WASHINGTON — The FBI appealed for the public's help Wednesday in locating two unidentified men who removed an explosive device from a piece of luggage planted just a few blocks from where a separate bomb detonated Saturday night in New York, injuring 31 people.
The two men, pictured casually walking near the West 27th Street location where authorities later recovered an unexploded pressure-cooker explosive, left the device and were seen walking away with the luggage, the FBI said in an appeal posted on its website.
"Closed circuit television recordings indicate that these individuals allegedly located a piece of luggage on the sidewalk, removed an improvised explosive device from the luggage, and then left the vicinity leaving the device behind but taking the luggage,'' the FBI said, adding investigators were seeking to question the men and recover the luggage.
A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY there was no immediate indication that the two men had any involvement in the terror plot. The official, who has knowledge of the investigation, was not authorized to comment publicly.
The appeal comes a day after federal authorities charged Ahmad Rahami, the lone suspect in the weekend bombing campaign in New York and New Jersey, with four federal terror-related counts, including the use of a weapon of mass destruction. The charges were lodged in both New York and New Jersey federal courts.
The charges assert the 28-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, intended to “cause death and serious bodily injury’’ when he planted devices at four locations across New Jersey and New York, including the two in Manhattan.
Initial attempts to question Rahami, who is recovering from multiple gunshot wounds suffered in a shootout with New Jersey police prior to his capture, have been unsuccessful, the federal official said.
The official said investigators were expected to make yet another attempt, although it was uncertain whether agents would be rebuffed after the government filed charges against the suspect Tuesday night.
In a letter to U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein in New York, David Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, urged federal authorities to schedule Rahami's first court appearance as soon as Wednesday so that an attorney can be appointed to represent him.
"He has been held and questioned by federal law enforcement agents since his arrest,'' Patton wrote. "The Sixth Amendment requires that he be given access to counsel on the federal charges, and that he be presented without delay.''
If it is not possible for Rahami's physical appearance in court because of the continuing medical treatment, Patton said an attorney from his office could represent the suspect in a telephone or video conference.
Authorities have yet to determine where the suspect allegedly assembled the bombs, the federal law enforcement official said. According to court documents, Rahami allegedly began acquiring components for the devices as early as June, ordering some materials on eBay. The company said it has been cooperating with the federal inquiry.
Meanwhile, Rahami's wife, Asia Bibi Rahami, who left the country shortly before the bombings, has been cooperating with authorities in the United Arab Emirates and is expected to return to the U.S. in the coming days, the official said, adding U.S. investigators will seek to question the wife when she returns.
Although Ahmad Rahami has been characterized by officials as the only suspect in the bombing campaign so far, court documents supporting the federal charges filed Tuesday suggested another person — likely a family member — may have had some information about the suspect's planning.
The official said investigators are looking closely at video recovered from the cell phone of an unidentified family member that allegedly shows Rahami "igniting incendiary material'' in a backyard near his Elizabeth, N.J., home just two days before the New York explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
"The video depicts the lighting of the fuse, a loud noise and flames, followed by billowing smoke and laughter,'' the court documents state. "Rahami then enters the frame and is seen picking up the cylindrical container.''
The official said authorities are attempting to determine whether the person who recorded the video had specific knowledge of Rahami's alleged plan.
A journal seized from Rahami shortly after his arrest suggested the suspect drew inspiration from al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, both killed in separate U.S. operations.
"Inshallah (God willing) the sounds of the bombs will be heard in the streets,'' the rambling, handwritten journal stated. "Gun shots to your police. Death to Your OPRESSION.''
Preet Bharara, the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said Wednesday that while terror charges were filed in both New York and New Jersey, the first case would proceed against Rahami in New York.
Describing Rahami's actions "premeditated act of terrorism,'' Bharara said Rahami would soon be transferred to New York to face the terror charges.