Bombing suspect is from Jersey neighborhood of working-class immigrants
ELIZABETH, N.J. — In a low-crime neighborhood of working class immigrants from around the world, the Rahamis of Afghanistan, and the fast food joint they owned, weren't much different from the other families who lived above their businesses on Elmora Avenue.
Even the restaurant's name — First American Fried Chicken — seemed like an attempt to assimilate.
But they didn't exactly fit in, either.
The Rahamis — including the patriarch, who owned the restaurant, and his sons — weren't particularly friendly, neighbors said. They didn't socialize much with other merchants.
And some found it curious that the father, Mohammed Rahami, could often be seen pacing the block, fingering what appeared to be prayer beads, speaking a foreign language.
But what seemed like harmless reclusion suddenly became suspect on Monday, when residents woke to news that one of the sons, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was the man wanted for planting bombs in New York City and New Jersey over the weekend.
While law enforcement authorities searched the apartment above the chicken joint Monday, Rahami, 28, was arrested in a shootout with police in nearby Linden.
On Elmora Avenue, residents and business owners struggled to reconcile the mildly standoffish guy from the counter at First American Fried Chicken and the terrorist he'd apparently become.
"I saw him Saturday and said, 'Hi.' He said, 'How you doing?'" recalled Mario Valerio, 32, who lives nearby.
That casual encounter was the same day bombs exploded in Seaside, New Jersey and New York's Chelsea neighborhood. If Rahami was nervous, he didn't show it, Valerio said. "He seemed normal."
Julian Azcarate, 30, frequented the restaurant, where either the father or sons were at the counter. But he rarely saw or spoke with them outside.
"The were nice people, quiet people," Azcarate said. "They were basically people who lived for the shop."
As crime scene investigators processed the restaurant and a second-floor apartment on Monday, neighbors stood in the rain, watching and gossiping. Several cars were towed from the scene, which some recognized as belonging to the family.
Valerio said he'd recently joked with the father about having so many cars in a neighborhood where retail activity made it hard to find parking. Mohammed Rahami replied that several members of the family were driving for Uber, Valerio said.
Photos of Rahami from security footage and post-shootout:
Later, Mohammed Rahami arrived with one of his sons, and in a brief interview with NBC News said he had no idea what his son had allegedly been doing.
"I'm not sure what's going on, I'm not sure what's happening exactly," he said.
Marcella Perrutti, who owns the Short Cutz hair salon, said in all the years the Rahamis had owned their busy restaurant — public records say they've had it since 2002 — they hadn't been active in the local block watch or become close with any other merchants.
"We all know each other, but nobody knows him," she said, referring to the elder Rahami. "You've been there 10 years and you don't know your neighbors?"
The Rahamis' restaurant was known as the only place on the Elmora Avenue strip that stayed open late at night. The food wasn't particularly good, but sufficed for late-night cravings, and a lot of people bought it, customers said.
But the round-the-clock hours bothered some residents, who complained to local authorities, who clashed with the Rahamis. The city and the family came to an agreement to restrict late-night hours, but the Rahamis sued the city, and local police, accusing them of anti-Muslim discrimination.
Although the Elmora neighborhood is proudly multicultural — longtime residents of Italian, Jewish and Irish heritage live alongside newer arrivals from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America — there aren't many Muslims, residents said. In that regard, the Rahamis, who are believed to have immigrated from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, may have felt out of place.
"The family keep to themselves, mostly," said Marcelo Jacome, 30, a DJ whose mother owns a dry cleaners a block from the Rahamis' restaurant. "That's the only thing that seemed weird."
Jorge Vasquez, the owner of JK Signs said he occasionally printed flyers and menus for the Rahami family, but hardly got to know them.
"They were very secluded. They would not talk to people a lot," Vasquez said. "We would print the stuff, and they would pay and leave."
Jaime Reyes, who owns a hair salon next door to the Rahamis' restaurant, said he knew the entire family, and that Ahmad "was always respectful to me."
About two weeks ago, Reyes said, he ran into Ahmad on the street and he seemed stressed out. Reyes thought little of it at the time, but now wonders if it was a sign of the trouble to come.
Ahmad Rahami was charged with five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer on Monday night, and more charges are likely to come.