The 2016 New York and New Jersey Bombings

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo tour the site of the Manhattan bombing.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo tour the site of the Manhattan bombing.

On September 17–19, 2016, there were three bombings or bombing attempts in the New York metropolitan area, specifically in Seaside Park, New Jersey; Manhattan, New York; and Elizabeth, New Jersey.

On September 17, at about 9:30 a.m., a pipe bomb exploded in a trash can along the route of a U.S. Marine charity run in Seaside Park. No one was injured. Later that day, at about 8:30 p.m., a homemade pressure cooker bomb exploded on West 23rd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Thirty-one people were injured, 24 of whom were taken to the hospital. A second pressure cooker bomb, with wires and a mobile phone attached, was discovered by authorities on West 27th Street, four blocks away. Late on September 18, multiple bombs were discovered inside a suspicious package at the Elizabeth train station. One of those bombs detonated early the next day during the police investigation, and no injuries were reported.

On September 19, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) identified Ahmad Khan Rahami as a suspect in all of the incidents. He was captured hours later after a shootout in Linden, New Jersey. The shootout left Rahami and three police officers injured. Rahami was hospitalized and charged with crimes in both New Jersey state court (including attempted murder of two law enforcement officers) and federal court (including bombing and use of a destructive device).

According to authorities, Rahami was not part of a terrorist cell, but was motivated and inspired by the extremist Islamic ideology espoused by al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda chief propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.

Seaside Park bombing

In the morning of September 17, 2016, in Ocean County, New Jersey, the Seaside Semper Five, a 5k run event, was expected to draw as many as 3,000 people, with many of them being veterans of the United States Armed Forces. The race was delayed after a suspicious backpack was noticed in the vicinity of the starting point.

At about 9:30 a.m., shortly before the race was supposed to start, a pipe bomb exploded in a trash can on Ocean Avenue in Seaside Park. Three “rudimentary” pipe bombs, all reportedly timed to go off during the race, were later found, with only one of the three having exploded. No one was hurt by this bombing, however.

The race was canceled after the explosion, and the beach and boardwalk in Seaside Park were evacuated. Police officials and federal agents soon went door-to-door, asking residents about information regarding the bombs or any suspicious activity they may have seen, heard, or witnessed.

Manhattan bombing

On the same day as the Seaside Park bombing, a pressure cooker bomb filled with shrapnel, in the form of small bearings or metal BBs,[6] exploded in a crowded area on West 23rd Street, between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue at 8:31 p.m. The explosion occurred in front of 133 West 23rd Street in the vicinity of a construction site, at which materials were in place for exterior renovations of the Visions at Selis Manor facility, an apartment building for the blind, at 135 West 23rd Street. Other nearby buildings included the Townhouse Inn of Chelsea, many restaurants, and a Trader Joe’s at 21st Street and 6th Avenue. The Chelsea neighborhood is residential, known for its nightlife, and is not close to any significant tourist sites or government buildings.

Witnesses said that the explosion “seemed to have started inside a sidewalk dumpster” in the vicinity of Sixth Avenue, and photographs of a “twisted dumpster” in the middle of West 23rd Street went viral on Twitter. A law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity stated that the explosion “appeared to have come from a construction toolbox” in front of a building, and photographs of the area reportedly showed a twisted, crumpled black metal box.

– Effects

The explosion “was powerful enough to vault a heavy steel Dumpster more than 120 feet through the air … Windows shattered 400 feet from where the explosion went off, and pieces of the bomb were recovered 650 feet away.” The explosion caused damage to a nearby five-story brownstone, and debris was strewn in front of the St. Vincent de Paul Church. The moment of the blast was captured on closed-circuit television footage from three cameras.

Thirty-one people were injured, 24 of whom were taken to four local hospitals. Most injuries were scrapes and bruises caused by flying debris and glass. None of the injuries were life-threatening, but one victim sustained a puncture wound and was seriously hurt. Nine of the injured were taken to Bellevue Hospital, including the seriously injured civilian. Lenox Health Greenwich Village treated another nine victims. By the following morning, all of the injured had been released.

The explosion disrupted travel in Manhattan extensively. A significant zone (14th Street to 34th Street between Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue) was closed to car travel overnight. By 7:00 a.m. the following morning, “all of the streets and avenues had been reopened, except for West 23rd Street, which remained closed between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.” New York City Subway service to stations along West 23rd Street was disrupted while the investigation was ongoing.

– Discovery of second device

Following the explosion, officers began a block-by-block search for additional unexploded bombs. Several hours later, two state troopers discovered a pressure cooker bomb concealed in a plastic bag and connected with dark wiring to a mobile phone. The bomb was filled with small bearings or metal BBs. The pressure cooker bomb was described as similar to those used in the Boston Marathon bombing. The device was discovered near a mailbox at West 27th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, four blocks away from the site of the original blast. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) reported its find of a “possible secondary device” at 11:00 p.m.

The bomb was removed by an NYPD bomb squad robot. The robot placed the bomb in a containment chamber, and the device was driven away at around 2:25 a.m. on September 18. Investigators obtained fingerprints and the mobile phone from the device. The bomb was driven to the NYPD’s Rodman’s Neck firing range in the Bronx, where it was rendered safe via a controlled explosion. The devices were to be sent to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for further inspection.

Discovery of bombs in Elizabeth

At around 8:00 p.m. on September 18, two men took a backpack atop a municipal garbage can at the Elizabeth train station in Elizabeth, New Jersey. One of the men was homeless and was looking for a backpack so he could go to a job search; his friend had found the backpack above the garbage can. They were about 300 feet (91 m) from a busy pub’s front entrance and about 500 feet (150 m) from a train trestle when they took the backpack. The men looked into the backpack, discovered that the item contained wires and a pipe, and called 9-1-1 at around 8:45 p.m. The pair were not held as suspects. On the contrary, they were hailed as heroes in Elizabeth.

The Elizabeth Police Department was the first authority to respond to the men’s 9-1-1 call. The investigation was soon turned over to the New Jersey State Police and the FBI, which sent in two robots that confirmed the devices were pipe bombs. One of these bombs was accidentally detonated at around 12:40 a.m. as the robots sought to disarm the devices. One robot was “destroyed” by the blast, while the other robot’s mechanical arm was broken. Authorities were working to disable the other devices. Following the bomb’s accidental explosion, the station was evacuated. The surrounding area was put on lockdown, and service was suspended between the Newark Airport and Elizabeth stations for the day. New Jersey-bound trains from New York were held at Penn Station.

Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said that it was unclear whether the train station was a specific target, or whether the bombs were dumped by someone looking to quickly get rid of them. The Elizabeth device was “similar in appearance” to the Seaside Park device. Police later theorized that the bomber, Ahmad Khan Rahami, had thrown away the bombs in Elizabeth in an effort to hide the evidence because these bombs lacked detonators.

Investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) responded to the scene of the Manhattan bombing and were involved in the investigation, in addition to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and the NYPD. Initially, the Seaside Park and Manhattan bombings were investigated as separate incidents, but over a period of two days, the investigation yielded similarities between the two incidents, leading the investigators to determine that they were connected, and therefore that it was to be investigated as one overall terrorist act or endeavor, committed by the same party.

Within hours after the attack, officials determined that the explosion was intentional, and ruled out the possibility of a natural gas explosion. Investigators did not immediately find evidence of a terrorism link, initially leaving open the possibility of arson or vandalism at the time. A link to terrorism was discovered in the following days.

Both of the Manhattan bombs—the one that exploded and the second that was disabled—were of the same design, using pressure cookers filled with bearings or metal BBs that were rigged with flip phones and Christmas lights that set off a small charge of hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD), which served as a detonator for a larger charge of a secondary explosive similar to Tannerite.

The FBI examined fingerprints from the undetonated West 27th Street pressure cooker bomb and its attached mobile phone. DNA evidence was also recovered. On September 19, the FBI traced the prints, as well as some pictures on the mobile phone, to Ahmad Khan Rahami.

– Search for suspects

Investigators discovered surveillance video that showed a suspect planting a bomb, later identified as Rahami, on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, then walking to West 27th Street dragging a duffel bag. The subject left the bag at West 27th Street. Later, two individuals took the pressure cooker bomb out of the bag and left the scene. It was later determined that the two men who had taken the bomb out of the bag were, most likely, scavengers who had only wanted the duffel bag and did not know what they had been handling; in the process, they might have deactivated the bomb in the bag. The NYPD and FBI wished to talk with these men, who were considered possible witnesses but were not suspected in helping plant the bomb.

Late on September 18, the day after the Manhattan explosion, the FBI announced that five men, who were later found to be relatives of Rahami, had been detained in connection with the investigation. The men were detained at about 8:45 p.m. at a traffic stop, which was being conducted by the FBI and NYPD on the Belt Parkway near the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge.

– Motive

An official speaking to The New York Times on condition of anonymity said, “We don’t understand the target or the significance of it. It’s by a pile of dumpsters on a random sidewalk.” At a news conference the day following the Manhattan explosion, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that placing a bomb in a crowded city street was intrinsically a terrorist act, but that “there is no evidence of an international terrorism connection with this incident,” while noting that the investigation was still in its early stages. An explosives expert, speaking anonymously, said the materials used in the bomb indicated that the bomb-builder had some knowledge of how to assemble the explosive device.

A note found on the pressure cooker bomb left on West 27th Street referred to Anwar al-Awlaki (the Muslim cleric who became a senior member of al-Qaeda and was then killed by a US drone strike), the Boston Marathon bombings, and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting.

On September 20, investigators said that when Rahami was arrested, he had a notebook in his possession in which he had written about Anwar al-Awlaki and about the Boston Marathon bombers. The notebook had bullet holes and blood stains. In the notebook, Rahami wrote of “killing the kuffar,” an Arabic term for unbelievers.

According to authorities, Rahami was not part of a terrorist cell, but was motivated and inspired by the extremist Islamic ideology espoused by al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda chief propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. The criminal complaint filed against Rahami states that Rahami had a YouTube account in which he listed two jihadist propaganda videos as “favorites” alongside other, unrelated materials.

Suspect

– Background

Ahmad Khan Rahami (born January 23, 1988), an Afghan American, came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2000, and was naturalized in 2011. His father, Mohammad Rahami, came to the U.S. several years earlier seeking asylum. According to a neighbor, Rahami’s father had been part of the anti-Soviet mujahideen movement in Afghanistan, and was critical of the Taliban. The younger Rahami may have as many as seven siblings. He graduated from Edison High School in 2008. From 2010 to 2012, he attended Middlesex County College in Edison, New Jersey, majoring in criminal justice. He did not graduate.

Rahami’s friends described him as a generous person who invited his friends to eat and conduct rap battles at his family’s fried chicken restaurant—First American Fried Chicken in Elizabeth, 15 miles (24 km) from New York City. To some, he was known as Mad, short for Ahmad. In recent years, though, he seemed to be a “completely different person” who was more stern than before and less easygoing. A classmate from Edison High described him as quiet, mild-mannered, well-dressed, and “not abrasive, but funny” whenever he spoke.

The Rahami family had a history of disputes with the City of Elizabeth over the restaurant’s operating hours, claiming that the city was discriminating against them because of their ethnicity and because they were Muslim. They filed a lawsuit against the city in 2011, in which they alleged harassment and religious discrimination by police and officials who would force them to close early. Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said the longstanding issues were caused by a series of complaints from neighbors, who reported noise and large crowds gathering at the restaurant late at night. The city later barred all takeout restaurants, including the Rahamis’, from operating past 10:00 p.m. In 2009, two members of Rahami’s family were arrested for attempting to record a conversation with police, according to court papers. Rahami lived above the restaurant with his family.

