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Suspect in New York-area bombings had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan

The suspect in a series of bombs planted in New York and New Jersey was arrested after a dramatic shootout Monday, as investigators sought to understand how the 28-year-old Afghanistan native was radicalized and whether authorities should have been more alert to the threat he posed.

Ahmad Khan Rahami wounded two police officers before he was shot and captured in Linden, N.J., where he had been spotted sleeping in the vestibule of a closed bar. The injured suspect was wheeled away on a stretcher under heavy security, ending a 50-hour manhunt that followed two explosions in which, almost miraculously, no one was killed.

A U.S. official said the suspect, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had made at least three months-long trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years. He had married a Pakistani woman and brought her to the U.S. as his wife, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

The woman left the U.S. for Pakistan recently and was intercepted by officials Monday in the United Arab Emirates, where investigators were attempting to determine whether she had been aware of her husband’s plans.

Authorities were also trying to determine whether Rahami had contact with foreign terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or Islamic State. For now, they said, it appears that Rahami was a one-man operation — a prolific one, having made and planted the bombs himself.

"There is no other individual that we are looking for at this time ... but vigilance is called for,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

In a contentious election season, the bombings immediately became new fodder for debate over whether authorities erred in not paying more attention to Rahami after his trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Republic presidential candidate Donald Trump seized upon the case to reiterate his support for racial profiling of Muslims. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton questioned whether technology companies were doing everything possible to detect terrorists online and undermine recruiting efforts.

But President Obama, who was attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, used the occasion to praise American tenacity.

“Americans have to go about their lives without giving in to fear,” Obama said. "We all have a role to play as citizens.”

The Union County prosecutor’s office in New Jersey said Rahami was taken into custody after a uniformed police officer approached a man later identified as Rahami about 10:30 a.m. outside a bar in Linden.

“At that time, Rahami immediately produced a handgun and shot the officer in the torso, striking him in his protective vest,” prosecutors said in a statement.

“Additional patrol officers responding to the scene engaged Rahami in an exchange of gunfire that ended when Rahami was shot multiple times outside of an auto repair shop on East Elizabeth Avenue, several blocks west of where he was initially approached.”

The police officer shot in the vest and an officer who was hit in the head with a bullet fragment were not seriously injured.

Rahami was in surgery Monday after being shot three times — in the shoulder, forearm and leg — and investigators had not questioned him as of late Monday, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation. He has not yet been charged in the bombings, but rather in the shootout with police, including attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.

Rahami’s bail was set at $5.2 million by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Regina Caulfield.

Rahami had come to the United States as a small child with his parents, who were seeking asylum from Afghanistan’s war.

At least outwardly, his family fit into the stereotype of workaholic immigrants trying to live the American dream. Since 2002, the family ran a popular restaurant, First American Fried Chicken, in Elizabeth, N.J., a working-class suburb of New York.

They lived upstairs. Rahami attended public high school and two years of community college, studying criminal justice at Middlesex Community College. When he wasn’t in school, he worked in the restaurant’s kitchen along with his father and brothers.

Friends and neighbors described him as having the normal passions of the young men of his neighborhood — fast cars and rap music — at least until his travels abroad, when he seemed to become more pious.

"At one point he left to go to Afghanistan, and two years ago he came back, popped up out of nowhere and he was real religious," Flee Jones, 27, a friend, told the Boston Herald. "And it was shocking. I'm trying to understand what's going on. I've never seen him like this."

The restaurant was a well-known gathering place in a neighborhood comfortable with immigrant culture.

 "The older man, the dad, was a very nice guy. He was a well-known figure in the community and people respected him,” said Jonas Nunez, 58, who lives two doors away and runs a martial arts studio across the street. “Sometimes he would complain that he had to work seven days a week to support a large family."

In a 2005 bankruptcy filing, the elder Rahami was reported to be the father of eight children and separated from his wife.

The family clashed with some neighbors over the long hours kept by the restaurant. They often stayed open until 2 a.m. or later and were cited frequently for code violations by the municipality.

In 2011, the Rahamis sued the town and its police force, saying they were being harassed and intimidated. The lawsuit also named a neighbor, James Dean McDermott, saying he had made derogatory comments such as, “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.” The lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.

“This had nothing to do with ethnicity or race,” Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage told reporters Monday. “This had to do with a lot of people hanging out at all hours of the night as well as congregating and code enforcement problems.”

The younger Rahami had never been convicted of a crime, but he had at least two arrests — one on domestic violence charges and another on a weapons charge.

“He actually was involved in apparently attempting to stab his sister,” U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said on CNN, drawing some comparisons to one of the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Indeed, many analysts have pointed out similarities in Rahami’s background and that of the Boston bombers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Although the brothers’ bombs were more lethal, they used a similar design improvised out of pressure cookers and ball bearings.

Rahami’s arrest Monday came as a result of an extraordinarily intense manhunt that began Saturday morning after a small pipe bomb exploded in Seaside Heights, N.J., near the route of a Marine charity run. No one was injured. Then on Saturday about 8:30 p.m., a bomb exploded in a dumpster in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, spewing shrapnel and broken glass over the street and causing 29 minor injuries.

Surveillance video from the area of that bombing provided the first real clue, showing a chubby, bearded man carrying a duffel bag. A few hours later, a sharp-eyed photographer who lives nearby discovered an unexploded bomb fashioned from a pressure cooker near her front door. A fingerprint lifted from the pressure cooker helped lead police to Rahami.

Perhaps the most remarkable development came Sunday night. Two homeless men who were hanging out near the train station in Elizabeth noticed a backpack left on top of a garbage can. When they opened it, hoping to find valuables, they saw it contained pipes and wires. They alerted the police, who came and discovered five more homemade bombs inside, one of which was detonated by a robot.

By 4 a.m. Monday, police cars and helicopters had descended on the Rahamis’ restaurant. The suspect, however, was nowhere to be found. So they took an unprecedented step: They sent out an emergency bulletin to millions of cellphones in New York and New Jersey, asking the public to keep a lookout.

Within hours, an apparently exhausted Rahami was discovered sleeping in the vestibule of a tavern in Linden, a few miles from his home.

“I saw him on the corner with a handgun,” Peter Bilinskas, who owns a business nearby, said in a phone interview. “He did not appear to be running. He was actually standing at the corner, holding the gun. At first I thought he was a policeman, then he started shooting at a police car.”

Video from the scene showed Rahami, conscious but stunned with wounds to his shoulder and leg, strapped to a gurney and loaded into an ambulance.

The Rahami family’s neighbors expressed shock at the arrest. "It seemed like they were just hustling to make money. It didn't seem like they were up to anything," said William Ferrera, 65, a neighbor.

"His dad is a nice guy. They seem like regular people," said Enoch Ojo, 26, who lives down the block. "I'm just in disbelief that someone so dangerous could be living so close to us."

Marcella Perrotti, 44, owner of the nearby Short Cutz Unisex Salon, said the Rahami family members kept to themselves and did not mix with the closeknit group of shop owners.

"They didn't interact with us," Perrotti said. "He didn't want to follow the rules. I guess he just had a problem doing that."

"It kind of angers you,” she added. “Why would people come to this country to hurt us?”

Ahmad Rahami could usually be found in the back, cooking up the chicken and burgers, said Nunez, the martial arts instructor.

The family was known to be devout Muslims and would break off to pray in the back of the shop, Nunez said. “He would say, ‘Time to go. I’ve got to pray,’” Nunez said. He said the family was respected for their piety in a neighborhood with a large immigrant population, many of them Colombians, Ecuadoreans and Dominicans.

“They were nice kids, but you never know what poison the younger generation will fall prey to,” Nunez said.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

del.wilber@latimes.com

Times staff writers Demick, Wilber and Pearce reported from New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, respectively. Special correspondent Haller reported from Elizabeth.

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UPDATES:

3:15 p.m., Sept. 20: The story was updated to clarify when bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami’s wife left the United States.

8:05 p.m.: The story was updated throughout.

3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with information on criminal charges filed against Rahami.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information that the bombing suspect had traveled to Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan.

12:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with details of how authorities found Rahami.

11:15 a.m.: This article has been updated with details about the Rahami family restaurant and comments from neighbors.

10:50 a.m.: This article has been updated with more details about the Rahami family’s  2011 lawsuit against Elizabeth, N.J.

9:40 a.m.: This article has been updated with remarks from President Obama and additional details throughout.

9:15 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from a neighbor.

8:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional details about the shootout.

8:41 a.m.: This article has been updated with a report of the suspect’s arrest.

7:20 a.m.: This article has been updated with details about the Rahami family restaurant.

7:05 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional information about the investigation.

6:47 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details about the investigation.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.

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