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Journey From Class Clown to Suspect in Chelsea Bombing | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Mohammad Rahami outside his home in Elizabeth, N.J. Mr. Rahami said he warned his son, Ahmad, to avoid jihadist videos. Credit Dave Sanders for The New York Times

If there was one child Mohammad Rahami had to worry about bringing shame upon the family, it was Ahmad. In the fifth grade, his teacher complained to Mr. Rahami that Ahmad acted like a king in class. In junior high, he broke a friend’s nose. Even worse was high school — after Mr. Rahami arranged for Ahmad to marry a good Afghan girl from Kabul, Ahmad dated a Dominican girl, getting her pregnant in his senior year.

The shame. They had falling-outs, so many of them. In the beginning, because Ahmad was just becoming too American for his conservative Afghan parents, who had moved to New Jersey after Mr. Rahami fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets as part of the mujahedeen in the 1980s. And then, in the last few years, they fell out over much darker fears.

Ahmad spent hours watching videos on the internet espousing violent jihad, embracing some of the most prominent purveyors of that message: Bin Laden, Awlaki, Adnani, the men who in that world needed no first names. Mr. Rahami said he asked Ahmad to stop.

“This is wrong,” Mr. Rahami recalled telling his son, one of eight children. “You don’t know if they are real Muslims. You shouldn’t watch them. You have nothing to do with them.”

But nothing stopped Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, who now stands accused of bombings in New York and New Jersey and a string of other attempts: not Mr. Rahami’s entreaties to his second-oldest son that such a fascination with jihadi videos was “a disease,” and not the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s open-and-shut investigation into Ahmad in 2014.

In many ways, Ahmad’s story is similar to those of the perpetrators of other recent terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe: a disaffected first-generation immigrant, straddling two worlds and unable to fit into either; a young man who had not yet found a meaningful path in life, easily recruited into a cause that promised divine rewards. It is particularly similar to the life of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the popular, outgoing high school student sentenced to death a few years after graduation for his role in the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon.

But Ahmad’s story has nuances, showing how difficult it was for him to make it in America while trying to break out of his conservative family, something, for a while, he seemed to want desperately. His earliest rebellion was not against the West. It was against his father, a conservative, proud man who tried to run his family like he would have back home. And then, later, Ahmad gave up that fight for another, seemingly seeking out extremism on his own and spurning the country that had welcomed his family as refugees.

In his recent planning, Ahmad appeared to be isolated and occasionally conflicted. There was no brother to lead him, as in the case of Mr. Tsarnaev. No terrorist cell appeared to be actively helping him. No wife bent on extremism as well, as with the couple in the December shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. No group rushed to claim him or his attacks. Not Al Qaeda and not ISIS, despite Ahmad’s praise of figures from both groups in the notebook found on him. That notebook also showed his fear: that he would be caught before he completed his mission, the authorities said.

So what turned Ahmad, the class clown, the man who once wanted to be a police officer or a translator for the United States military, into the man now accused of orchestrating the most serious terrorist strike in New York City since the Sept. 11 attacks? Much remains unanswered, but one thing is certain from interviews with his father and friends: He found jihad on the internet, at a time when there was nothing particularly bad in his life, but nothing particularly good.

His life was standing in place. Even as his brothers moved on, graduated from college, drove for Uber, Ahmad was stuck. He tried jobs and failed, and ultimately fell back on the one thing he knew, and wanted to get away from: his family’s fried-chicken business. Years of small indignities piled up, the minor court cases, like the one with the neighbor who allegedly conned him in a small-time bank swindle that involved transferring someone else’s money to him and paying her back. He asked her in a text message, “Yo this is solely your money tho rite.” (It was not.)

There were two main phases of Ahmad’s life — before he started watching the videos in 2013 and after, as he grew ever more radical.

As a teenager, Ahmad embraced America. To his friends, he was not Ahmad — he was Mad or Ack. He wore baggy jeans, Air Jordans and hoodies, sent slangy text messages proclaiming “na meen,” instead of “know what I mean.” He was a cutup, a clown. He had girlfriends. He wrote love poems in a spiral notebook.

Back then, Mr. Rahami’s desire to send Ahmad to Afghanistan as a way to bring him into a right way of thinking and curb his excesses was seen as a threat, as a punishment, not as a gateway to an extremist cause.

But then came the last trip.

In April 2013, Ahmad left for a nearly yearlong stay in Pakistan. While there, he took trips to Turkey and Afghanistan, according to immigration and law enforcement officials in Pakistan and the United States. A relative in Quetta, Pakistan, where Ahmad was staying, began to fret about what was becoming of him, his father said. Ahmad had fallen under the sway of a radical cleric in Quetta, a man called Mullah Qudri, according to a close relative in Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting family members.

Ahmad came home, angry and violent. A few months later, he stabbed his mother, a brother and a sister. His father was so worried that he talked to the FBI. But then, with that investigation closed, Mr. Rahami tried to reconcile with his son.

The New York Times