Police are learning more information about the suspect who allegedly stormed onto a New York stage and stabbed author Salman Rushdie in the neck on Friday.
The suspect, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, was born in California, but recently moved to New Jersey, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation. His last listed address was in Fairview, a Bergen County borough just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. FBI officials were seen going into the home of Matar Friday evening.
Sources said that Matar also had a fake New Jersey driver's license on him.
The 24-year-old was arrested on a felony charge of second-degree attempted murder for the attack on the acclaimed novelist as well as second-degree assault for an injury to the event's moderator, state police said Saturday. Matar was being held without bail in the Chautauqua County Jail and was expected to be arraigned later Saturday, Chautauqua County DA Jason Schmidt said.
"This is the very early stage of what will invariably be a protracted legal process," Schmidt said in a statement. "We will try to be as transparent as we can without compromising the case."
State Police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski said the motive for the stabbing was unclear. A preliminary law enforcement review of Matar's social media accounts shows he is sympathetic to Shia extremism and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps causes, a law enforcement person with direct knowledge of the investigation told NBC News. There are no definitive links to the IRGC but the initial assessment indicates he is sympathetic to the Iranian government group, the official says.
A senior official familiar with the investigation said that Matar made a trip to the Middle East back in 2018. Matar left from JFK Airport on Aug. 2, 2018, and flew to Lebanon. He came back a little over three weeks later, on Aug. 29, from an airport outside of Moscow, Russia.
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Spectator Kathleen Jones said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.
“We thought perhaps it was part of a stunt to show that there's still a lot of controversy around this author. But it became evident in a few seconds” that it wasn't, she said.
The assailant ran onto the platform "and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten,” said Rabbi Charles Savenor, the director of congregational education at the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, who was also among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience.
Savenor said the attack occurred with moments of Rushdie and Reese taking the stage, and that it lasted about 20 seconds, after which time spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater amid gasps.
After Rushdie was pushed or fell to the floor, Matar was arrested by a New York State Trooper, and was awaiting arraignment. Local prosecutors say they are in touch with law enforcement counterparts in New Jersey, "to better understand the planning and preparation which preceded the attack" and to determine if further charges are warranted.
A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was flown to a hospital after getting attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck as he was about to give a lecture in western New York, state police said. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said the writer was on a ventilator Friday evening, with a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye he was likely to lose.
An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie on stage at the Chautauqua Institution and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times as he was being introduced.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said later that he was alive and “getting the care he needs.” Dr. Martin Haskell, a physician who was among those who rushed to help, described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”
Event moderator Henry Reese, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked and suffered a minor head injury, police said. He and Rushdie were due to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.
A state trooper and a county sheriff's deputy were assigned to Rushdie’s lecture, and state police said the trooper made the arrest. But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the center questioned why there wasn’t tighter security for the event, given the decades of threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million for anyone who kills him.
Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes. He is a former president of PEN America, which said it was “reeling from shock and horror” at the attack.
“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
Rushdie's 1988 novel was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims, who saw a character as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. Across the Muslim world, often-violent protests erupted against Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family.
At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie's hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.
The book was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died that same year.
Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which led a night news bulletin on Iranian state television.
The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included a round-the-clock armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.
He said in a 2012 talk in New York that terrorism is really the art of fear.
“The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he said.
Anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered long after Khomeini’s decree. The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016.
An Associated Press journalist who went to the Tehran office of the 15 Khordad Foundation, which put up the millions for the bounty on Rushdie, found it closed Friday night on the Iranian weekend. No one answered calls to its listed telephone number.
In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.
Rushdie rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known around the world after “The Satanic Verses.”
Widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest living writers, Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 and earlier this year was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honor, a royal accolade for people who have made a major contribution to the arts, science or public life.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that he was “appalled" that Rushdie was stabbed "while exercising a right we should never cease to defend."
The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don't pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.
The Chautauqua center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before.