The 24-year-old man accused of stabbing author Salman Rushdie had been in direct contact with members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on social media, European and Middle Eastern intelligence officials told VICE World News.
Hadi Matar has been charged with attempted murder after Rushdie, 75, was repeatedly stabbed on stage ahead of a speaking event in Chautauqua, New York, on Friday. On Sunday, Rushdie’s son Zafar Rushdie said that his father was in a critical condition and had sustained “life changing” injuries, but had been taken off a ventilator and had been able to speak.
A NATO counter-terrorism official from a European country said the stabbing had all the hallmarks of a “guided” attack, where an intelligence service talks a supporter into action, without direct support or involvement in the attack itself.
“Close scrutiny needs to be paid to his communications,” said the NATO official, who was not authorised to speak on the record. “More investigation will reveal more information on the exact nature of the links.”
There’s no evidence Iranian officials were involved in organising or orchestrating the attack upon Rushdie. Security officials who confirmed the social media contact would not elaborate on the nature of the communications because investigations are ongoing. They would not disclose who initiated the contact, when it took place, or what was discussed.
A Middle Eastern intelligence official said it was “clear” that at some point prior to the attack, Matar had been in contact with “people either directly involved with or adjacent to the Quds Force,” referring to the Revolutionary Guard’s external operations force.
“It’s unclear the extent of the involvement, if this was a directly supported assassination attempt or if it was a series of suggestions and directions in picking a target,” said the official, who could not speak on the record for diplomatic reasons.
Rushdie lived under police protection for more than a decade following the 1988 publication of his novel Satanic Verses, which enraged much of the Islamic world with what was widely seen as a heretical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwa – a religious edict – in 1989 offering a multi-million dollar reward for Rushdie’s murder.
But in the ensuing decades Iran has rarely mentioned the situation and over time concerns for the author’s safety faded.
“A 24-year-old born in the United States did not come up with Salman Rushdie as a target on his own,” the Middle Eastern intelligence official said. “Even an avid consumer of Iranian propaganda would have some difficulty finding references to Rushdie compared to all the other, modern enemies, designated by the regime.”
Matar’s family hail from the South Lebanese town of Yaroun, an area deeply sympathetic to Iran and its local proxy Hezbollah.
There’s no indication thus far that Matar had joined the group or received military training on visits to Lebanon. On Saturday, Hezbollah officials asked local journalists to stop visiting the village, according to local media reports.
“Most of the families in Yaroun support the resistance, there is no question of this relationship,” said a mid-level Hezbollah commander from a nearby village that cannot be named for security reasons. “But this boy has nothing to do with Hezbollah, we don’t know him and do not want to be drawn into international intrigues involving people we don’t know.”
A senior Lebanese security official said the US had requested additional information on the possibility of Matar’s travels to Lebanon in an effort to determine if he had received military training from Hezbollah, which maintains a powerful military training infrastructure in both Lebanon and neighbouring Syria.
“There is a lot of interest in this boy from the Americans and we will do our best to provide any information that can help their investigation,” said the senior Lebanese security official, who refused to be identified for diplomatic reasons.
“There’s a limit to our ability to assist, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect someone to admit to training him to carry out an assassination, the involved groups have a long history of keeping secrets.”
The Middle Eastern intelligence official said that a handful of Quds Force members taking the chance to inspire and direct an attack would not require high level approval from the Iranian regime, where the internal security forces from the Revolutionary Guard Corps and military intelligence are often open rivals, directed by political factions.
They said that since the death in 2008 of Imad Mughniyeh – a Hezbollah commander who directed external operations – there had been a “certain sloppiness” in Iranian and Hezbollah operations.
“There seems to be a process where individual members of various agencies plan and activate their own operations, like the recent Bolton thing, where Iranian guys are offering money to hitmen, acting like John Wick is a real thing,” the official said, referencing an indictment unsealed last week that accused a member of the Quds Force of attempting to pay $300,000 to assassins he believed worked for a Mexican drug cartel to target former National Security Adviser John Bolton.
In a court appearance on Saturday, Matar pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault. He was ordered to be held without bail.
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