Iran planned to kidnap UK-based journalist who had criticised their regime, FBI say
An Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged with plotting to kidnap a journalist and political commentator based in the UK and a writer in the US, prosecutors in New York said.
The four alleged intelligence operatives were accused of targeting the two Iranian expatriates as well as three individuals in Canada who had been critical of the regime. Victims were also targeted in the United Arab Emirates, an indictment in Manhattan federal court alleges.
The Iranian spies had allegedly hired private investigators in the UK under ‘false pretenses’ to conduct surveillance on an Iranian expatriate journalist and political commentator, who has not been named, from at least September 2020, according to court documents.
The private investigators also took surveillance photographs of the victim’s house in Britain. The alleged plan was to lure the UK-based commentator, as well as the four other individuals, to Iran where they would be arrested.
While none of the alleged victims, all of whom are critical of the regime, have been named, Masih Alinejad, 44, a journalist who fled Iran in 2009 to the U.S., confirmed she was the target of the plot in New York.
In the New York-based plot, the intelligence operatives were said to have plotted to kidnap Alinejad before smuggling her out of the city on a speedboat then sailing down to Venezuela before flying to Tehran, after she criticized the regime for its human rights abuses.
Masih Alinejad, who was born in Iran and now lives in New York City, has confirmed that she was the target of a plot by spies sent from Tehran to kidnap her
I am grateful to FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry’s plot to kidnap me. This plot was orchestrated under Rouhani.
This is the regime that kidnapped & executed Ruhollah Zam. They’ve also kidnapped and jailed Jamshid Sharmahd and many others pic.twitter.com/HUefdEbiil
‘I knew that this is the nature of the Islamic Republic, you know, kidnapping people, arresting people, torturing people, killing people. But I couldn’t believe it that this is going to happen to me in United States of America,’ Alinejad said.
William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the F.B.I.’s New York office, said: ‘This is not some far-fetched movie plot. We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a US-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not on our watch.’
The four alleged spies were named in court documents as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, 50, Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45.
The four defendants all live in Iran, the prosecutors said, identifying one of them, Farahani, as an Iranian intelligence official and the three others as ‘Iranian intelligence assets.’
A fifth defendant, Niloufar Bahadorifar, accused of supporting the plot financially but not participating in the kidnapping conspiracy, was arrested in California.
A federal indictment describes a plot that included attempts to lure Alinejad to Venezuela to capture her, and forcibly render her to Iran. The Iranians had a live feed of her home.
The Iranians researched how to get the author out of New York, according to the charging documents. One of the four researched a service offering ‘military-style speedboats for self-operated maritime evacuation out of New York City, and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran,’ the Justice Department said.
Mahmoud Khazein (left) and Omid Noori (right) are among four Iranians charged in the kidnap plot
Kiya Sadeghi (left) is accused of being an asset working for the Iranian spy chief, Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani (right)
‘I’ve been targeted for a number of years but this is the first time that such an audacious plot has been hatched and foiled,’ she told NBC by email.
On Tuesday night Alinejad tweeted: ‘I am grateful to FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry’s plot to kidnap me. This plot was orchestrated under Rouhani.
‘This is the regime that kidnapped & executed Ruhollah Zam. They’ve also kidnapped and jailed Jamshid Sharmahd and many others.’
Zam, who had been living in exile in France, was detained after traveling to Iraq in 2019.
He ran Amad News, a popular anti-government website Iran accused of inciting the 2017-18 protests.
He was accused of ‘corruption on earth’ and executed in December 2020.
Sharmahd, who lived in California, went missing in July 2020 as he was making a stop in Dubai while trying to book an onward flight to India for a business trip.
Iranian state media reported in August 2020 that Iranian intelligence agents had captured the 66-year-old Iranian-German dual national. On the same day, Iranian state TV aired a program in which the dissident appeared to confess to masterminding a 2008 bomb attack that killed 14 Iranians and wounded 215 others at a mosque in the southwestern city of Shiraz.
He remains in custody and is yet to be charged, and his family say he has been denied a lawyer.
Journalist Ruhollah Zam, who had been living in exile in Paris, was lured to Iraq in 2019 and then taken to Iran. He was charged with ‘corruption on earth’, accused of stirring up protests in 2017, and executed in December 2020
Dissident Jamshid Sharmahd, 66, who lived in California, went missing in July 2020 as he was making a stop in Dubai while trying to book an onward flight to India for a business trip. He remains in custody in Iran and has not yet been charged
Alinejad’s criticism of Iran
July 2018, The New York Times:
‘As a journalist in Iran, I often got into trouble exposing the regime’s mismanagement and corruption until, eventually, my press pass was revoked.
‘I was often threatened with arrest or worse for writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
‘Ultimately, I was forced to flee my homeland in 2009.’
July 2020, Voice of America:
‘I call on the leaders of European countries to join the U.S. in not only condemning Iran’s hostage-taking but also condemning its recent executions of prisoners.’