At one time, Rahami was licensed to carry firearms. In August 2014, he, at that time living in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, was charged with aggravated assault and unlawful possession of a weapon in Union County. The charges arose from allegations that Rahami had stabbed someone in the leg in a domestic incident. Rahami spent three months in the Union County Jail, but was reported to have bailed. A grand jury declined to make an indictment. A “high-ranking law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation” said Rahami had spent two additional days in jail, one in February 2012 for allegedly violating a restraining order, and another in October 2008 for failure to pay traffic tickets. Mohammad had tried to contact the FBI about his son around that time, but two months later, Ahmad was cleared by the FBI. One reason cited was that Mohammad had stated that he was angry when he reported his son, so he had denied his previous statement.

Rahami, reportedly, went back to Afghanistan several times (including for an extended period starting in 2012), and “showed signs of radicalization” afterwards. Rahami and members of his family also made several trips to Pakistan, where they had Afghan relatives living as refugees. He spent several weeks in the cities of Quetta, Pakistan, and Kandahar, Afghanistan. At Quetta, which is home to a large population of Afghan immigrants and some Taliban members-in-exile, he married his current wife in July 2011. Rahami traveled to Pakistan and remained there from April 2013 to March 2014. Following his Quetta visit and his near-year-long stay in Pakistan, he underwent additional screening. On both occasions, he stated that he visited family members and was cleared by immigration and customs officials.

According to a childhood friend, Rahami grew a beard, started wearing more religious clothing following his trips to Afghanistan, and began praying in the back of his family’s restaurant. When the mobile phone from West 27th Street was examined, investigators found that Rahami had posted jihadist writings on various websites, but it was “not known whether he had any links to an overseas terror organization, or whether he had been inspired by such organizations and their propaganda efforts, as others have been.”

In June 2016, Rahami’s wife left for Pakistan. On September 19, following her husband’s arrest, she was stopped by the United Arab Emirates authorities. Two days later, she returned to New York and was questioned by the investigators. The wife was cooperative and not accused of wrongdoing.

Rahami legally purchased the Glock 9 mm handgun that he used in the shootout in July 2016, from a Salem, Virginia licensed dealer. Rahami passed the required background check; under U.S. law, being the subject of an FBI “assessment” (as Rahami had been) does not block someone from purchasing guns and does not show up on the background check. (A domestic violence conviction would block a person from purchasing a gun; however, Rahami was only accused of domestic violence, and was never convicted of such a crime).

– Manhunt, shootout, and arrest

After stopping the five men on the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, FBI agents and Elizabeth police searched Rahami’s home in the early morning of September 18. The FBI asked for public assistance in detaining Rahami for questioning in connection with the bombings in Manhattan and Seaside Park, as well as the attempted overnight bombing in Elizabeth. The bureau considered him to be armed and dangerous.

At 7:39 a.m. on September 19, the NYPD posted a “Wanted” poster of Rahami on Twitter. Seventeen minutes later, the Wireless Emergency Alert system was used to send an alert message to the mobile phones of millions of people in New York City, marking the first time New York City used the emergency alert to search for a named suspect. The alert message read, “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.”Mayor de Blasio said, “Anyone who sees this individual or knows anything about him or his whereabouts needs to call it in right away.” Authorities stated that Rahami might be armed and dangerous.

Law enforcement put Rahami on some terror watchlists to prevent him from leaving the United States.

Concurrently, authorities started searching Rahami’s home in Elizabeth. The New Jersey State Police released two tweets, one at 9:30 a.m. and the other at 10:56 a.m., both stating that Rahami was wanted in connection with the Seaside Park and Elizabeth bombs. At around 10:30 a.m., a Linden, New Jersey, bar owner was in his deli across the street from his bar, watching CNN, when he saw a man sleeping in the doorway of his bar. The bar owner recognized the man as Rahami from news reports and called 9-1-1, later saying that “the guy looks a little suspicious and doesn’t look good to me.” When Linden police arrived fifteen minutes later and awoke the man, the officers—who were subsequently identified as Angel Padilla, Peter Hammer, and Mark Kahana realized that the man was Rahami.

Officer Padilla ordered Rahami to show his hands. Rahami disregarded the order, retrieved a Glock 9 mm handgun, and shot Padilla in the abdomen, striking the bulletproof vest. Officer Padilla returned fire, and Rahami fled, with police pursuing him. Rahami fired back indiscriminately. He encountered Officer Hammer seated in his vehicle and fired into the windshield; Hammer was grazed in the head and struck by flying glass from the bullet through the windshield, then he was shot in his hand. In addition, Officer Kahana experienced high blood pressure stemming from the incident. None of the officers’ injuries was serious. During the shootout, Rahami was shot at least twice and sustained a shoulder wound. He was finally arrested, shortly before noon, and transported to University Hospital by ambulance. He underwent surgery and was in critical but stable condition. Officer Padilla was released from the hospital that night, and Officer Hammer was released the next morning.

Following Rahami’s arrest, investigators said there was “no indication” he was part of a broader terror cell, nor that such a cell was “operating in the area.” Rahami was said to be initially uncooperative during interrogations.

The day after his arrest, Rahami’s estranged ex-girlfriend Maria Mena, with whom he had a daughter, filed a petition in a New Jersey state court seeking full custody of the child, citing Rahami as being a possible participant in “terrorist related activity” in New York City. She also filed to change her child’s name, as well as to force the media not to contact her or her daughter. The petition for custody was granted the following day, though the request to change the daughter’s name was denied, as was the request for media not to contact her, because “the court said it had no authority to grant the requests.” Rahami and the mother of his child had engaged in a long-running battle, as Rahami owed Mena more than $3,000 in child support in 2015; Mena had previously gotten a restraining order against Rahami.

– State and federal prosecutions

On the night of September 19, Rahami was charged in New Jersey Superior Court with five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer in relation to the shootout in Linden. He was also charged with second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, both in relation to the handgun found in his possession.

Under New Jersey state law, all criminal defendants were eligible for bail, before 2017. Rahami’s bail was set at $5.2 million.

On September 20, Rahami was charged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, by criminal complaint, with four federal crimes including use of weapons of mass destruction (count one); bombing a place of public use (count two); destruction of property by means of fire or explosives (count three); and use of a destructive device during and in furtherance of a crime of violence (count four). On the same day, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark charged him with use of a weapon of mass destruction (counts one and two), bombings of a place of public use and public transportation system (count three), and attempted destruction of property by means of fire or explosive (count four).

Response

Governor Cuomo released a statement following the Chelsea blast, saying: “We are closely monitoring the situation and urge New Yorkers to, as always, remain calm and vigilant.” The day following the bombing, Cuomo and de Blasio toured the damage together.

President Barack Obama held a press conference following Rahami’s arrest, praising law enforcement for their “extraordinary” response to the bombing scenes, their inter-agency cooperation in the investigation, and their quick actions in apprehending the suspect.

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., released a statement saying the Afghan government condemned the bombings and promising the country’s cooperation with the investigation.

In a statement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations welcomed the arrest of Rahami, saying, “American Muslims, like all Americans, reject extremism and violence, and seek a safe and secure nation. Our nation is most secure when we remain united and reject the fear-mongering and guilt by association often utilized following such attacks.”

Security was boosted across New York City’s five boroughs as a precaution. Cuomo said that, while there was no ongoing threat, he would deploy 1,000 additional National Guard troopers and State Police officers to major commuter hubs during the United Nations General Assembly meeting which began when the bombings were unfolding.

In the two days following the Chelsea bombing, the NYPD received 406 phone calls reporting suspicious packages in the city. None were found to contain bombs.

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