LINDEN, N.J. — A New Jersey police officer responding to a call about a hoodied vagrant curled up asleep in the doorway of a bar roused him and quickly recognized his bearded face as that of perhaps the most wanted man in America.
Ahmad Khan Rahami — identified in an FBI bulletin just hours earlier as a man wanted in the weekend bombings in New York City and New Jersey _ pulled a gun, shot the officer and triggered a running gun battle in the street that ended with Rahami wounded and in custody Monday, authorities said.
A bloodied Rahami was loaded into the back of an ambulance, just 50 hours after the first blast that started it all.
Rahami, 28, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan who lived with his family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to the leg as authorities began drawing up charges in a case that spread fear across the New York area and revived anxiety about homegrown terrorism.
Police are searching for Ahmad Khan Rahami, who could be armed and dangerous. (Photo: FBI handout via AP)
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said officials have every reason to believe the series of bombings "was an act of terror,'' though investigators said Rahami's exact motive isn't yet clear.
With Rahami's arrest, officials said they have no indication there are more bombs or suspects to find, though they cautioned that they are still working to understand Rahami's connections.
Still, after a whirlwind investigation that put Rahami in custody in just two days' time, "I'm a lot happier today than I was yesterday," New York Police Commissioner James O'Neill said.
The probe started when a pipe bomb blew up Saturday morning in Seaside Park, New Jersey, before a charity race to benefit Marines. No one was injured.
Then a shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bomb — similar to those used in the Boston Marathon attack — exploded Saturday night in New York's Chelsea section, wounding 29 people, none seriously. An unexploded pressure-cooker bomb was found blocks away.
Onlookers stand behind a police cordon near the site of an explosion in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City on Sept. 17. (Photo: Rashid Umar Abbasi/Reuters)
Late Sunday night, five explosive devices were discovered in a trash can at an Elizabeth train station. Investigators said they are still gathering evidence and have not publicly tied Rahami to those devices.
Late Monday, Rahami was charged in New Jersey with five counts of attempted murder of police officers in connection with the shootout. Federal prosecutors said they were still weighing charges over the bombings.
Rahami lived with his family above their fried-chicken restaurant in Elizabeth, and his relatives have clashed with the city over closing times and noise complaints they said were tinged with anti-Muslim sentiment. A childhood friend, Flee Jones, said Rahami had become more religious after returning from a trip to Afghanistan several years ago.
But William Sweeney Jr., the FBI's assistant director in New York, said there were no indications Rahami was on law enforcement's radar at the time of the bombings.
Authorities zeroed in on him as the potential bomber after a fingerprint lifted from one of the Manhattan New York sites and ``clear as day'' surveillance video from the bombing scene helped identify him, according to three law enforcement who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
"He's a very friendly guy, that's what's so scary. It's hard when it's home."
Five people were pulled over Sunday night in a vehicle associated with Rahami but were questioned and released, Sweeney said, declining to say whether they might later face charges. The law enforcement officials said at least one of Rahami's relatives was in the car, which appeared headed toward Kennedy Airport in New York after coming from New Jersey.
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said the break in the case came late Monday morning, when a bar owner reported someone asleep in his doorway.
Jack Mazza, co-manager of nearby V.C.M.R. Truck Services, said the bar owner came over exclaiming about the sleeping man, and Mazza walked over to see a man curled up with a sweatshirt hood pulled over his head in the rain.
"He looked like a bum," Mazza said.
After an officer arrived and recognized Rahami, Rahami shot the officer, who was saved by his bulletproof vest, authorities said. More officers joined in a gun battle that spilled into the street.
This frame from surveillance video released by the New Jersey State Police shows Ahmad Khan Rahami. (Photo: New Jersey State Police/AP)
Another police officer was grazed by a bullet. Authorities said neither wounded officer was critically hurt.
Peter Bilinskas said he was standing by his desk at his Linden bowling-supply shop when he heard what sounded like gunfire and saw a man walking down the street with a gun in his hand.
As a police car pulled up at the traffic light in front of the shop, the man fired about six shots at the cruiser, then continued down the street with police following him, Bilinskas said.
As the East Coast was rattled by the bombings, a man who authorities say referred to Allah wounded nine people in a stabbing rampage at a Minnesota mall Saturday before being shot to death by an off-duty police officer. Authorities are investigating it as a possible terrorist attack but have not drawn any connection between the bloodshed there and the bombings.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim advocacy group, welcomed Rahami's arrest. The organization and the Afghan Embassy in Washington condemned the bombings.
'We will never give in to fear': Obama
Around the time Rahami was captured, President Barack Obama was in New York on a previously scheduled visit for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. He called on Americans to show the world "we will never give in to fear."
An AP reporter went to the building that houses the family's restaurant and home, but it was cordoned off.
Rahami's father, Mohammad, and two of Rahami's brothers sued the city of Elizabeth in 2011 after it passed an ordinance requiring their restaurant, First American Fried Chicken, to close early because of complaints from neighbours that it was a late-night nuisance.
The Rahamis charged in the lawsuit that they were targeted by neighbours because they are Muslims. The lawsuit was terminated in 2012 after Mohammad Rahami pleaded guilty to blocking police from enforcing the restrictions on the restaurant.
Ryan McCann, of Elizabeth, said that he often ate at the restaurant and recently began seeing Ahmad Rahami working there more.
"He's always in there. He's a very friendly guy, that's what's so scary. It's hard when it's home," McCann said.