ELIZABETH, New Jersey — Before he was known as a bombing suspect, Ahmad Rahami was a struggling foreign-born Afghan-American straddling two disparate worlds that would ultimately collide.
Court documents, brief family interviews and detailed accounts from close family friends paint a tumultuous picture of an immigrant family’s struggle to live in the United States while trying to hold on to their traditions and maintain ties to their homeland.
Rahami, a 28-year old naturalized US citizen, was charged Tuesday in connection with explosions in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, and Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
Some who knew Rahami as a friendly “Americanized” teenager say they would have never guessed he would be involved in domestic terrorism.
But those who were close to him say the real story of Rahami’s path to terrorism stems from a lifelong struggle with his father, Mohammed Rahami, and the clash of values that steeped them both.
“For a lot of families, there is tension … for him it was his father,” said Ehsan, said a close family friend who wanted to be known only as Ehsan.
Ehsan and his uncle lived with the Rahami family in New Jersey, and remained close to them until 2014. Ehsan now lives in a different part of the country.
The high school pregnancy
Rahami was born in Afghanistan in 1988 and first came to the United States in 1995, several years after his father arrived seeking asylum, a law enforcement official said. The son became a naturalized citizen in 2011.
The father established the large traditional family in a cramped apartment located above his business, a local fried chicken restaurant in Elizabeth.
In high school, Rahami was outgoing, funny and looking forward to a future in law enforcement, according to several people who knew him. But his comfort and ability to make friends led to what would become the biggest conflict with his father. After Rahami got his high school girlfriend pregnant, his strict father’s anger boiled over.
The girlfriend dropped out of school and had the baby, according to friends. Rahami graduated and went to Middlesex County College in Edison, where he majored in criminal justice. But he dropped out and didn’t graduate.
Abandoned in Pakistan
According to Ehsan, the pregnancy and Rahami’s seeming inability to move forward prompted his father to take the entire family to Afghanistan and then on to Pakistan. It was during that trip, that Mohammed Rahami abandoned Ahmad alone in a foreign country.
“[Rahami] told me he was basically left there,” Ehsan said. “He had to find his own way back … I’m sure that traumatized him for life … I’m sure that scarred him.”
Ehsan said Rahami told him that his father took his passport while he was sleeping. The entire family left, ultimately returning to the U.S.
Another friend confirmed this story, telling CNN he remembers getting a strange phone call from Rahami, who said he was stuck in Pakistan and needed money.
Rahami eventually made it back to the United States and moved back into a tumultuous existence in the cramped apartment above his father’s chicken shop.
As Rahami and his brothers grew older, they hung out around Elizabeth and neighboring towns, sometimes making trips into New York city for fun.
Also during this time, Rahami and his one brother, Mohammad, made multiple trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ultimately, Rahami and his brother returned to their traditional values. They married two conservative Pakistani cousins, friends told CNN.
The feud turned violent
Rahami and his wife moved into an apartment in Perth Amboy. But they couldn’t afford it, according to Ehsan, After they were evicted, the moved back in with the rest of the family above the chicken shop.
The tight quarters led to family fights, according to court documents and friends. In 2014, the violence escalated when Rahami stabbed his brother in the leg with a knife, according to the arrest warrant.
“It was not good what happened. It was just a violent night. There was blood,” Ehsan said. “It was a very bad situation for Ahmad. He was trying to live with his parents and wife and kids.”
On Tuesday, Rahami’s father said he called police during that altercation, saying his son was “doing bad.”
“He stabbed my [other] son,” Mohammed Rahami said. “He hurt my wife, and I put him to jail two years ago.”
Ahmad Rahami spent three months in the county jail, but was released after a grand jury failed to indict.
In the meantime, FBI agents investigated claims that Rahami’s father allegedly called him a terrorist. However, the father recanted, and the FBI determined it was all the result of a chaotic family situation, sources told CNN.
Rahami’s wife left the United States days before explosions, according to officials.
What is clear is the Rahami family never really felt at home in the United States. At one point they sued the city of Elizabeth, claiming discrimination when the city stopped the restaurant from staying open after 10 p.m.
In recent months, the suspect’s brother, who frequently traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, posted sermons from the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and statements claiming 9/11 was an inside job, carried out by the US government, not radical Islamic terrorists.
According to an affidavit released Tuesday, Rahami had a handwritten journal when he was taken into custody. It included lines such as, “You (USA Government) continue your [unintelligible] slaught[er] against the mujahidean be it Afghanistan, Iraq, Sham [Syria], Palestine.”
The author also expressed concern at the prospect of being caught before being able to carry out a suicide attack.
There are also laudatory references to “Brother Osama bin Laden” and Nidal Hasan, who shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas.
By Scott Bronstein and Drew Griffin