Iranian intelligence operatives plotted to kidnap an Iranian-born U.S. author-journalist highly critical of the Tehran regime in New York City for “rendition” to Iran, according to federal prosecutors.
The target appears to have been Masih Alinejad, a journalist and outspoken women’s rights activist. However, the Justice Department did not name the individual when announcing on Tuesday, it unsealed an indictment “charging four Iranian nationals with conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering.”
Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi, and Omid Noori all “conspired to kidnap a Brooklyn journalist, author, and human rights activist for mobilizing public opinion in Iran and around the world to bring about changes to the regime’s laws and practices,” the agency said, citing court documents.
Niloufar Bahadorifar, a co-conspirator and California resident from Iran, also “provided financial services that supported the plot,” the Justice Department said, adding Farahani is an Iranian intelligence official and Khazein, Sadeghi, and Noori were Iranian intelligence assets working under him.
“I am grateful to FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran's Intelligence Ministry's plot to kidnap me,” Alinejad tweeted Tuesday night.
Alinejad, identifiable as “Victim-1” in court documents, fled Iran in 2009 and settled in New York in 2014. She became increasingly targeted by the Iranian regime following the launch of her popular “My Stealthy Freedom” and “White Wednesdays” social media campaigns.
The first campaign launched in 2014 and encouraged Iranian women to post photos of themselves without their hijab, while the second similar civil disobedience effort began in 2017, with Iranian women removing their headscarves or wearing white shawls in protest every Wednesday. The VOA Persian TV host penned a memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, in 2018, writing the Iranian government told women to “keep their heads low, to be as unobtrusive as possible, and to be meek” but that “I’ve got too much hair, too much voice, and I’m too much of a woman for them.”
“Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats, and physical harm by foreign powers,” said Mark Lesko, the acting assistant attorney general for DOJ’s national security division, on Tuesday. “Through this indictment, we bring to light one such pernicious plot to harm an American citizen who was exercising their First Amendment rights, and we commit ourselves to bring the defendants to justice.”
“Since at least June 2020, the Government of Iran has plotted to kidnap Victim-1 from within the United States in furtherance of the regime’s efforts to silence Victim-1. On multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021, agents of the Government of Iran procured the services of private investigators to surveil, photograph, and video record Victim-1 and Victim-1’s household members in Brooklyn, New York, as part of the plot to kidnap Victim-1 for rendition to Iran,” the new indictment against the Iranian officials contended. “These agents of the Government of Iran procured the surveillance by misrepresenting their identities and the purpose of the surveillance to the investigators and laundered money into the United States from Iran to pay for the surveillance, photos, and video recordings of Victim-1.”
The Farahani-led intelligence network “researched methods of transporting Victim-1 out of the United States for rendition to Iran,” DOJ said, with Sadeghi researching “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” while Khazein “researched travel routes from Victim-1’s residence to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, the location of Victim-1’s residence relative to Venezuela, and the location of Victim-1’s residence relative to Tehran.”
The Justice Department said, “The network repeatedly insisted on high-quality photographs and video recordings of Victim-1 and Victim-1’s household members, a large volume of content, pictures of visitors and objects around the house, and depictions of Victim-1’s body language.”
The same Iranian network “has also targeted victims in other countries, including victims in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates, and has worked to procure similar surveillance of those victims,” the agency added.
The indictment said in 2018, Iranian government officials attempted to induce Alinejad’s relatives in Iran to invite her to travel to a third country to have her arrested and sent to Iran to be imprisoned, even offering to pay her relatives to offer the invitation, but Alinejad’s family declined.
DOJ noted the chief of the Revolutionary Courts in Iran stated anyone sending videos to Alinejad contrary to Iran’s criminal laws mandating women wear head coverings in public would be considered to be committing the crime of cooperating with a hostile foreign government. Alinejad’s brother, Alireza, was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2019 and sentenced to eight years behind bars in 2020.
“Today, my innocent brother has been sentenced to 8 years. Islamic Republic of Iran’s authorities stormed into prison his cell & hurriedly took him to trial,” Alinejad posted on Twitter in July 2020. “My brother Alireza's crimes are the following: a) loving his sister, b) refusing to disown me on State TV, c) refusing to co-operate with the Revolutionary Guards’ plot to lure me to Turkey and kidnap me to Iran … My brother is innocent and he is taken hostage by the Islamic Republic of Iran to punish me for my activities. Hostage-taking is in the DNA of this brutal regime.”
U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack said last summer that “the agency stands with Alireza and his family as it ramps up America’s fight for liberty in the global war of ideas.” U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said Alinejad’s brother’s “only crime” was having a sister who “dares to speak out against a corrupt regime — and she is right to do that.”
Alinejad sued the Iranian government in U.S. federal court in December 2019 concerning the Iranian regime’s efforts targeting her and her family.
“The government of Iran directed a number of state actors to plot to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist and American citizen, and to conduct surveillance on U.S. soil — all with the intention to lure our citizen back to Iran as retaliation for their freedom of expression,” said Alan Kohler Jr., the assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, on Tuesday.
Audrey Strauss, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said, “Among this country’s most cherished freedoms is the right to speak one’s mind without fear of government reprisal. A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives.”
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