NEW YORK CITY — Ahmad Khan Rahami returned from Afghanistan a changed man, according to his neighbors and a friend.
"He was really religious [after the trip]," said Rahami’s friend, Flee Jones, 27.
“He was always friendly,” Jones said. “This is really shocking.”
Before Rahami, 28, planted bombs in Chelsea and Seaside Park, New Jersey, the Afghanistan-born naturalized citizen lived with his father, sister and three brothers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, officials said.
Rahami's family owned and operated a local restaurant, First American Fried Chicken, and Jones said he and his family often received free meals from Rahami’s father when they didn’t have enough money to pay for food.
Jones added that he and Rahami enjoyed talking about football and cars, and often met up in a local park to play basketball.
Patron Ryan McCann, 33, told the New York Times that Rahami could often be found behind the counter and loved to regale clients with stories of the Honda Civics he customized for racing.
But the Rahamis changed after a trip to Afghanistan several years ago, Jones and sources said.
The family had always dressed in secular clothing but returned with a wardrobe of traditional Muslim clothing, Jones and sources said.
When the family sued the city of Elizabeth in 2011 for not allowing them to keep their restaurant open 24 hours, they argued they had been targeted for being Muslim, court documents show.
One night Rahami’s older brother got into a fight with police who had come to shut the restaurant down, the New York Times reported. The brother fled to Afghanistan before the case could be resolved.
After the attack, neighbors told investigators Rahami had become more serious and lost interest in his favorite hobbies after the trip, sources said.
Rahami was arrested on weapons and aggravated assault charges for stabbing someone in the leg during a domestic incident in 2014, the New York Times reported.
Investigators also discovered that he discussed jihadist-related ideas on the internet, sources said.
The first lead toward finding Rahami after the Chelsea explosion that wounded 29 people came when thieves found an undetonated pressure cooker bomb four blocks north of the first explosion, sources said.
The bomb was made out of a pressure cooker attached to a mobile phone, which police were able to track to the Rahami family, officials said.
Police finally caught up with Rahami outside a bar in Linden, New Jersey, on Monday morning after the owner spotted him sleeping in the doorway, Linden Police Capt. James Sarnicki said.
When an officer woke the sleeping man, Rahami pulled out a gun, fired a bullet into the officer’s bullet-proof vest, and tried to make a run for it, the captain said.
The officer pursued Rahami who continued to fire off shots behind him, hitting a patrol car and grazing an officer inside, Sarnicki said.
Responding police shot Rahami and took him into custody Monday morning.
New Jersey prosecutors charged him Monday with the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, stemming from his shootout with Linden police, along with unlawful possession of a weapon, according to the Union County Prosecutor's office.
Superior Court Judge Regina Caulfield held Rahami on $5.2 million bail, prosecutors said.
Rahami faces up to 20 years behind bars on the Union County charges alone, but the investigation into his bombings continues, officials said.
“We’re going to talk to family, talk to friends and see what the connections are," NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said. "This is part of the investigation.”
NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism and Intelligence John Miller explained that understanding Rahami’s character had always been a key element of the investigation.
"From the outset of this case, our first priority was to understand who was behind it,” he said.
“Our ability to see through the rest of that optic— which is why they did it, what was behind it and whether it was terrorism— required us first to understand who did it.”
— Reporting by Kathleen Culliton, Aidan Gardiner, Nicholas Rizzi, Murray Weiss and Trevor Kapp