The Assassination Attempt Against Salman Rushdie: Between the IRGC’s Involvement and the Lone Wolf  Phenomenon

ByDr. Yahya Bouzidi

The recent assassination attempt against Indian-born British-American novelist Salman Rushdie came more than three decades after the infamous fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini. This fatwa  led to a bounty being placed on Rushdie’s head by the Iranian state. At 24 years old, the young US-born man behind the assassination attempt, Hadi Matar, who is of Lebanese origin, is nine years younger than Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa. The motives behind Matar’s crime remain unclear. Not only has the Iranian government denied any links to the incident, but it has also accused the United States of being behind the assassination attempt to abort efforts to  reach a new nuclear deal.

In a post on Twitter, Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to Iran’s negotiating team, echoed this claim and questioned the coincidence between the announcement of an assassination plot against former  US National Security Adviser John Bolton, the attempted assassination of author Salman Rushdie, and the impending revival of the nuclear deal. The effort to draw connections between the three issues is obviously flimsy; the assassination plot against Bolton would be sufficient in itself if Washington  was seeking an excuse not to reach a new nuclear deal.

In reality, there are only two possible explanations for Matar’s attack on Salman Rushdie: either Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was involved — and there is plenty of evidence confirming  its involvement in assassinations and assassination plots against dissidents, politicians and diplomats inside and outside the United States,  with the most recently uncovered assassination plot  against  Bolton — or the assassination attempt was a “lone wolf” attack , with preliminary investigations indicating that Matar had  a radical background.  The extremists who commit such crimes, who are known as lone wolves, carry out operations that align with the goals of extremist outfits without having any formal organizational ties to such outfits.  Does Hadi Matar exemplify  such a phenomenon in the Shiite community?

Initial investigations suggest  Matar’s crime was a singular and isolated incident, with no indications that the attack was related to the IRGC. It later emerged, however, that Matar had regularly used social media platforms to communicate with IRGC members. Future investigations may well lead to fresh evidence.  But until or unless such a conspiracy is conclusively proved, a number of signs indicate that Matar acted as a lone wolf.  These signs include the following:

 Religious background: Lone wolves act upon religious convictions that drive them to carry out their attacks. This applies to  Matar who hails from a Shiite family. He was born and lived in the United States. He stayed in Lebanon for just one month when he was visiting his father, divorced from his mother. His mother mentioned that this visit was  a turning point in her son’s life. She recalled that he went from being a sociable  and popular person in the local community to an introverted and isolated person who spent most of his time in the basement of her  home. He spent long periods of time refusing to talk to his family and rebuked  them for their supposed failure to raise him according to the principles of Islam. His posts on social media platforms also exposed his extremist leanings. In committing his crime, he based the act on a religious pretext—Khomeini’s fatwa. According to his viewpoint, his act was motivated by a religious duty for which he will be rewarded.

Suicidal behavior: It is obvious that the young man was aware of the ease with which he would be apprehended and charged. He was so convinced of and saturated with  extremist religious principles  that he did not care about this or about the other real world consequences of his actions. Since he is in the United States, profiting from the bounty money offered by the Iranian government for attempting the assassination in line with Khomeini’s fatwa is ruled out.  The same logic applies to both lone wolves and suicide attackers who are willing to give their lives in defense of their beliefs.

Poor planning: Lone wolves usually fail to achieve the objectives of their operations since they lack the skills and support network that  professional assassins affiliated with organizations usually have. The latter receive training and carry out their operations collectively as part of a team — exhaustively preparing and planning every move down to the execution as well as  their escape from the crime scene. By contrast, lone wolves fail to plan and successfully carry out  their attacks; this certainly applies to the attack carried out by  Matar who did not even succeed in providing himself with a convincing disguise, giving himself the name “Mughniyeh” in the forged driving license he used — a name sure to immediately raise suspicions given its association with the notorious former Hezbollah military commander Emad Mughniyeh.  Matar’s posts on social media quickly confirmed his ideological affiliations, another indiscretion that professional assassins would avoid, not wishing to be easily discovered by security services. There is also a chance that Matar could have been recruited, brainwashed and trained as a prospective suicide bomber by the IRGC during  his month-long visit to his father in Lebanon,  who is believed to be affiliated with Hezbollah. It is possible that this indoctrination continued via social media once Matar returned to the United States  until he reached the point of readiness to carry out the assassination attack.  

Although the aforementioned details make it more likely that  Matar was a lone wolf, this still does not rule out the possibility that the IRGC was involved in the plot to assassinate the author of The Satanic Verses. The IRGC, after all, always  carries out its assassinations abroad either through agreements with organized crime gangs or through affiliated proxies, and  it is keen to protect them to ensure that their members are not detained.   However, this  was not apparent  in the attack on Salman Rushdie.  If the investigations uncover connections between  Matar and the IRGC, this will be evidence that the IRGC has adopted a “recruiting suicide attackers” strategy. However, if it is established that there is no connection between the two, it shows that the phenomenon of lone wolves is emerging in the Shiite sphere.

To conclude, it could be said that drawing a separating line between the actions of this young man of Lebanese descent and the acts of the IRGC is not an exoneration of the latter but rather a condemnation of it. In the Sunni sphere,  countries combat extremism, and fight, besiege, encircle, and tighten the noose around jihadist outfits.  Indeed, this  is among the reasons behind the emergence of the lone wolf phenomenon as extremists are unable to formally join extremist outfits that face harsh measures from countries attempting to uproot and eliminate them from within their societies.  In the Shiite sphere, meanwhile, extremism is state-sponsored and generously funded, with near limitless resources provided for it by the Iranian state. Therefore, extremists find it easy to locate incubators consistent with their ideologies and beliefs. This makes it very easy for young men like  Matar to be  recruited into the networks of the IRGC. With the burgeoning number of Shiite militias, the lone wolf phenomenon seems marginal, as extremists have multiple options and means to remain in contact and within their networks.  While it is possible that Matar may be a one-off case, it is also possible that such attacks could expand and spread since there is an intellectual and ideological edifice in the Iranian religious establishment conducive to extremism. In such a milieu, extremism finds acceptance, which has been reflected in the celebrations of and strong support for Matar’s attack on Rushdie  in Iranian state media and among the government’s supporters.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr. Yahya Bouzidi
Dr. Yahya Bouzidi
Researcher at the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah)