Ahmad Khan Rahami: The New York Times offers early clues to a life transformed

While politicians keep arguing about what is and what is not a bomb and what is and what is not a “motive” for terrorism, most American journalists -- at least in the print media -- have settled into a somewhat predictable pattern for covering the basic facts of these kinds of events.

That was a compliment.

There was a time when reporters seemed so anxious to avoid the religion angles in these stories that they actually buried or ignored basic facts -- which almost certainly led to increased distrust among readers. We are talking about stories in which a a suspect’s name or family history was hidden deep in the text or reporting that ignored details provided by witnesses, such as whether attackers shouted religious references or asked victims if they were Muslims.

At this point -- perhaps after waves of street-level violence in Europe and elsewhere -- reporters have gone back to writing basic stories. That doesn’t mean that potential links to radicalized forms of Islam dominate the headlines and the tops of news reports. It does mean that essential facts are covered and, often, they are linked to human details that help them make sense.

Consider the New York Times second-day feature story about the man arrested -- after a gun battle with police -- following the disturbing series of attacks in and around New York City. Just look at the complex matrix of materials at the very top of this story.

He presided behind the counter of a storefront New Jersey fried chicken restaurant, making his home with his family in an apartment above it. To some of his friends, Ahmad Khan Rahami was known as Mad, an abridgment of his name rather than a suggestion of his manner, and they liked that he gave them free food when they were short on money.
Beyond that, his other known obsession was souped-up Honda Civics that he liked to race. In recent years, though, some friends noticed a marked change in his personality and religious devotion after what they believed was a trip to Afghanistan, where he and his relatives are from.
In fact, a federal official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Rahami had actually traveled to Pakistan, for three months in 2011 and, most recently, to Quetta, for nearly a year, where he stayed with family, returning to the United States in March 2014. While there, he is believed to have married.
Back in New Jersey, he and his relatives had a fractious relationship with neighbors and the police in Elizabeth, N.J., because of the always-open hours of their restaurant and the rackety customers it attracted. The longstanding friction led to the Rahami family’s filing a lawsuit in 2011 against the city and its Police Department in which they alleged that they were harassed and intimidated because of their religion. They accused a local businessman of complaining to them, “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”

Note the reference to the lawsuit. I assume, since there is no clear attribution, that paperwork linked to this lawsuit was the source of the “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”

That’s strong, logical reporting, done by shoe leather or online research.

At the same time, the early references to the trips abroad, to potentially troubling destinations, and to the suspect’s possible marriage are strong indicators of forces that may have helped change his life.

The Times story does a fine job of placing this transformed Rahami in the context of his earlier life in New Jersey. The First American Fried Chicken franchise emerges as a poignant hub for much of the action.

Here is the section of the story -- packed with details -- that hooked me.

Flee Jones, 27, grew up with Ahmad Rahami, and when they were young played basketball with him. As an adult, Mr. Jones, a rapper, was a regular at the chicken place, where the food was plain but cheap. He said the Rahamis would let him and his friends host rap battles in the back of the restaurant. Mr. Jones helped write a song called “Chicken Joint” about the restaurant.
At this point, little is known of Mr. Rahami’s ideology or politics. He used to wear Western-style clothing, and customers said he gave little indication of his heritage.
Around four years ago, though, Mr. Rahami disappeared for a while. Mr. Jones said one of the younger Rahami brothers told him that he had gone to Afghanistan. When he returned, some patrons noticed a certain transformation. He grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim robes. He began to pray in the back of the store.
His previous genial bearing turned more stern.
“It’s like he was a completely different person,” Mr. Jones said. “He got serious and completely closed off.”

From rap battles to possible bomb training, from T-shirts to robes. He prayed in the back of the store. Alone? Was his only Muslim community online?

The tug between the past and the present continues throughout the story. There were complications with bringing his pregnant wife to America. There are questions about where he learned the skills that led to the bombs.

In other words, there are unanswered questions. These holes in the story are clearly described and placed in the narrative.

At what point did the funny, humble, helpful young man with a string of girls transform into someone else? Here is another long, crucial passage:

“He’s a little bit of a wraith, a ghost,” a law enforcement official said.
There is no evidence yet that Mr. Rahami received any military training abroad, the federal official said, but investigators remain intent on learning more about his time overseas. “Where did he really go and what did he do overseas that a kid who lived a normal New Jersey life came back as a sophisticated bomb maker and terrorist?” the official said.
Besides his most recent trip to Quetta, Mr. Rahami visited Karachi, Pakistan, in 2005. Both of those cities’ reputations have become entwined with the militant groups who have sheltered there: Karachi as a haven for the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Quetta as the headquarters of the exiled Afghan Taliban leadership. But both cities are also home to generations of Afghans who have fled violence in their home country.

There is no evidence "yet."

There is much, much more. It’s clear that this family’s life in America may have seemed normal, but there were also tensions with people around them. There is a chance that the whole family grew more tense and angry.

As always there is a key question here: Which came first? The tensions with neighbors or the anger? At this point, the Times story simply gives readers key facts on both sides of this equation. Read it all and you will feel the tensions.

Let me end with one question that may sound strange. However, I ask this question after some interesting interactions in the past year of so with Muslims at food trucks in lower Manhattan (where I am a regular customer seeking falafel during Eastern Orthodox fasting seasons).

Concerning the First American Fried Chicken franchise: Was the fried chicken there halal?

FIRST IMAGE: Posted online by First American Fried Chicken.

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