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Suspect charged with attempted murder in on-stage attack of author Salman Rushdie

David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- A suspect has been charged with attempted murder in the attack on author Salman Rushdie at a speaking event in New York state.

Rushdie, who has faced death threats over his writing, was scheduled to give a lecture at the education center Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, in southwestern New York, Friday morning.

At around 11 a.m., a man "ran up onto the stage and attacked Rushdie and an interviewer," according to New York State Police.

Rushdie was stabbed at least once in the neck and abdomen and was transported by helicopter to a trauma center in Erie, Pennsylvania, police said.

His agent told ABC News Friday that Rushdie is undergoing surgery and is on a ventilator. The author will likely lose one eye as a result of the attack, his agent said. The nerves in his arm were also severed and his liver was damaged in the stabbing, his agent said.

The alleged attacker is Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey, a law enforcement official told ABC News. He was arrested at the scene by a New York State Police trooper.

Matar has been charged with attempted murder in the second degree and assault in the second degree, Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt said Saturday. He was arraigned Friday night and remanded without bail, Schmidt said.

Law enforcement officials briefed on the investigation told ABC News that "a preliminary investigation into the suspected perpetrator's probable social media presence indicates a likely adherence or sympathy towards Shi'a extremism and sympathies to the Iranian regime/Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps."

The officials say investigators found photos on Matar's phone of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Iraq's pro-Iranian militia movement, who were killed by U.S. forces in a drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020.

Police believe the suspect acted alone and were in the process Friday of obtaining search warrants for items including electronics and a backpack found at the scene that they believe belong to the suspect, Major Eugene Staniszewski, a troop commander for the New York State Police, told reporters during a press briefing Friday afternoon.

The FBI is also assisting with the investigation, he said.

The suspect had a pass to access the event, officials said.

In the aftermath of the attack, Rushdie, 75, was seen being tended to while on the stage.

The interviewer, Henry Reese, 73, suffered a minor head injury during the attack, police said. He was treated for a facial injury at a nearby hospital and has since been released, police said.

Chautauqua Institution president Michael Hill said during Friday's press briefing that security "has been a top priority," and that they had a state trooper and sheriff presence at the event.

"We'll continue to look at providing the maximum security that we can," Hill said. "This has never happened in our entire history. Chautauqua has always been an extremely safe place. We will continue to be working to keep that tradition going."

Those in the audience expressed shock at the attack.

"He rushed the stage, it looked like he was punching him," Patrick Fogarty told Erie, Pennsylvania, ABC affiliate WJET. "It was all over very fast."

John Stein told WJET he was worried about security given Rushdie's notoriety.

"Somebody just ran up on stage," he said. "It was so quick. I was just thinking, am I really seeing this?"

Stein said when the attacker started to run off the stage following the assault he was apprehended with the help of a handful of attendees.

"People in the audience had gone up on the stage when they saw this and then grabbed the attacker, who still had a knife, I think," he told the station. "A lot of bravery."

One or two doctors in the audience also went on stage to help provide medical assistance, he said.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called the attack "horrific," saying she has directed state police to "further assist however needed in the investigation."

"Here is an individual who has spent decades speaking truth to power, someone who has been out there, unafraid, despite the threats that have followed him through his entire adult life," Hochul remarked during a press briefing on an unrelated matter on Friday.

The British-Indian writer faced years of death threats after his novel, "The Satanic Verses," was published in 1988.

The late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accused the author of blasphemy over the book and in 1989 issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling for his death.

Rushdie spent years in hiding, which he chronicled in his 2012 memoir, "Joseph Anton." The book was nominated for the United Kingdom's top nonfiction award, the Samuel Johnson prize.

In 1998, the Iranian foreign minister said that the country no longer supported the fatwa against Rushdie, though a bounty for his death continues to be offered by an Iranian religious foundation. In 2012, the group increased the bounty from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.

Others have been attacked in connection with "The Satanic Verses," which was banned in several countries following its publication. Among them, Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated the book into Japanese, was stabbed to death in 1991 on the campus where he taught literature.

Rushdie has authored over a dozen books, including the Booker Prize-winning "Midnight's Children," and is a former president of the literary and human rights organization PEN America.

PEN America expressed "shock and horror" at the attack on Rushdie.

"We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil," Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said in a statement.

"Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered," she continued. "While we do not know the origins or motives of this attack, all those around the world who have met words with violence or called for the same are culpable for legitimizing this assault on a writer while he was engaged in his essential work of connecting to readers."

Penguin Random House, which will publish Rushdie's "Victory City," next year, released a statement Friday evening on the attack.

"We are deeply shocked and appalled to hear of the attack on Salman Rushdie while he was speaking at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. We condemn this violent public assault, and our thoughts are with Salman and his family at this distressing time," chief executive officer Markus Dohle said.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the attack was "reprehensible."

"Today, the country and the world witnessed a reprehensible attack against the writer Salman Rushdie," Sullivan said in a statement. "This act of violence is appalling. All of us in the Biden-Harris Administration are praying for his speedy recovery."

President Joe Biden also said in a statement Saturday that he and the first lady were "shocked and saddened to learn of the vicious attack."

"We, together with all Americans and people around the world, are praying for his health and recovery," he said.

ABC News' Aaron Katersky, Josh Margolin, Somayeh Malekian and Benjamin Siu contributed to this report.

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