August 2020, The Washington Post:
‘The regime’s cruel treatment of women remains one of its biggest weaknesses, and my focus on related injustices explains why it remains so persistent in targeting me.’
Alinejad, who worked for years as a journalist in Iran, long has been targeted by its theocracy after fleeing the country following its disputed 2009 presidential election and crackdown.
She is a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that critically view Iran and has worked as a contractor for U.S.-funded Voice of America’s Farsi-language network since 2015. She became a U.S. citizen in October 2019.
Her ‘White Wednesday’ and ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ campaigns have seen women film themselves without head coverings, or hijabs, in public in Iran, which can bring arrests and fines. Details in the indictment also correspond to Alinejad’s biography.
Alinejad said authorities had come to her last year and told her she was being watched, including photos being taken of her home.
She said she had been living under U.S. government protection since then, including time spent in various safe houses.
Alinejad also said the FBI at one point asked her to conduct a live video online to see if Iranian intelligence could track her.
Alinejad on Tuesday night, in a video accompanying her tweet, said in Farsi: ‘The police have been around my home for the past two weeks now.
‘When I asked them why they were here, they said it was to protect me.
‘This is also what the FBI told me.
‘They said they’d tell me later, but that the police has to be here often. They are here from 5am until midnight.
‘I’m so not used to being protected by the police. Every time I see them I assume it’s to arrest me.’
She laughed, and continued: ‘Yes, I’m also worried. I see them often – even when I go out to check on my flowers in my garden.
‘But it imbues me with a feeling of safety. This wouldn’t have happened in my homeland. It’s a weird feeling.’
‘Among this country’s most cherished freedoms is the right to speak one’s mind without fear of government reprisal,’ U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said. ‘A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives.’
‘Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm by foreign powers,’ Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Lesko added. ‘Through this indictment, we bring to light one such pernicious plot to harm an American citizen who was exercising their First Amendment rights.’
Alinejad is seen at TheWrap’s Power Women Summit in Los Angeles in November 2018
According to the indictment, intelligence officer Farahani, 50, and the three other defendants tried since at least June 2020 to kidnap Alinejad. If caught and convicted, the four could face life in prison.
Farahani and the network he led on multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021 lied about his intentions as he hired private investigators to surveil, photograph and video record Alinejad and her household members, the indictment alleged. It said the surveillance included a live high-definition video feed of the activist’s home.
The indictment alleged that the government of Iran in 2018 tried to lure her to a third country so a capture would be possible, even offering money to her relatives to try to make it possible.
The relatives, the indictment said, refused the offer. Alinejad’s family has been targeted for harassment by the Iranian government, a separate lawsuit filed by the activist in the U.S. alleges.
The four named on Tuesday ‘monitored and planned to kidnap a US citizen of Iranian origin who has been critical of the regime’s autocracy, and to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,’ the indictment read.
In 2020, Alinejad wrote in The Washington Post that she learned of the Iranian regime’s attempts to kidnap her.
‘It’s been a horrifying experience, but I can’t say that it’s been entirely unexpected,’ she wrote.
‘The regime has tried many forms of intimidation to silence me over the years.’
The charging documents say the four alleged intelligence operatives hired private investigators, by misrepresenting who they were and what they wanted, to surveil the author in Brooklyn during 2020 and 2021.
‘As a journalist in Iran, I often got into trouble exposing the regime’s mismanagement and corruption until, eventually, my press pass was revoked,’ she wrote.
‘I was often threatened with arrest or worse for writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ultimately, I was forced to flee my homeland in 2009.’
In 2014, from the U.S., she began a campaign against forcing Iranian women to wear a hijab.
Her sister and niece appeared on state television to disown her.
She continued: ‘I have remained out of reach of the regime, but my family has taken the brunt. There has been financial pressure: threats to revoke business permits and licenses, for example.
‘Some relatives have been threatened with firing until they proved their loyalty by offering secrets about me. And, of course, the Intelligence Ministry regularly sends officers to pay visits to my elderly parents. At one point they offered to arrange a ‘family reunion’ in Turkey.
‘I can only imagine what they had in mind for me.’
Alinejad said the plot wouldn’t stop her from her activism.
‘I have only one life and I’m not going to live in paranoia. I’m not going to live in fear,’ she said. ‘I have two options – feel miserable, make my oppressors feel miserable, so I choose the second one.’
Her memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, was released in 2018.
Her brother, Alireza Alinejad, a father of two small children, was arrested in 2019 and taken to the infamous Evin prison where he was held for 10 months before being sentenced to eight years in prison.
Jason Brodsky, a senior analyst at Iran International, called it a ‘major case’.
‘The Iranian regime is being accused by the Justice Department of hatching a plot to kidnap a US citizen of Iranian origin,’ he told The National.
‘This is a tactic that the Islamic Republic has employed before.’
He pointed to the past cases of activist Ruhollah Zam — who was lured from France to Iraq, then kidnapped, taken to Iran, and later executed; and Habib Chaab who was kidnapped in Turkey by the Iranian regime.