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Ahmad Khan Rahimi: Wounded suspect 'way more religious' after Afghan trip

When he wasn’t daydreaming about cars, neighbours say, New York and New Jersey bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahimi was often working at the family business — where he goofed on his younger brother and squabbled with customers over petty change.

Some neighbours describe Rahimi as 'quiet and weird,' most remember his fondness for cars

Ahmad Khan Rahimi is taken into custody after a shootout with police Monday in Linden, N.J. Rahimi was wanted for questioning in the bombings that rocked the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York and the New Jersey shore town of Seaside Park. (Nicolaus Czarnecki/Boston Herald via Associated Press)

Ahmad Khan Rahimi, the 28-year-old suspect "directly linked" by police to New York and New Jersey bomb plots and now charged with five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, appeared to spend his days rather innocuously.

When he wasn't preoccupied with his hobby car tune-ups and modifications, neighbours say, he was often lending a hand at the family business — a small fried-chicken eatery below their Elizabeth, N.J., apartment where Rahimi worked the fry stations, goofed on his younger teen brother Aziz and squabbled with customers over petty change.

Rahimi was a car freak, with a penchant for imports, say people who frequented First American Fried Chicken on Elmora Avenue. Sometimes he would do early-morning food delivery runs in a white Infiniti, or rumble around in an old but sporty-looking coupe that sounded like it could use a muffler.

"He'd be driving his little two-door cars with the little pizza," says Enoch Ojo, 26, who lives five houses down from the chicken joint and would often have Rahimi deliver wings, pizza and soda to his door.

"You know those people who be driving those beat-up looking race cars? He likes those loud cars."

Those who hang out in the wee hours at the restaurant say Rahimi would tease his teen brother, often about his sibling's weight. They also talked about customizing cars.

Alex Pareja and Moses Karanoub, 15, friends of Ahmad Khan Rahami's younger brother, say Rahami often teased his teen sibling and loved to talk about cars. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

But how Rahimi has spent his personal time most recently will be the subject of intense scrutiny in the coming days.

The naturalized American citizen of Afghan descent became a prime suspect after a homemade pressure-cooker bomb detonated in New York City's Chelsea neighbourhood on Saturday, injuring 31 people. The force of the device, placed under a dumpster, was so strong it blew the receptacle across the street.

An unexploded bomb was found blocks away. Police also found pipe bombs in Seaside in New Jersey, and a device planted near the train station in Elizabeth.

Not on terror watch lists

FBI agent Bill Sweeney said authorities believe Rahimi is "directly linked" to Saturday's Chelsea and Seaside Park bomb plots, and are working to confirm connections to the others.

Rahimi, bloodied from a gunshot wound but conscious, was arrested on a rain-slickened street Monday and loaded into an ambulance after he opened fire on police in the neighbouring community of Linden.

One bullet struck an officer in the bullet-proof vest covering his abdomen area. Another officer was grazed on the head by either shattered glass or the bullet, officials have said.

Their injuries are not considered critical.

Enoch Ojo, 26, lives just five houses away from the fried chicken restaurant where Ahmad Khan Rahimi worked. Ojo says Rahimi often delivered to his door. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Police initially responded to a call about an apparent vagrant after pub owner Harinder Bains spotted a man, suspecting it might be Rahimi, sleeping in the vestibule outside his bar. When law enforcement arrived to wake him, he opened fire.

Rahimi was not on terror watch lists. But patrons of the restaurant where he worked and family friends reportedly remarked on a change that took hold of him over the last four years, starting when he began travelling to Afghanistan.

The Rahimi family is Muslim, but neighbours said they never thought of Rahimi as particularly devout. But that changed when he returned from a trip to Afghanistan four years ago, a childhood friend, Flee Jones, told Reuters.

"He was way more religious," Jones said.

Rahimi also reportedly grew his beard out and began wearing more traditional Muslim clothing around that time.

Police issued these photos of Rahimi, with different looks, during their search for him Monday. (New Jersey Police Department/CBC)

Around the same time that he returned from his trip to Afghanistan four years ago, he inquired about the sale of a Nissan Altima from Jonathan Rodrigues's sister.

The deal never went through. Rodrigues continued patronizing "the chicken shack," but his family found Rahimi to be particularly prickly.

"We were short a couple of cents and he was like, 'No, you can't do this,' just acting real tough. He'd say business is business. He was just a bit weird. Quiet and weird."

Then, about two weeks ago, Rodrigues was solicited by Rahimi, who was apparently looking for some extra cash.

"He told me he wanted to sell me his Infiniti, the white one."

Rodrigues declined.

Law enforcement officers are shown in front of First American Fried Chicken, which to some residents was a refuge and to others a nuisance due to noise. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

While more than one customer recalled arguing with Rahimi over paltry sums of money and whether enough change had been returned, others referred to him as a generous person who never complained when some regulars spent hours in the restaurant without purchasing anything.

"He seemed like a calm person, and really funny," says Alex Pareja, one of the 15-year-olds who frequents "the shack" with friends, where they would roughhouse and tell jokes, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m.

Talk of moving to Virginia

"He would make fun of his brother, and they'd just play around, back and forth," Pareja says. "I thought like, if I was his age, I'd probably chill with him."

Several weeks ago, a for-sale sign went up at the storefront. Pareja, who was friends with Rahimi's younger sibling, Aziz, asked what the family would do next.

"They were talking about moving to Virginia," he says.

The neighbourhood's Hispanic clientele sometimes conversed with him in Spanish. One former customer, who only gave the name Will, believed Rahimi was in fact Hispanic until he heard the news.

First American Fried Chicken, was as much a late-night "chill spot" for neighbourhood youths as it was a fixture of noise complaints.

Neighbours grumbled about loud conversations and the sound of trash being dropped or kicked outside past midnight. After the restaurant was ordered to comply with ordinance rules to close for business by 10 p.m., Rahimi's father, Mohammad Sr., as well as two of his brothers sued the city in 2011, alleging religious discrimination due to their Muslim faith, according to The New York Times.

The community worked out a truce, the Times reported, and it was understood that the store would shut at midnight.

According to the newspaper, citing court documents, Rahimi was previously arrested in 2014 on weapons and aggravated assault charges for allegedly stabbing a relative in the leg in a domestic incident.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong