By Mica Rosenberg and Joseph Ax
ELIZABETH, N.J. (Reuters) - Long before Ahmad Rahami became notorious as the suspect in this weekend’s bombings in and around New York, his family was known in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for frequent skirmishes with neighbors over its fried chicken restaurant.
Rahami, a 28-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Afghanistan, had a few other brushes with the law on his own, records show.
Described as a “class clown” by a high school classmate, he studied criminal justice before dropping out of a community college. More recently, he became active in the Muslim community of his racially diverse hometown. A friend said he visited his homeland a few years back.
Salaam Ismial, a social worker at the Masjid Al-Hadi mosque in Elizabeth, said he saw Rahami at a half dozen events during the past year.
“It’s not Islam and it’s not Muslim,” Ismial said, referring to the bombings. “A rightful Muslim would denounce this violence.”
Rahami was taken into custody on Monday after being wounded in an exchange of gunfire with police officers in Linden, just outside Elizabeth, a working-class city about 20 miles southwest of New York City with a large immigrant population.
Authorities suspect him of setting off a bomb that wounded 29 people in Manhattan on Saturday, as well as leaving a bag with five other devices in New Jersey on Sunday, one of which exploded without causing injury.
He is also a suspect in a bombing on Saturday at a New Jersey charity run that hurt no one. It was not clear whether Rahami had a lawyer yet.
Rahami was not listed on U.S. counterterrorism databases, three U.S. officials told Reuters. But his family was well known to Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage for the frequent complaints, dating back to at least 2008, about noise at their restaurant on a commercial strip of Elizabeth.
“The suspect was not on the radar of local law enforcement, but the fried chicken place that … the family owned, we had some code enforcement problems and noise complaints,” Bollwage told reporters.
Rahami had other run-ins with the law, according to media reports. He was arrested in 2014 on weapons and assault charges for allegedly stabbing someone in a domestic incident, the New York Times reported. The newspaper said he spent more than three months in jail but was never indicted.
In 2008 and 2012, he spent time in jail for failing to pay traffic tickets and for allegations of violating a restraining order, respectively.
He majored in criminal justice at Middlesex County College in Edison, New Jersey, according to the school. He attended from 2010 to 2012 but did not graduate, NBC reported.
At one point he started an application to become an Uber driver but never completed it, the ride-hailing service confirmed.
Mohammad Rahami, the father of the suspect, told MSNBC in a short interview that he was not aware of his son planning any bombings and he did not know what to believe.
“I’m not sure what’s happening, exactly,” he said. “It’s very hard right now to talk.”
The suspect is reported to have traveled overseas but it was not immediately clear how many times, what places he visited and the purpose of his travel. Rahami made several trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years, CNN and other media reported.
Flee Jones, a childhood friend, told Reuters that Rahami traveled to Afghanistan several years ago and afterward grew a beard and began wearing religious clothing.
The reason for the trip and its full impact on Rahami was not immediately known, but Jones said Rahami became more serious and quiet. Jones said he learned about the travel from one of Rahami’s brothers and last saw the suspect about two years ago.
“He was way more religious,” Jones said, adding, “I never knew him as the kind of person who would do anything like this.”
Jones said that as teenagers he and Rahami used to play basketball at a neighborhood park and spend time at the fried chicken restaurant the Rahami family owned. “He used to let us chill inside and let us have rap battles,” he said.
A high school classmate, Hakeen Ezzouhairy, on Facebook described Rahami as a “class clown, very funny, nice guy.” The post was later deleted.
Elizabeth is home to a large immigrant population, with 47 percent of people born outside the United States compared with 13 percent of the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is New Jersey’s fourth-largest city, with 129,000 people and about 60 percent are Hispanic.
Median household income in $2014 was 43,966, well below the $72,062 for New Jersey overall, according to census data.
Mohammad Rahami opened the restaurant in 2002, according to court records. Business registration records from 2006 give the name as Khan Fried Chicken, but four years later he changed the name to First American Fried Chicken, citing “popularity,” registration records say.
The Rahami family lived above their store, which is wedged between a beauty salon and a shop advertising money transfers and computer help. On Monday authorities cordoned off an area around the building and were removing boxes. Officers were on the restaurant’s roof, going in and out of the residence, and one officer leaned out of a window, taking pictures.
The restaurant’s employees were serious and businesslike, rarely interacting with customers more than they had to, said Josh Sanchez, 24, and Jessica Casanova, 23, who called themselves frequent customers.
By 2008, Elizabeth police were battling with First American Fried Chicken over the restaurant’s 24-hour schedule.
Two neighbors complained during a community meeting that restaurant customers were urinating outside on a driveway and parking in another driveway, one of the neighbors, Dean McDermott, said on Monday.
A city ordinance also barred take-out stores from staying open past 10 p.m. The father was cited in 2009 with violating that ordinance, and a New Jersey appeals court ruled against him in 2014, according to records.
A lawyer who represented the Rahami family in the dispute could not be reached for comment on Monday.
The family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2011, claiming discrimination against them by the city, police and neighbors. Ahmad Rahami’s father and two brothers were plaintiffs, but he was not.
The lawsuit was put on hold in 2012 and never reopened. Bollwage told reporters on Monday that the city’s actions involving the restaurant were in no way related to the family’s religion or ethnic origin.
“They were a very nice family,” said Devin Sanchez, 20, who said he was a good friend of the suspect’s younger brother. Sanchez said he knew Ahmad Rahami less well but that they would talk about cars, a mutual interest.
“I don’t know where this came from. He was a nice guy,” Sanchez said. “This is from left field.”
(Additional reporting by Michelle Conlin in ElizabethChris Prentice, Angela Moon and Amy Tennery in New York and Julia Harte, Mark Hosenball and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by David Ingram and Frank McGurty; Editing by Alan Crosby and Mary Milliken)