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The FBI looked into suspected bomber Ahmad Rahami in 2014 and found no ‘ties to terrorism’

At least 29 people were injured in an explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City Sept. 17. Here’s what we know so far. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors on Tuesday charged Rahami, who remained hospitalized after a shootout with police, with four counts, including bombing and attempted bombing of a public place.

Earlier on Tuesday, the FBI had acknowledged that more than two years before the bombings in New York and New Jersey over the weekend, agents had investigated the man accused of planting and setting off explosives.

The FBI’s probe into Ahmad Khan Rahami, the 28-year-old named as the only suspect in the bombings, was launched based on comments his father had made. An official said his father later recanted his comments. Agents conducted interviews, checked with other agencies and looked at internal databases, “none of which revealed ties to terrorism,” the bureau said in a statement.

Rahami’s father spoke briefly to a scrum of reporters, offering relatively few details before climbing into an SUV and leaving. He also told reporters that his son was violent toward other family members “for no reason.”

Federal law enforcement officials confirmed that they did look into the father’s comments and opened what is known as an assessment, a relatively low-scale probe. But officials also said that Rahami’s father did not directly contact the FBI on his own, as he said; rather, agents learned he was making statements about his son.

When the FBI was alerted that Rahami was making comments that raised concerns about terrorism, they looked for any hints of terrorism “and we found nothing,” said an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing probe. It did not immediately appear that the effort was as intensive as the FBI’s investigation of Omar Mateen, the Orlando gunman who opened fire inside a nightclub there earlier this year.

A day after Rahami was captured in New Jersey following a bloody shootout with police, there were no signs that the probe into the bombings had expanded to other possible suspects or groups.

However, there were indications that Rahami was interested in extremist ideologies. After Rahami was captured, investigators found blood-spattered papers on him that included a reference to Anwar al-Awlaki, according to two federal law enforcement officials.

One of the officials said the papers — several pages in Rahami’s pocket — also included references to the Boston Marathon bombings, the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and Osama bin Laden. The papers did not apparently include any reference to the Islamic State, the group that claimed responsibility for mall stabbings over the weekend.

Awlaki, an American-born cleric who was a top leader for al-Qaeda in Yemen, was killed in a 2011 drone strike, but his rhetoric continues to resonate online. His teachings have been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks, including the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, and authorities say the gunman in Orlando earlier this year and one of the attackers in San Bernardino, Calif., last year had viewed Awlaki’s lectures.

The bombings and explosive devices in New York and New Jersey are “being investigated as an act of terror,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said Wednesday during a speech in Lexington, Ky. She also said that a stabbing attack over the weekend at a Minnesota mall is being investigated as an act of terrorism.

On Tuesday, a federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said that the gun Rahami used during the shootout with police was a 9mm handgun purchased in Virginia on July 7. It was not immediately clear why Rahami traveled to Virginia or his ties to the state. An FBI spokeswoman said that being the subject of an assessment, as Rahami had been, would not prohibit a person from buying a gun.

Authorities investigating the bombings in New York and New Jersey on Saturday say there is still significant ground to cover in learning how the one-time college student built the makeshift explosives and planned the targets in Manhattan and a beach town in New Jersey.

“Now that we have this suspect in custody, the investigation can focus on other aspects, such as whether this individual acted alone and what his motivations may have been,” said New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

O’Neill said that as part of the effort to determine if Rahami worked alone, investigators were going to pore over his networks, examining his friends, family, records, social media and phones.

Bomb suspect’s family life shadowed by financial troubles and violence

Among the pieces being analyzed were video from New York and electronic toll records that showed a car Rahami had driven in the past traveled from from New Jersey to Manhattan and back on Saturday, the Associated Press reported, citing officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an ongoing case.

In 2014, Rahami was accused of stabbing a family member in the leg, court records show.

Prosecutors in New Jersey charged Rahami, a naturalized U.S. citizen and Afghanistan native, with five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. He is also expected to face federal charges. It was not clear Tuesday whether Rahami had an attorney or had many any statements to investigators.

On Tuesday morning, O’Neill said that Rahami was in “critical but stable” condition after being shot multiple times during the gun battle with police a day earlier. As a result, police have not been able to speak with him yet while he needed medical treatment, O’Neill said in an interview on “CBS This Morning.”

FBI agents were still trying “to make sure we completely understand Rahami’s social network,” William Sweeney Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York division, said at a Monday news conference. The case is “still very much alive,” added O’Neill.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said Monday in an interview on MSNBC that Rahami contacted his office in 2014 seeking help getting his wife over from Pakistan. Sires, who recalled Rahami as “kind of nasty,” said he believes Rahami’s wife did make it to the United States.

“At the time she was pregnant and in Pakistan they told her that she could not come over until she had the baby, because she had to get a visa for the baby,” said Sires, who said he has been briefed by the FBI about the bombing investigation.

Rahami had a daughter with a girlfriend, said Chris Konya, a high school classmate from New Jersey. Konya said the baby was born at the end of senior year or shortly thereafter, remembering that Rahami’s girlfriend “was very pregnant” by their senior prom.

According to two federal law enforcement officials, Rahami’s wife was overseas when the bombing occurred and heading back to the United States at the time. She was detained in the United Arab Emirates, where authorities want to question her, these officials said.

A Pakistani intelligence officer in Quetta, who earlier said he had no information Rahami had visited the area, said Tuesday night that an initial investigation showed he had visited Quetta in 2011 and 2013.

The intelligence officer said there is evidence Rahami was married there but added that it is not clear whether his wife is a Pakistani or Afghan national. According to the officer, hundreds of Afghan families live in the Quetta area, which is also where part of the Afghan Taliban leadership lives.

What you need to know about the events in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota

Law enforcement officials said they believed Rahami was responsible for the bombing in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood Saturday night that wounded 29 and for a blast earlier that day along a scheduled race route in Seaside Park, N.J. No one was hurt in that incident, as racers had yet to pass the site.

The bombs used were somewhat different, which initially led to theories of possible separate plots. In Chelsea, federal officials said, the perpetrator used two pressure cookers filled with shrapnel and ball bearings — one exploded, and one did not. In Seaside Park, pipe bombs were deployed.

But as investigators reviewed surveillance footage and analyzed the bombs, they came to believe that the incidents were related.

They quietly zeroed in on Rahami, a 5-foot-6, 200-pound man whose family runs a fried-chicken joint in Elizabeth, N.J. Sweeney had said Monday that Rahami was not previously on the FBI’s radar and that investigators were working to determine whether he was radicalized in some way or if there was some other motive.

Two federal officials said a fingerprint from part of a device that was recovered proved key to identifying him. Officials also said they obtained DNA evidence from the crime scene, with O’Neill describing it Tuesday as “a lot of forensic evidence.”

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials said that Rahami made several trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2011 and 2014 and that they were trying to determine whether he was radicalized abroad. One senior intelligence official said he didn’t see any indication that was the case.

“I think this falls in the same category of what we’ve been worried about — the self radicalized individual,” the official said. It is unclear how he learned about bomb-making — maybe online as the Boston Marathon bombers did, the official said, “but there’s no information yet to indicate motivation.” One official said he was licensed to carry a firearm.

An explosive device detonated as a bomb squad robot attempted to disarm it Sept.18. (Video: Reuters)

Authorities also said they were seeking to speak with two men they consider witnesses to the situation in Chelsea on Saturday night. Police say that after the explosion there, they found what turned out to be a second explosive device a few blocks away.

Video footage reviewed by investigators captured two men picking up a bag that contained the device, removing the pressure cooker and leaving with the bag, said Robert Boyce, chief of detectives for the New York police.

“We have no information that would link them to this at all. However, we still want to talk to them, obviously,” Boyce said Monday. “Once they picked up the bag, they seemed incredulous they had actually picked this up off the street – and they walked off with it.”

Explosives in New York and New Jersey were pressure cookers and pipe bombs linked to cellphones

On the campaign trail, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates seized on the incident to criticize each other. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said anti-Muslim rhetoric by GOP opponent Donald Trump was “giving aid and comfort” to the Islamic State. Trump said current anti-terrorism efforts are insufficient at home and abroad, and he blamed President Obama and Clinton, who served as Obama’s first secretary of state. Trump also suggested that profiling may be necessary to counter the threat.

Authorities began to make their move on Rahami on Sunday night. Near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn, they stopped a vehicle that had been spotted at a location associated with Rahami and took five people into custody, Sweeney said. King said two of those people were relatives of Rahami. The suspect, though, remained on the loose, and authorities believed him to be dangerous.

Sunday night, at a train station not far from the Rahami home in Elizabeth, two homeless men found more explosives in a backpack, and in trying to render them safe, authorities inadvertently detonated one. No one was hurt. Federal law enforcement officials said they believe Rahami was responsible for that incident, too.

The FBI searched the Rahami family’s home, above the chicken restaurant, and, for the first time, broadcast the suspect’s name and picture publicly.

About 10:30 a.m. Monday, they caught a break. A businessman spotted someone who he thought was a vagrant sleeping at his doorway in Linden, N.J., and called police, said Linden Mayor Derek Armstead. An officer went to wake the man, and Rahami lifted his head.

The officer immediately recognized him from the “be on the lookout” alert that was distributed, Armstead said.

The mayor said that within seconds, Rahami had fired a shot and hit the officer in the abdomen, though the officer was spared more serious injury by a protective vest. The officer, Angel Padilla, returned fire, hitting Rahami in the shoulder and leg, Armstead said. He said another officer suffered a graze wound from a bullet that ricocheted off a car.

In addition to the attempted-murder charges, Rahami faces two second-degree counts related to his possession of a handgun, said acting Union County prosecutor Grace H. Park.

Rahami, who was shot multiple times, was taken to University Hospital in Newark for surgery, officials said. They did not elaborate on his condition after surgery.

Bail for Rahami was set at $5.2 million by a state superior court judge.

Nakashima reported from New York, and Zapotosky and Berman reported from Washington. Sarah Larimer and Carol Morello in New Jersey; Anne Gearan and John Wagner in New York; Pamela Constable in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Brian Murphy, Sari Horwitz, Sean Sullivan, Julie Tate, Derek Hawkins, William Wan and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated.