NEW YORK — 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 the fact that he gave them free food when they were short on money.
Other than that, his other known obsession was a souped-up Honda Civic that he liked to race. In recent years, though, some friends noticed a marked change in his personality and religious devotion after what they believe was a visit to Afghanistan, where he was born.
And for years, he and his relatives had a fractious relationship with neighbors and the police because of the always-open hours the restaurant kept and the rackety customers it attracted.
Now, Rahami is suspected of being responsible for the weekend bombings in both New York and New Jersey. He was taken into custody on Monday after being discovered asleep in a doorway in New Jersey.
A 28-year-old naturalized citizen, Rahami lived in Elizabeth, N.J., about 15 miles from New York, above First American Fried Chicken, a family business apparently started by his father, Mohammad. Several brothers may also have worked there.
Ahmad Rahami was born on Jan. 23, 1988, in Afghanistan, though it is unclear when his family came to the United States. Neighbors said they believed that he was one of at least a half-dozen children, though like much about his life they were uncertain of the exact number.
Flee Jones, 27, grew up with Rahami, and when they were young played basketball with him in the local park. As an adult, 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.
“It was nothing but good vibes,” said Jones, who helped write a song called “Chicken Joint” as an informal advertisement for the restaurant.
At this point, little is known of Rahami’s ideology or politics, or whether he has any connections to foreign terrorist organizations. He used to wear Western-style clothing, and customers said he gave little indication of his heritage.
Around four years ago, though, Rahami disappeared for a while. Jones said that 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,” Jones said. “He got serious and completely closed off.”
Andre Almeida, 24, who lives nearby and eats at the chicken restaurant once or twice each week, said he found the change quite striking but was hesitant to reach any conclusions.
The events on Monday were not Rahami’s first encounter with law enforcement. He was arrested in 2014 on weapons and aggravated assault charges for allegedly stabbing someone in the leg, according to court documents.
He spent over three months in Union County Jail on the charges, according to a high-ranking law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation. A grand jury declined to indict Rahami on the charges. He also spent a day in jail in February 2012 for allegedly violating a restraining order and another day in October 2008 for unpaid traffic tickets, the official said.
In 2005, Rahami’s father filed for bankruptcy protection, saying in court documents that he had just $100 in the bank and $38,609 in debt, mostly from credit cards. He said he was separated and had eight dependent children.
The Rahami family’s restaurant had its own tense relationship with the community, though it drew a horde of loyal patrons who appreciated their cheese fries and friendly service.
When the restaurant opened about a decade ago, Rahami’s father was always the one behind the counter, said Ryan McCann, 33, a frequent patron who lives in Elizabeth. Recently, only he ran the place.
At first, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day and became a local nuisance, said J. Christian Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth and a neighbor. Rowdy crowds appeared after midnight.
Dean McDermott, who lives nearby and is a news videographer, complained, as did others. Often McDermott discovered patrons loitering in his yard and urinating in his driveway, and he called the police.
In response to the persistent complaints, the mayor said that the Elizabeth City Council passed an ordinance compelling the restaurant to close at 10 p.m.
McDermott said that Rahami’s father sued him, the mayor, the council and some 20 police officers. McDermott said that in the lawsuit the elder Rahimi claimed that he had been discriminated against because of his race and ethnicity.
The mayor said: “It was neighbor complaints; it had nothing to do with his ethnicity or religion. It had to do with noise and people congregating on the streets.”