NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. authorities on Wednesday were looking into whether an Afghan-born American citizen charged with carrying out bombings in New York and New Jersey acted alone or had help as the city’s top federal public defender sought access to the suspect.
Police in New York City said they had not yet been permitted by doctors to speak to Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, who was arrested on Monday after being wounded in a gunfight with police in Linden, New Jersey.
Rahami has been charged with wounding 31 people in a bombing in New York on Saturday that authorities called a “terrorist act.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation released a photo of two men who found a second, unexploded pressure cooker device they say Rahami left in a piece of luggage in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood on Saturday night.
The two men, who took the bag but left the improvised bomb on the street are not suspects, officials said, but investigators want to interview them as witnesses.
“As far as whether he’s a lone actor, that’s still the path we are following, but we are keeping all the options open,” William Sweeney, the FBI’s assistant director in New York, told reporters.
Rahami is also charged with planting a bomb that exploded in Seaside Park, New Jersey, but did not injure anyone and planting explosive devices in his hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, which did not detonate. He faces charges from federal prosecutors in both states.
Federal prosecutors portray Rahami, who came to the United States at age 7 and became a naturalized citizen, as embracing militant Islamic views, begging for martyrdom and expressing outrage at the U.S. “slaughter” of Muslim fighters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine.
Investigators were also probing Rahami’s history of travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and looking for evidence that he may have picked up radical views or trained in bomb-making.
Both government and pro-Taliban sources in Pakistan on Wednesday said they had no knowledge of Rahami having met with prominent people connected to the Taliban or other religious groups.
Prosecutors plan to move Rahami to New York from the New Jersey hospital where he is being treated as soon as his medical condition allows, said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
Rahami’s wife met with U.S. law enforcement officials while in the United Arab Emirates and voluntarily gave a statement, a law enforcement official said on Wednesday. She was not in custody.
A New Jersey U.S. congressman previously said Rahami had emailed his office in 2014 for help in getting her a visa to enter the United States from Pakistan when she was pregnant.
Rahami’s defence attorney, David Patton, on Wednesday demanded that his first court appearance to be scheduled as soon as possible, even if it occurs in his hospital bed, saying that the defendant had a constitutional right to a lawyer and a court appearance within two days of his arrest.
New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill told a news conference that investigators had not yet received doctors’ clearance to interview Rahami, adding, “That may happen in the next 24 hours, pending the doctors’ approval.”
Federal prosecutors in New York noted that while they had filed charges against Rahami, he remained in the custody of state officials in New Jersey, who initially arrested him after Monday’s gunfight. They said that makes Patton’s request for access premature.
Patton, in a subsequent filing, shot back that such delays were unacceptable.
“Mr. Rahami was arrested more than 48 hours ago. His bail in New Jersey was set without any appointment of counsel or court appearance. He still has not been provided counsel. He does not have a scheduled court appearance in New Jersey until next week,” Patton said.
The attacks in New York and New Jersey were the latest in a series in the United States inspired by Islamic militant groups including al Qaeda and Islamic State. A pair of ethnic Chechen brothers killed three people and injured more than 260 at the 2013 Boston Marathon with homemade pressure-cooker bombs similar to those used in this weekend’s attacks.
Rahami, in other parts of a journal that prosecutors said he was carrying when he was arrested, praised “Brother” Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader slain in a 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan; Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric and leading al Qaeda propagandist who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike in Yemen; and Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who shot dead 13 people and wounded 32 at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.
Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, house Homeland Security Committee chairman, told CNN that Rahami’s writings in a journal showed that his actions had been inspired by Islamic State as “his guidance came from the lead ISIS spokesman.”
“What that tells me as a counter terrorism expert that now we can definitively say this was an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack.”
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Julia Edwards in Washington and Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Quetta, Pakistan; Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Will Dunham and Alan Crosby