detonated but the race was canceled.
Late Tuesday night, the chief public defender in Manhattan asked a magistrate to order the government to promptly bring Rahami to court on a four-count federal terrorism complaint filed late Tuesday. Federal prosecutors in New Jersey filed six counts against Rahami Tuesday connected to the Seaside Park bombing and the discovery of an explosive-laden package Sunday night in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Rahami has been in the custody of New Jersey authorities since the shootout. Union County prosecutors Monday charged Rahami with multiple counts of attempted murder of a police officer and unlawful possession of a weapon. His bail was set at $5.2 million.
“Mr. Rahami has already been held on extremely serious state charges in New Jersey for over 36 hours without the benefit of counsel,” chief federal defender David Patton said in a letter to Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein, of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan.
Patton wrote to the magistrate that Rahami “has been held and questioned by federal law enforcement agents since his arrest. The Sixth Amendment requires that he be given access to counsel on the federal charges, and that he be presented without delay.”
Bharara said that since Rahami has not been arrested by federal agents they are not in control of him.
“As a legal matter, the defendant is in the custody of a local authority,” Bharara said.
Bharara said he didn’t know when Rahami would be brought to federal court — citing “operational issues” with the marshals, the fact that the suspected bomber is in the custody of local authorities in New Jersey, as well as his medical condition.
“We don’t expect it’ll be very long,” Bharara said, “but I can’t tell you precisely.”
Prosecutors from Bharara’s office argued in a letter filed in court Wednesday that it is premature for the federal public defender to be appointed to represent Rahami. The filing of a federal complaint did not trigger his right to counsel, the letter stated. Neither Bharara nor the letter addressed the claim that he is being questioned without a lawyer.
Bharara also dismissed statements from some in Congress that Rahami should be treated as an “enemy combatant” rather than facing trial in a civilian court with a full array of rights.
“What the law currently allows and dictates . . . is that we handle it in precisely the way we are handling it,” he said.
In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Wednesday, Frank Salado, 69, said he sold his pizzeria there to the Rahami family about 15 years ago. It’s now a fried chicken restaurant but it was unclear if the Rahami family still owned it.
Shock was how Salado described his reaction to seeing Rahami’s photograph on news reports Monday.
“He seemed like a normal person,” he said of Rahami. “He used to be clean shaven. I never saw him with a beard before. I wouldn’t recognize him with the beard.”
Down the street, Girish Dalal, 66, who works at a pharmacy, said he remembered Ahmad Rahami working at the restaurant for several months about two years ago.
“He was fine,” Dalal said. “He was very professional. He never got mad or nothing.”
About a year ago, Rahami stopped by the pharmacy, Dalal said, adding that he asked Rahami if he wanted to buy a lottery ticket.
“He said no. ‘It was against my religion,’ ” Dahal recalled Rahami telling him. “He wouldn’t play the lottery.”
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 detonates inside a trash bin 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 doorway of a bar at 700 E. Elizabeth Ave., Linden. The man turns out to be Rahami, who then fires at officers, wounding two before he is taken into custody.