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No Motive Established Yet in Salman Rushdie Attack, Authorities Say

The Wall Street Journal. 8/15/2022 Ginger Adams Otis, Alicia A. Caldwell, Konrad Putzier, Micah Maidenberg
© scanpix denmark/Reuters

Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old man accused of stabbing acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie, had no prior criminal history, and authorities said they have yet to determine a motive for the attack against the man targeted by Iran’s leader more than 30 years ago. 

Mr. Rushdie sustained three stab wounds to his right front neck and four stab wounds in the stomach just before a planned lecture in southwestern New York at the Chautauqua Institution on Friday, according to Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt. Mr. Rushdie also had a puncture wound in his right eye and two in his chest, the district attorney said Sunday. 

Mr. Matar, of Fairview, N.J., was arraigned Saturday and charged with second-degree attempted murder. He was also charged with second-degree assault for injuring another speaker who was on stage with Mr. Rushdie. He pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail at the Chautauqua County Jail.  

Mr. Matar’s lawyer on Sunday said the case against his client was still very preliminary.

Some people who know Mr. Matar and his family said they were surprised to learn about the attack. 

Mr. Matar was transferred to New York State Police barracks after he was apprehended in the amphitheater on the Chautauqua Institution grounds. He invoked his right to legal counsel when officers began questioning him about the attack, Mr. Schmidt said.

Mr. Rushdie spent years under police protection after Iranian leaders called for his execution over his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses.” 

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 revolution, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 1989 that called on Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie. A private Iranian foundation offered a multimillion-dollar bounty to anyone who killed Mr. Rushdie.

At the moment, the district attorney said, authorities haven’t reached a conclusion on a potential link to the fatwa against Mr. Rushdie. 

“I understand there are other law enforcement agencies at the federal level that are looking at this and on the state level through the New York State Police [they] are looking at this,” Mr. Schmidt said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it continues to assist law enforcement in both New York and New Jersey. It added it is also working closely with its partners in the United Kingdom since the victim is a dual citizen.

Mr. Rushdie remains in critical condition but is talking and showing signs of improvement, his family said Sunday. He was taken off a ventilator over the weekend and is breathing on his own, his son Zafar Rushdie said in a statement. 

“We are extremely relieved,” he said, while adding that Mr. Rushdie, 75 years old, still needs extensive medical treatment. 

“He was able to say a few words,” said Zafar Rushdie. “Though his life-changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty and defiant sense of humor remains intact.” 

The suspect is believed to have traveled to the Buffalo area from northern New Jersey on a bus the day before the attack, then hailed a ride-share vehicle to bring him to Chautauqua, Mr. Schmidt said.


Video: Suspect in Salman Rushdie attack identified (Reuters)

He wasn’t carrying a wallet when he was apprehended but he did have more than one prepaid Visa card, cash and a New Jersey driver’s license that bore someone else’s name, Mr. Schmidt said. 

The suspect had two day passes with him to Chautauqua events, one which had expired and one that was valid for Friday, the district attorney said. 

Mr. Matar was born in the U.S. to parents who emigrated from Yaroun in southern Lebanon, according to the Associated Press, which cited Ali Tehfe, Yaroun’s mayor for the information. 

He spent his early childhood in the Los Angeles area, according to relatives. Later Mr. Matar along with his mother and siblings moved to New Jersey. Relatives say the suspect’s father moved back to Lebanon. 

Mohamed Matar, who described himself as a distant cousin of Mr. Matar, said he was a “super quiet kid.”

Mr. Matar’s parents got divorced in 2005, court records show.

Hussein Erda, a man who said he was a cousin of Mr. Matar’s mother, said he and others in the community and in Lebanon were surprised by the news of both the attack and Mr. Matar’s arrest.

“It’s not right. God sees,” he said of the attack on Mr. Rushdie. “It’s very sad.”

He said he hasn’t seen Mr. Matar since the suspect was a boy.

Rosaria Calabrese, manager of State of Fitness Boxing Club in North Bergen, N.J., said Mr. Matar joined the gym this past April and regularly visited for several months. On Aug. 9, he sent an email saying he wanted to give up the membership, she said.

The owner of the club, Desmond Boyle, recalled trying to reach out to Mr. Matar and encouraged other coaches at the gym to do the same, to ensure he felt welcomed. But Mr. Matar kept to himself. 

“He never bothered anybody. He just came off to me to be a very, very sad individual that seemed to live in a continuous isolation kind of mind-set,” Mr. Boyle said. When Mr. Matar spoke, according to Mr. Boyle, he whispered, “almost like he was afraid to talk.”

In 1998, Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami appeared to lift the vendetta against Mr. Rushdie, telling reporters at a meeting of the United Nations in New York that the threat against the author was “completely over” after he had lived in hiding under an assumed name for nine years.

But Mr. Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2005 that the fatwa was still valid. Mr. Khamenei remains in power.

Iranian officials haven’t said anything publicly about Mr. Rushdie’s attacker. Some local press outlets have praised Mr. Matar, including the Kayhan newspaper, which is closely aligned with Mr. Khamenei.   

Mr. Rushdie came on stage Friday around 10:45 a.m. ET with fellow speaker Henry Reese, co-founder of the City of Asylum residency program for writers living under threat of persecution. 

They planned to discuss the U.S. as a place of asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression as part of the Chautauqua Institution’s summer lecture series. 

Mr. Reese, 73 years old, suffered a head wound in the assault. 

The two men were aided by security and people from the crowd, who rushed to restrain the attacker. A doctor in the crowd was able to give immediate medical help to Mr. Rushdie, police said. 

Zafar Rushdie in his statement said he thanked everyone for the outpouring of support his father has received. 

“We are so grateful to the audience members who bravely leapt to his defence and administered first aid along with the police and doctors who have cared for him,” he said. 

Gordon Lubold contributed to this article.

Write to Ginger Adams Otis at Ginger.AdamsOtis@wsj.com, Alicia A. Caldwell at alicia.caldwell@wsj.com, Konrad Putzier at konrad.putzier@wsj.com and Micah Maidenberg at micah.maidenberg@wsj.com

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