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.
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, 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.
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 civilians 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 roads in that region were reopened except for West 23rd Street. New York City Subway service to stations along West 23rd Street was disrupted while the investigation was ongoing.
Following the explosion, officers began a block-by-block search for additional unexploded bombs. Several hours later, police received a 9-1-1 call from a resident of West 27th Street who had seen a suspicious-looking package near her home. The device was under a mailbox at West 27th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, four blocks away from the site of the original blast. When authorities came to look, two state troopers discovered the 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 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.
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, Lee Parker, was homeless and was looking for a backpack so he could go to a job search. His friend Ivan White 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. White and Parker 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 men, who were not held as suspects, were hailed as heroes in Elizabeth; a GoFundMe campaign in their name raised over $16,000 in donations.
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 Rahimi, had thrown away the bombs in Elizabeth in an effort to hide the evidence because these bombs lacked detonators.
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 Chelsea 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 composite terrorist act or endeavor, committed by the same person or 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 Rahimi (see below).
Though the explosives in all four incidents were of three different designs, the Department of Homeland Security found that the bomb-maker followed guidelines featured in Inspire, an online magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Investigators also said they believed the bomb-maker had cased the Chelsea neighborhood before the bombing there, and that he may have had an accomplice as he would have had to otherwise cover a lot of ground between the bombing sites in a relatively short amount of time. They were talking to witnesses who claimed to have seen Rahimi in the Chelsea area before the explosion. Several bomb ingredients were purchased by Rahimi on eBay between June 20 and August 10.
On September 30, two weeks after Rahimi's arrest (see below), the FBI raided his home a second time for "additional evidence".
Investigators discovered surveillance video that showed a suspect planting a bomb, later identified as Rahimi, 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. Authorities 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. Investigators later believed the men were possible Egyptian tourists who have since returned to their home country. U.S. investigators notified Egyptian authorities that they wanted to question the men.
Late on September 18, the day after the Manhattan explosion, the FBI announced that five men, who were later found to be relatives of Rahimi, 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.
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 bombing, 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 U.S. drone strike), the Boston Marathon bombing, and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting.
On September 20, investigators said that when Rahimi was arrested, he had a notebook in his possession in which he had written about Anwar al-Awlaki, the Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the spokesperson and a senior leader of ISIL. The notebook had bullet holes and blood stains. In the notebook, Rahimi wrote of "killing the kuffar," an Arabic term for unbelievers.
According to authorities, Rahimi 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 Rahimi states that Rahimi had a YouTube account in which he listed two jihadist propaganda videos as "favorites" alongside other, unrelated materials.
Ahmad Khan Rahimi (born January 23, 1988), an Afghan American whose surname was initially reported as Rahami, came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2000, and was naturalized in 2011. He is a native Pashto speaker.
His father, Mohammad Rahimi, came to the U.S. several years earlier seeking asylum. According to a neighbor, Rahimi's father, a Pashtun, had been part of the anti-Soviet mujahideen movement in Afghanistan, and was critical of the Taliban. The younger Rahimi may have as many as seven siblings. Before settling into the U.S., the Rahimi family fled from the then war-torn Afghanistan to Pakistan. In the U.S., they lived in a number of New Jersey towns before settling in Elizabeth.
Rahimi graduated from Edison High School in 2008. From 2010 to 2012, he attended Middlesex County College in Edison, New Jersey, majoring in criminal justice with alleged aspirations of a future in law enforcement. He dropped out.
Rahimi's friends described him as a generous person who was never devoutly religious and would invite 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. A classmate from Edison High described him as quiet, mild-mannered, well-dressed, and "not abrasive, [but] funny" whenever he spoke. In recent years, though, he seemed to be a "completely different person" who was more stern than before and less easygoing. Also, in elementary school, Ahmad's teacher complained to Mohammad that his son was "act[ing] like a king in class". Ahmad broke a friend's nose while in junior high.
While at Edison High, he started a relationship with a classmate from the Dominican Republic, which culminated in them having a daughter together in 2007, during Rahimi's senior year. According to people close to the Rahimis, this upset Mohammad Rahimi, who refused to meet his granddaughter or the mother, and had been disapproving of the relationship due to expectations that his son would marry a cousin in Afghanistan. In March 2008, after returning from his first trip in Pakistan, he moved in with his girlfriend's family and got a job at a Kmart store. Rahimi's girlfriend later ended the relationship and sued him for child support. This reportedly depressed Rahimi, who subsequently returned to his family, and damaged his relationship with his father.
The Rahimi family had a history of disputes with the City of Elizabeth over their 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 Rahimis', from operating past 10:00 p.m. In 2009, two of Rahimi's brothers were arrested for attempting to record a conversation with police, according to court papers. Rahimi lived above the restaurant with his family.
In July 2016, Rahimi passed the required background check and legally purchased the Glock 9 mm handgun he used in the shootout, from a licensed dealer in Salem, Virginia.
At one time, Rahimi 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 Rahimi had stabbed his brother in the leg, after the victim and another brother attempted to stop Rahimi from assaulting their mother and sister "for no apparent reason". Rahimi was reported by two of his siblings the next day and spent three months in the Union County Jail, but was reported to have bailed. A grand jury declined to make an indictment, and the charges were dropped on September 22.
A "high-ranking law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation" said Rahimi 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.
Rahimi's father Mohammad had tried to contact the FBI about his son around August 2014, but two months later, Rahimi was cleared by the FBI. One reason cited was that Mohammad had stated that he was merely angry over the August domestic incident when he reported his son, so he had denied his previous statement. In an interview with The New York Times, Mohammad claimed that he had seen his son watching videos made by al-Qaeda and the Taliban and asked him to stop. However, the FBI later said Mohammad never informed them of what he had seen.
On September 20 — the day after his arrest — Rahimi's estranged ex-girlfriend, and the mother of his daughter, filed a petition in a New Jersey state court seeking full custody of the child, citing Rahimi 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." Rahimi and the mother of his child had engaged in a long-running battle, as Rahimi owed her more than $3,000 in child support in 2015; she had previously gotten a restraining order against Rahimi.
Rahimi, reportedly, went back to Afghanistan several times (including for an extended period starting in 2012), and "showed signs of radicalization" afterwards. The trips were reportedly arranged by Rahimi's pious father, who was concerned about his son being "too Americanized". Rahimi and members of his family also made several trips to Pakistan, where they had Afghan relatives living as refugees. According to a family friend, Rahimi claimed that his father took away his passport while he was sleeping and left him alone in a foreign country.
Rahimi and a brother spent several weeks in the cities of Quetta and nearby Kuchlak, as well as Kandahar, Afghanistan. At Quetta, which is home to a large population of Afghan immigrants and some Taliban members-in-exile, he was in an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman, believed to be his cousin, in July 2011, and had a son with her in 2014. The son's fate is unknown. Rahimi also went under the wing of a local radical cleric, according to a close relative in Afghanistan. Following Rahimi's arrest, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban said the group had no connection with him.
In Kuchlak, Rahimi attended an Afghan-run naqshbandi religious seminary closely associated with the Taliban movement, where he took lectures in Islamic education for three weeks. Rahimi remained in Pakistan from April 2013 to March 2014, and traveled to Afghanistan during the period. Following his near-year-long stay in the region, he underwent additional screening. On both occasions, he stated that he visited family members and was cleared by immigration and customs officials. The FBI did not find any signs of ties to terrorism during background checks.
According to a childhood friend, Rahimi 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 Rahimi 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." One intelligence source said Rahimi may have been self-radicalized.
In June 2016, Rahimi's wife left the United States, planning to return September 21. 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.
After stopping the five men on the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, FBI agents and Elizabeth police searched Rahimi's home in the early morning of September 18. The FBI asked for public assistance in detaining Rahimi for questioning in connection with the bombings in Manhattan and Seaside Park, as well as the attempted overnight bombing in Elizabeth.
At 7:39 a.m. on September 19, the NYPD posted a "Wanted" poster of Rahimi 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 said that Rahimi might be armed and dangerous. Law enforcement put him on some terror watchlists to prevent him from leaving the United States.
Concurrently, authorities started searching Rahimi'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 Rahimi was wanted in connection with the Seaside Park and Elizabeth bombs.
At around 10:30 a.m., a Linden bar owner was in a deli across the street from his bar, watching CNN, when he saw a man sleeping in the bar's doorway. He recognized the man as Rahimi from news reports and called 9-1-1, saying "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 Rahimi.
Officer Padilla ordered Rahimi to show his hands. Rahimi disregarded the order, retrieved a Glock 9 mm handgun, and shot Padilla in the abdomen, striking the bulletproof vest. Padilla returned fire and Rahimi fled, with police pursuing him. Rahimi 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, then he was shot in his hand. In addition, Officer Kahana experienced high blood pressure stemming from the incident. None of the officers' injuries or conditions were serious. During the shootout, Rahimi was shot at least seven times, hit in the liver and an artery, and sustained a shoulder wound.
Rahimi was finally arrested, shortly before noon, and transported to University Hospital by ambulance. He underwent numerous surgeries and was in critical but stable condition. The severity of Rahimi's injuries made his ultimate survival uncertain. Officer Padilla was released from the hospital that night, and Officer Hammer was released the next day.
Following Rahimi'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." Rahimi was said to be initially uncooperative during interrogations.
On the night of September 19, Rahimi 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 are eligible for bail, until the law is modified in 2017. Rahimi's bail was set at $5.2 million.
On October 13, after a delay caused by his ongoing recovery from gunshot wounds, Rahimi appeared, by teleconference, in New Jersey State Court to plead innocent to the charges against him. Through his court-appointed attorney, Peter Liguori, he indicated that, contrary to prior reports, his official surname is Rahimi. Liguori stood by Rahimi's hospital bed throughout the hearing.
On October 18, Rahimi was moved from the hospital to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. On November 10, ahead of hearings in his case, Rahimi was moved from the medical unit at Trenton State Prison to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.
On September 20, Rahimi 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).
On September 26, Rahimi's father and wife both retained the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to defend him on the federal charges. The ACLU will represent Rahimi until he is given a federal public defender or other lawyer.
On November 10, Rahimi made an initial appearance in the Manhattan federal court to face terrorism charges. He did not enter a plea. The U.S. Attorney said that the defendant had been moved into federal custody in Manhattan. Rahimi's lawyer, David Patton, questioned if his client would get proper medical treatment at the new location. He explained that Rahimi had eight to ten surgeries, and that one of Rahimi's hands had not adequately healed. Also, he continued to suffer from an open wound as well as serious liver damage. Federal authorities argued that Rahimi was well enough to be in regular custody.
On November 16, Rahimi was indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan on eight criminal counts including use of a weapon of mass destruction; attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction; bombing a place of public use; destruction of property by means of fire or explosion; attempted destruction of property by means of fire or explosion; interstate transportation and receipt of explosives; use of a destructive device during, and in furtherance of, a crime of violence (two counts). A day later, Rahimi pleaded not guilty on all of the charges before U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman. Trial is set to begin in the case on October 2, 2017.
Governor Cuomo released a statement following the Manhattan bombing, 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.
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 Rahimi, 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 Manhattan bombing, the NYPD received 406 phone calls reporting suspicious packages in the city. None were found to contain bombs.