ELIZABETH, N.J. – Authorities on Monday apprehended 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami – wanted in connection with bombings in Manhattan and Seaside Park, N.J., two days earlier – after an apparent shootout with police.
Even as the widening probe into the bombings continued across the region, authorities sought to reassure residents that the bombings and discovery of explosive devices at a New Jersey train station late Sunday did not appear to be the work of a larger network.
Chris Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., told reporters that Rahami – whose last known address was in that city – had been taken into custody Monday in the neighboring city of Linden. Two police officers were shot during the encounter, according to authorities. One was struck in the hand, another on a protective vest, the mayor said.
Rahami was also shot and was taken away in an ambulance, the mayor said. Television footage showed the suspect being wheeled into an ambulance, hands cuffed, eyes open. He was taken to University Hospital in Newark, according to a hospital spokeswoman, but his condition was not immediately available.
Police and the FBI had announced early Monday that they were seeking Rahami in connection with the bombings in New Jersey and Manhattan’s Chelsea district, though his role in the incidents remains unclear. Rahami is a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan, according to the FBI.
“We have every reason to believe this was an act of terror,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, D, said at a news conference Monday afternoon discussing the bombings and Rahami’s arrest. Earlier in the day, he had said the investigation was leaning in that direction.
Authorities are not seeking any other individuals at this time, de Blasio said.
Now that Rahami is in custody, the investigation is shifting to focus on whether he acted alone and what his motivation may have been, James O’Neill, the New York police commissioner.
William Sweeney, Jr. assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York division, said that authorities have found “no indication that there is a [terror] cell operating in the area.”
The manhunt for Rahami came after authorities took five people into custody Sunday night for questioning in connection with the Chelsea bombing – and after law enforcement in New Jersey worked to render safe “multiple improvised explosive devices” discovered at a train station Sunday in Elizabeth, just across from Staten Island.
The developments sowed further concern about terrorism in the region and across the country. Already, police had been investigating three weekend incidents – including a stabbing attack in a Minnesota mall – that took place within a 12-hour period on Saturday.
The investigation into the bombings has drawn in all levels of law enforcement and intelligence, and an increasing number of local, state and national officials have condemned the incidents as acts of terrorism. Law enforcement officials said they were investigating whether Rahami could have been influenced by international militant groups or the ongoing conflict in his homeland, though they have not specified whether he operated as a lone wolf or has deeper connections to international terrorist groups.
After Rahami was arrested Monday in Linden, details began to emerge about how authorities found him.
Linden Police Capt. James Sarnicki told the local NBC affiliate that officers responded Monday to a call about a person sleeping in the doorway of a local bar. When police approached the man, they noticed his resemblance to the images on the wanted poster for Rahami.
Police then ordered him to show his hands, Sarnicki said, and Rahami “pulled out a handgun and fired one shot at the officer, striking him in the abdomen. Fortunately, the officer had a bulletproof vest on, which sustained most of the round.” That officer returned fire, the police captain said, but Rahami walked away.
“I understand that the suspect was indiscriminately firing his weapon at passing vehicles,” Sarnicki said. Rahami was eventually shot by police “more than once and … taken down to the ground,” Sarnicki said.
Authorities have not yet publicly confirmed any connections between the devices discovered in Elizabeth on Sunday and the earlier bombings. But two federal law enforcement officials told The Washington Post they believe all three cases to be linked. They would not say whether the five people taken into custody Sunday night were linked to Rahami or how Rahami’s family fit in, if at all.
FBI agents also launched an “operation” at an address on Elmora Avenue in Elizabeth, about a mile away from New Jersey Transit’s Elizabeth station. Court records show members of the Rahami family live and work at the address, where a restaurant called First American Fried Chicken is located on the ground floor.
Court records show that several members of the Rahami family had owned and operated the restaurant since 2002. It is unclear when Ahmad Rahami himself lived there or what role – if any – he had in the business.
Bollwage, the mayor, said Monday that there was no one in the house or restaurant, adding: “I am not aware of where the other members of the family are at this time.”
In 2011, the Rahami family sued the city of Elizabeth and several police officers, alleging they had been inappropriately cited for keeping their business open past 10 p.m. and harassed by police.
They alleged a man in the neighborhood told them “you are Muslims” and “Muslims make too much trouble in this country” and complained unfairly to law enforcement, who singled them out “solely on animus against [their] religion, creed, race and national origin.”
In one instance, they alleged, two Rahami family members were actually arrested for attempting to record a conversation with officers.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told CBS News on Monday that “there may be a foreign connection” involving the bombing in Manhattan, though he did not elaborate.
About 8:45 p.m. Sunday, the FBI and the New York Police Department stopped what the bureau’s New York field office called a “vehicle of interest” in the Manhattan bombing investigation, and took five people into custody.
On Monday afternoon, authorities said that the passengers in the car had been questioned by Joint Terrorism Task Force agents and detectives, but said they were not in custody and none had been arrested.
Law enforcement also combed an area around the train station in Elizabeth, where a backpack with “multiple improvised explosive devices” was found.
Bollwage, the mayor, said that up to five devices were discovered inside a backpack, and one of the devices – found around 8:30 p.m. Sunday – exploded as it was being disarmed, shortly after 12:30 a.m. Monday. The New Jersey Transit rail system halted rail service near Newark Airport due to the police activity. Regular service was restored before dawn.
The mayor said Monday that two homeless men found the explosives. Thinking there would be something valuable in the backpack, they opened it – but found what appeared to be explosive devices and reported it to the police.
They were “on the side of the angels,” Bollwage said, noting that the men didn’t get blown up when they touched the bag. If the bombs had exploded hours later, during rush hour, “hundreds of people would have been killed and injured,” the mayor said.
Each of the weekend incidents – the discovery of the devices in Elizabeth, the bombing that injured 29 in Chelsea, an explosion along the route of a scheduled race in Seaside Park, N.J., and a stabbing that wounded nine in a St. Cloud, Minn., mall – raised the possibility of terrorist connections, prompting federal and local law enforcement to pour major resources into determining exactly what happened and why.
A news agency linked to the Islamic State claimed Sunday that the suspect in Minnesota, who was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer, was “a soldier” of the militant group, though there was no confirmation of what connection the man may have had.
A claim of responsibility is no guarantee that the terrorist group directed or even inspired the attack, and authorities said they were still exploring a precise motive. The terrorist group made no similar claims about the New York and New Jersey incidents.
In New York, authorities said there was no evidence that the mysterious Saturday-night explosion was motivated by international terrorism, though they confirmed that the bombing was intentional. “This is the nightmare scenario,” Cuomo, D, said.
Earlier Sunday, New York’s governor said nearly 1,000 police officers and National Guard troops would be sent to bus stops, train stations and airports, as investigators with the New York Police Department, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives worked to identify the person or people responsible for the explosion.
One law enforcement official said that while it was looking like the New Jersey and New York blasts “might be connected,” investigators still didn’t have any hard evidence. The official also said that only one of the three pipe bombs in New Jersey detonated.
Those injured in the Saturday-night blast in Chelsea had been released from hospitals by Sunday.
The Manhattan explosion occurred about 8:30 p.m. Saturday in the area of West 23rd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, injuring 29 people as it hurled glass and debris into the air, officials said. Surveillance video showed passersby running to get away from the blast, and investigators said they would comb through that and older footage to try to identify those responsible.
Authorities said the explosion was produced by some type of bomb, and they posted on Twitter a photo of what appeared to be a mangled Dumpster or garbage container. Masum Chaudry, who manages a Domino’s Pizza near the scene, said the explosion “shook the whole building” and caused “total chaos.”
Investigators are somewhat puzzled by the placement of the bomb, which appeared to mitigate the impact of the blasts. “There’s some unanswered questions on that,” said one federal law enforcement official. “Why there? Some of that from our point of view isn’t adding up.”
Said Cuomo: “When you see the amount of damage, we really were very lucky there were no fatalities.”
A short time after the explosion, just a few blocks away, police found another potentially explosive device, which looked like a pressure cooker with wiring, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. Pressure cookers were used in the two bombs detonated at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
The New York police said that this pressure-cooker-type device was first rendered safe at a Bronx facility. This device and materials from Seaside Park, N.J., were sent to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va., where they and the remnants of the device that exploded will be analyzed, authorities said.
Officials differed on whether to call the Saturday night explosion an act of terrorism. Cuomo said: “It depends on your definition of terrorism. A bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism, but it’s not linked to international terrorism.” Over the weekend, city, police and FBI officials said it was too early to determine any type of motivation, though they insisted they would not shy from labeling the crime an act of terror if it became appropriate to do so.
The incidents came as foreign leaders, including many heads of state, were heading to Manhattan for the United Nations General Assembly. Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived Saturday, while President Barack Obama arrived in the city Monday.
The annual U.N. meeting – held more than two miles from the site of the explosion in Chelsea – is traditionally a challenging time for New York, as many roads are shut down and the heavy security leads to traffic jams. Officials said they had already prepared to beef up security, and now they would intensify those efforts.
Speaking in New York, Obama said there was no known connection between the stabbings in Minnesota and the incidents in New York and New Jersey. But the attacks only reinforced his resolve to continue fighting the Islamic State, both on the ground and online, he said.
“We will continue to lead the global coalition in the fight to destroy ISIL, which is instigating a lot of people over the Internet to carry out attacks,” Obama said, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State. “We’re going to continue to enlist tech companies and community and religious leaders to push back against online extremist content and all messages of hate.”
The president also emphasized the need to be vigilant but cautioned citizens against giving in to fear.
“At moments like this, I think it’s important to remember what terrorists and violent extremists are trying to do: They are trying to hurt innocent people, but they also want to inspire fear in all of us and to disrupt the way we live and to undermine our values,” he said. “We all have a role to play as citizens in making sure we don’t succumb to that fear. There’s no better example of that than the people of New York and New Jersey.”
On the campaign trail, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates offered varied reactions to news of the incidents.
“I think this is something that will maybe get – will happen perhaps more and more all over the country,” Donald Trump told “Fox and Friends.” “It’s a mess and it’s a shame, and we’re going to have to be very tough.”
Trump also said he agreed with early reports of a possible foreign connection to the bombings, and argued that the stricter immigration policies he has proposed would better protect the U.S. from terror.
Speaking in White Plains, N.Y., Clinton told reporters that the United States should launch an “intelligence surge” to identify and thwart attacks before they are carried out.
“This threat is real, but so is our resolve,” she said. “Americans will not cower. We will prevail. We will defend our country. A lot of the rhetoric from Donald Trump has been seized on by terrorists, particularly ISIS. They want to use that to recruit more fighters to their cause by turning it into a religious conflict. That’s why I’ve been very clear. We’re going after the bad guys and we’re going to get them, but we’re not going after an entire religion.”
Speaking at a town hall event Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, said there “is no doubt in my mind that the incidents in New York, Elizabeth and Seaside Park are connected.” Though officials haven’t determined a motive in the attacks, Christie mentioned Muslim terrorists in his remarks.
“Those who are radical, especially radical Islamic terrorists, need to be called out,” he said. “We don’t know what the motivation is for the last 48 hours, but I think we have feeling for what it is.”
The Chelsea explosion occurred about 11 hours after a pipe bomb exploded in a Jersey Shore garbage can, shortly before a scheduled charity 5K race to benefit Marines and Navy sailors. No one was hurt.
Officials said that device, too, would be sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, though Cuomo noted the pipe bombs used in New Jersey “appear to be different” than those in New York.
Two law enforcement officials said residue of tannerite – used primarily for making exploding targets for firearms practice – was found in material that had detonated in New York. The explosive material found in New Jersey was a black powder. The two officials said a cellphone was used to detonate the explosives in both New York and Seaside Park, N.J. Bollwage said there was no cell phone with the devices in Elizabeth.
Nakashima reported from New York, Zapotosky, Wang and Berman from Washington. Philip Bump in New York and Brian Murphy, Kristine Guerra, Sari Horwitz, Sean Sullivan, Steven Overly, John Wagner, Julie Tate, Derek Hawkins and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.
Video: President Obama sought to reassure the public Sept. 19, after a series of explosives were planted in New York and New Jersey over the weekend. (The Washington Post)