By Aya Elamroussi and Mark Morales, CNN
Award-winning author Salman Rushdie is awake and “articulate” in his conversations with investigators as he remains hospitalized for severe injuries following a stabbing attack in western New York Friday, a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation told CNN Monday.
Rushdie, 75, underwent emergency surgery after a man allegedly stabbed him several times before his scheduled lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, officials have said.
The writer — whose books have garnered him awards — was conscious Monday and able to respond to questions from investigators, according to the law enforcement official.
It’s unclear what Rushdie told investigators following the attack that shook the literary world and prompted immediate condemnation from around the globe.
The author suffered three stab wounds to his neck, four stab wounds to his stomach, puncture wounds to his right eye and chest, and a laceration on his right thigh, Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt said during the suspect’s arraignment over the weekend. Rushdie may lose sight in his right eye, he noted, adding that the attack was targeted and preplanned.
The suspect in the attack, identified as 24-year-old Hadi Matar, allegedly jumped onto the stage at the Chautauqua Institution, about 70 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York, and lunged toward Rushdie, repeatedly stabbing him, according to New York State Police. The suspect was held down by audience members and staff who forced him to the ground until he was arrested by a state trooper.
Matar’s mother, Silvana Fardos, told the Daily Mail in an interview that her son, who was raised in the US and was outgoing, took a month-long trip to the Middle East in 2018 and returned as a “moody introvert.” She said she didn’t find out about the stabbing attack until the FBI raided her Fairview, New Jersey, home.
Officials believe Matar, who lived in Fairview, traveled to Buffalo via bus and used a ridesharing app to reach Chautauqua the day before the attack, according to the law enforcement official who spoke to CNN.
Investigators do not know where Matar spent the night and they are working with the institution to comb through surveillance footage to determine whether he was near the area during overnight hours, the official added.
Upon his arrest, Matar had a fake driver’s license, some cash, two Visa prepaid gift cards and no wallet, the official told CNN. Matar refused to answer questions from authorities when he was taken into custody and asked for an attorney, the law enforcement official said.
Public defender Nathaniel Barone, who represents Matar, told CNN his client has been “very cooperative” and communicating openly.
Matar pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault with intent to cause physical injury with a deadly weapon, Barone said.
Rushdie lived in hiding after his novel “The Satanic Verses” was published in 1988, drawing criticism from some Muslims who considered it sacrilegious. The late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who described the book as an insult to Islam and the faith’s Prophet Mohammed, issued a religious decree, or fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989.
What we know about the suspect
A motive for the attack remains unclear and authorities are sifting through items they took from Matar’s New Jersey home, according to the law enforcement source.
Fardos told the Daily Mail that FBI agents seized several things, including a computer, books and knives from her son’s basement apartment. She said she didn’t know whether her son had read Rushdie’s book.
Fardos, who is Lebanese and was born Muslim, told the news outlet she believed Matar became more religious since his trip to Lebanon roughly four years ago, and he had criticized her for not raising him in a more strict Muslim way.
“I just cannot believe he was capable of doing something like this,” his mother told the Daily Mail. “As I said to the FBI I’m not going to bother talking to him again. He’s responsible for his actions.”
Matar, who has no documented criminal history, is accused of using a knife in the stabbing, according to a felony complaint.
It remains unclear how he may have entered the event armed with a knife. There were no security searches or metal detectors at the event, said a witness whom CNN is not identifying because they expressed concerns for their personal safety.
Matar was described as someone who is quiet and mostly kept to himself, according to people who interacted with him at a boxing gym in North Bergen, New Jersey.
Desmond Boyle, the owner of State of Fitness Boxing Club, told CNN Matar enrolled there in April.
“You know that look, that ‘it’s the worst day of your life’ look? He came in every day like that,” Boyle told CNN.
Roberto Irizarry, a member of the gym, told CNN Matar went to the gym about three or four times in a week and was “a very quiet kid” who kept to himself.
Matar faces up to 32 years if convicted, the district attorney said.
US condemns Iranian government statement
The assault on the famed author drew support for him from writers and officials around the world.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “appalled” by the attack on Rushdie, who is also a British citizen.
“Appalled that Sir Salman Rushdie has been stabbed while exercising a right we should never cease to defend. Right now my thoughts are with his loved ones.”
Rushdie began living under British protection after Iran issued the fatwa calling for his death.
On Monday, the Iranian government denied ties to the attack in its first official reaction.
“We do not consider anyone other than (Rushdie) and his supporters worth of blame and even condemnation,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said during a televised news conference.
Iranian officials haven’t learned anything about the suspect other than what US news media has reported, Kanaani said, according to Iranian state media. “We categorically and seriously deny any connection of the assailant with Iran,” Kanaani added.
The US State Department denounced Iran’s stance, saying the comments are “despicable” and “disgusting.”
“It is no secret that the Iranian regime has been central to the threats against his life over the course of years now,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price, who called Iran’s “gloating” over the attack “absolutely outrageous.”
“We want it to be very clear that it is not something that we can tolerate,” Price said.
In 1998, the Iranian government sought to distance itself from the fatwa by pledging not to seek to carry it out. Despite that, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirmed the religious edict.
In February 2017, on Khamenei’s official website, the supreme leader was asked if the “fatwa against Rushdie was still in effect,” to which Khamenei confirmed it was, saying, “The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued.”
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CNN’s Nicki Brown, Liam Reilly, Artemis Moshtaghian, Kristina Sgueglia, Samantha Beech, Lauren Said-Moorhouse, David Romain, Nouran Salahieh, Adam Pourahmadi, Alex Stambaugh, Michael Conte and Christian Sierra contributed to this report.