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The investigation into last year’s near fatal attack on Salman Rushdie has expanded to examine poten͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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September 1, 2023
semafor

Security

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Jay Solomon
Jay Solomon

Welcome back to Semafor Security.

Attacks on writers and journalists seem to generate varying levels of international outrage. The 2018 murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spawned years of in-depth coverage and at least two streaming documentaries. The Filipino journalist Maria Ressa won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize after being persecuted by the Philippines’ former President Rodrigo Duterte.

But the brutal stabbing last summer in rural New York of the Indian-British writer, Salman Rushdie, has surprisingly retreated from the international headlines. This despite the grisly nature of the assault and the fact that Rushdie has faced an Iranian fatwa calling for his death since 1989. Indeed, this original edict had made him one of the world’s most famous scribes.

To find out where the Rushdie case stands, I drove six hours this week from Washington to the lakeside county of Chautauqua, New York. The idyllic setting is hardly the place where I’d have expected an assassin to try and make good on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khamenei’s call for the writer’s death. The Chautauqua Institute, where Rushdie was speaking on August 12, 2022, is known for its focus on promoting religious tolerance and education.

But the Chautauqua County’s District Attorney Jason Schmidt surprised me during an interview by explaining that the U.S. government hasn’t closed off the possibility that foreign actors may have been involved in the attack on American soil. The case, he said, is very much focused on the alleged assailant, New Jersey’s Hadi Matar, who has largely been portrayed by the media as a lone wolf. But Schmidt said the U.S. Attorney’s Office is “engaged in their own investigation and, you know, potential prosecution” of other players — including potentially from Iran and the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah.

The trial of Matar is expected to start early next year.

Also in today’s newsletter: Karina Tsui unpacks Wagner commander Yevgeny Prigozhin’s final viral video. And I profile the Gabonese general who ended nearly 55 years of Bongo family rule in the Central African country this week.

Let me know what you think of this newsletter, and please send tips to jsolomon@semafor.com.

Sitrep

Moscow. Russia is actively in talks with North Korea to send weapons to Moscow to fuel its invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Thursday. The recently publicized intelligence is the most detailed recounting of Russia’s outreach to Pyongyang and comes after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s trip to North Korea last month; Thomas-Greenfield alleges his visit was to convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition to Moscow.

Niamey. Niger’s military junta withdrew French Ambassador Sylvain Itte’s diplomatic immunity and ordered police to expel him, days after coup leaders told Itte that he had 48 hours to leave. The junta has called France’s support of efforts to overturn the coup, “contrary to the interests of Niger.” The French Foreign Ministry said in response that coup leaders did not have the authority to expel the ambassador.

South China Sea. The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam all released individual statements criticizing and rejecting a map that shows Chinese occupation over 90% of the South China Sea south of Hainan Island. The map was released by Beijing on Monday and shows China taking over parts of several Southeast Asian countries’ exclusive economic zones.

— Karina

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Jay Solomon

Rushdie probe looks overseas

Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

THE SCOOP

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – The investigation into last year’s near fatal attack on the Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie has expanded to examine potential international involvement in the crime, the district attorney overseeing the case in rural New York told Semafor.

Jason Schmidt said his office in Chautauqua County is in the final stages of preparing its case against Hadi Matar, a 25-year-old New Jersey man accused of stabbing Rushdie multiple times during the writer’s appearance at a summer cultural festival last August. The trial could start early next year, the DA said.

But Schmidt said the U.S. federal government, through the U.S. Attorney’s Office, is now overseeing a separate investigation that’s looking into Matar’s potential ties to foreign governments or terrorist organizations. Iran’s late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 1989 calling for Rushdie’s death due to what he claimed were blasphemous passages against Islam in the writer’s book, The Satanic Verses. Iranian religious organizations have issued bounties on Rushdie as recently as last year.

Matar’s alleged attack on Rushdie has largely been framed as the actions of a disgruntled, immigrant son acting alone. But Schmidt is a rare U.S. law enforcement official to shed light on the Department of Justice’s continued concern that the attempted assassination may have had foreign backing.

Matar spent time in Lebanon where U.S. government officials are trying to ascertain if he was trained or radicalized by the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah. Matar was carrying a fake driver’s license at the time of the attack that had the name of a senior Hezbollah military commander.

“There are some areas that we have to sort of confine ourselves to the four corners of the charges that we’ve asserted, which is essentially an attempted murder in the second-degree charge. That’s our top count,” Schmidt said in an interview. “That gets us away from some of the underlying motivations that went into the intent. Some of that have been sort of removed from us in our jurisdiction, and that’s something that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been looking at and they are dealing with.”

Schmidt, a Republican, said that the widening of the investigation to include potential foreign governments and actors involve serious national security and political considerations that shouldn’t be handled by his local office.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office, I know, they are engaged in their own investigation and, you know, potential prosecution, and they’ve been looking at this as well,” said Schmidt. “I do think it does have political considerations and recognizing, for instance, that the Biden government is trying to negotiate with Iran now to kind of bring them back into a nuclear treaty. I understand that there’s a lot of considerations here that, you know, that are way outside my paygrade.”

The Department of Justice and White House didn’t respond to requests for comment from Semafor. Salman Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, also didn’t answer an email.

JAY’S VIEW

The question of whether Hadi Matar was a lone wolf, or an agent working on behalf of Tehran or Hezbollah, has been the primary question since Rushdie was attacked on the stage of the Chautauqua Institution on August 12, 2022. The profile of the alleged assailant points in both directions. Matar has pleaded innocent.

Court records and press reports portray Matar as a disgruntled youth who hated school, worked at a discount store, and failed in his efforts at becoming a professional boxer. He was also the product of a broken home with his Lebanese-American father returning to Lebanon while Matar was young. People who met Matar described him as a recluse who could simply have taken inspiration from the teachings of Khamenei and his fatwa against Rushdie.

But the portrait Matar’s mother painted of her son reads like the textbook case of radicalization. Silvana Fardos told the New York Times that Matar traveled to Lebanon in 2018 — presumably to stay with his father in the southern town of Yaroun — and came back a totally changed person, deeply religious in the Shiite Muslim faith and a supporter of Iran’s Islamic revolution. “I have nothing to say to him,” Fardos told the paper.

Middle East experts told Semafor that Yaroun is a town on Lebanon’s border with Israel that’s controlled by Hezbollah militants. It’s highly conceivable, they said, that Matar could have received both religious and military training during his time in Lebanon five years ago.

Schmidt said in the interview that Matar didn’t seem to just randomly choose to attack Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution, but that significant foresight was involved in his actions and preparations. Chautauqua Institution is a religious and cultural organization that wasn’t known for extensive security at its events. “The investigation…would lead me to believe that the venue, the Chautauqua Institution, because of what it represents, it was a good place to commit this type of act,” Schmidt said. “The security levels, I think, you know, certainly might have been a consideration because it is a fairly open environment.”

Iran denied any role in the attack last year, but still formally justified it. “Regarding the attack against Salman Rushdie in America, we don’t consider anyone deserving reproach, blame or even condemnation, except for (Rushdie) himself and his supporters,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said last August. Khamenei’s original fatwa against Rushdie was republished in Iranian state media just days before the attack in Chautauqua.

Investigating any potential links between Matar and Iran or Hezbollah won’t be easy, according to U.S. and Middle East officials. Hezbollah controls most of Lebanon’s security, making efforts to gain information from the ground on Matar’s dealings there difficult. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran.

Read the whole story here.

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Intel
Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of Russian private mercenary group Wagner, gives an address in camouflage inside a vehicle at an unknown location, in this still image taken from video possibly shot in Africa and published August 31, 2023
Courtesy Grey Zone via Telegram via REUTERS

A new video of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the slain Wagner Group boss, emerged online Thursday.

Speaking from an undisclosed location in Africa over a weekend in the second half of August, Prigozhin reassured his Telegram followers that everything was “fine,” despite widespread speculation about his safety, the future of the Wagner group, and his business operations in Africa. Days later, the warlord — known to be notoriously careful about his safety — was killed in a plane crash. Russian authorities denied involvement and have launched an investigation.

Observers think that Prigozhin must have sensed a heightened risk to his life. Since Wagner pursued a failed mutiny against Russian commanders in June, the mercenary leader has kept a low profile — occasionally popping up in Belarus or across Africa, where the Wagner group has been expanding its influence and protecting several of the continent’s governing elites. In exile, Prigozhin continued to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for failing to provide his men with adequate training and weapons to handle the scale of the war, a move that many believe cost him his life.

On Tuesday, Prigozhin was buried in a secret ceremony on the outskirts of his hometown, St. Petersburg, but conspiracy theories alleging that the warlord cheated his assassination continue to proliferate.

Speaking to the Independent, Dr Valery Solovey, a former professor at Moscow’s Institute of International Relations claimed that Prigozhin’s body double was killed, instead of the Wagner chief himself. He is “alive, well, and free,” the former professor said, and he intends to “take revenge on people who were intending to destroy him, and destroyed people close to him.”

— Karina

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One Good Email

Anthony Ruggiero served as a senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense, as well as North Korea, in the Trump administration’s National Security Council.

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Stat

The amount of military aid the U.S. has approved to Taiwan under the Foreign Military Financing program — a framework that is usually reserved for sovereign states.

— Karina

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Advance/Retreat

⋉ ADVANCE: Shield. The Indonesian and U.S. militaries kicked off joint drills in East Java Thursday amid clashes between Chinese and Indonesian vessels off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. The annual Super Garuda Shield exercises brought together nearly 5,000 troops from more than six countries, including the United Kingdom and Japan, while nine others joined as observers.

Grant Shapps leaves 10 Downing Street after being announced as Britain's new defence secretary in London, Britain, August 31, 2023
REUTERS/Hollie Adams

RETREAT: Shuffle. Former Energy Minister Grant Shapps has replaced Ben Wallace as Britain’s Defense Secretary — a surprise move that has led some in the Conservative Party to question his experience in military affairs. On X, Shapps vowed to continue the U.K.’s support for Ukraine.

— Jay

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Person of Interest

Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, Transitional President of Gabon

AFP via Getty Images

Gabon’s new military ruler served for decades as a confidante of the country’s ruling Bongo family. But now Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema believes his Central African country must cleanse its political ranks to bring stability and prosperity. “He had no right to serve a third term,” Gen. Nguema told Le Monde on Wednesday, referring to ousted President Ali Bongo. “So, the army has decided to turn the page and take its responsibilities.”

Gabon is the eighth Central and West African country to experience a coup d’état since 2020. And it’s spreading fear on the continent and in the U.S. and Europe that a widening trend of illiberalism is gripping the region. July’s coup in Niger runs the risk of fueling a regional war, as neighboring states have threatened to use force to re-instate President Mohamed Bazoum. Gabon had been seen as relatively stable, due to the Bongo family’s decades-long rule, and the country’s rich amounts of oil, timber, and manganese.

A thread that ties together these recent coups is the legacy of French colonial rule that has left many countries with weak democratic institutions and vast economic disparities. Coup leaders in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have all sought to generate popular support for their putsches by framing them as the final steps needed to eradicate French influence. General Nguema was filmed this week being paraded through the streets of Gabon’s capital, Libreville, after he vowed to transition back to a more equitable system. President Bongo’s re-election was marked by numerous irregularities, including the suppression of the internet during the vote, according to monitors.

General Nguema is an unlikely mutineer, said African analysts, due to his loyalty to Ali Bongo’s late father, Omar Bongo, and recent disappearance from Gabon’s elite circles. General Nguema was stationed as a military attache in Morocco and Senegal in the decade following Omar Bongo’s 2009 death and was largely forgotten. But he reemerged in recent years to command Gabon’s elite Republican Guard.

Africa watchers are gauging whether General Nguema will make good on his pledge to transition back to democracy. Outside pressure to his coup is mounting, as the African Union suspended Gabon from its ranks this week and the U.S. and Europe are likely to enact sanctions on the country’s new junta. Still, General Nguema can rely on his country’s natural resources, and the apparent initial public support for the coup, to resist these measures, at least in the short term.

“If the coup succeeds and a transition occurs, the international community should actively engage not just the military officers and President Ali Bongo and his inner circle, but also opposition political parties, religious leaders, and other civil society figures,” wrote Archibald Henry, program director for Central Africa and the Sahel at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

— Jay

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