Iranian Agents Are Facing Charges For Their Role In A Plot To Kidnap A U.S. Journalist
Federal prosecutors in New York charged five foreign agents backed by the Iranian government for their roles in a stranger-than-fiction plot to kidnap a U.S. citizen and journalist critical of the nation's regime.
The 43-page indictment unsealed Tuesday details the plan by an Iranian intelligence official and his three assets to track a Brooklyn-based journalist with the goal of bringing her back to Iran. The court records also include information on a fifth person, a woman based in the U.S. who prosecutors say helped fund the operation.
The indictment in Manhattan federal court doesn't name the intended victim, who is described as a journalist and human rights advocate. However, The New York Times reports that the journalist and author Masih Alinejad confirmed in an interview that she was the intended target. Alinejad lives in Brooklyn and has family still in Iran.
Alinejad, who is a U.S. citizen, is a longtime critic of the Iranian government. She was a journalist in her native Iran for several years until she fled the country in 2009 following presidential elections and a government crackdown.
She has continued to work as a journalist with her Voice of America Persian show in the U.S. Alinejad also organizes "White Wednesday" and "My Stealthy Freedom" campaigns where women film themselves without head coverings, or hijabs, in public in Iran — in a challenge to the nation's government.
Alinejad shared on Twitter that she was grateful to the FBI "for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran's Intelligence Ministry's plot to kidnap me. This plot was orchestrated under [Hassan] Rouhani" — Iran's president.
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.— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) July 14, 2021
This is the regime that kidnapped & executed Ruhollah Zam. They've also kidnapped and jailed Jamshid Sharmahd and many others pic.twitter.com/HUefdEbiil
Iran tracks dissidents in the U.S. and other countries
According to the FBI and federal prosecutors, the movie-like plan to kidnap Alinejad and bring her back to Iran started last year, though as early as 2018 Iranian government officials tried to get Alinejad's family to tell her to join them in another country outside the U.S. and Iran. The goal was to detain her and transport her to Iran for imprisonment. Her family rejected those efforts, prosecutors said.
FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement: "This is not some far-fetched movie plot. We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S. based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not on our watch."
The operation was part of a larger plan to lure other potential victims from Canada, the U.K., and the United Arab Emirates back to Iran, according to the indictment.
Iran has previously been successful in attracting other critics of the nation to countries outside the U.S. or Iran. Once away from home, intelligence officers detained the dissidents and took them forcibly back to Tehran, where they met jail sentences or death. These dissidents are native Iranians who have already fled their home country out of fear for their safety.
The indictment unsealed this week mentions Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian activist and journalist, who was lured out of France in October 2019. While traveling, he was captured by Iranian intelligence officers and taken back to Tehran. He was officially charged with "corruption on Earth" for running a popular antigovernment website that Iranian officials said incited nationwide protests from 2017 to 2018. He was executed in December 2020.
Jamshid Sharmahd, another Iranian journalist who lived in the U.S., traveled to Dubai, where he was also kidnapped. Amnesty International says he was taken back to Tehran in July 2020. He remains in jail for his connection to the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, an Iranian opposition group that advocates for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic system.
Iranian agents collected hours of surveillance
Prosecutors said the head of the operation, Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani, is an Iranian intelligence official who lives in Iran.
He guided Iranian intelligence assets, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori, in the plot. The three men also live in Iran. Farahani, Khazein, Sadeghi and Noori remain at large.
Starting last year, the men searched online for Alinejad's home address in Brooklyn and took screenshots of her home, according to the FBI.
In July of that year, the group reached out to a private investigator asking about prices of surveillance services, claiming that they were searching for a missing person from Dubai who fled to New York to avoid repaying debts. They requested high quality pictures and video of the person's home and the cars they drove.
Starting that month, the private investigator provided pictures and videos as requested to the men. He sent images of Alinejad's home, her comings and goings almost every hour, as well as pictures of her friends and associates, according to the indictment.
Sadeghi repeatedly reached out to investigators demanding "high quality pictures and videos" over the course of several hours each day.
At the same time ongoing surveillance continued of Alinejad, prosecutors say Sadeghi and other members of the team researched services offering "military-style speedboats" for evacuations out of New York City. He also researched maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country whose government has friendly relations with Iran, the indictment states.
Khazein, meanwhile, researched travel routes from Alinejad's home to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn. He also searched the distance from her home relative to Venezuela and her home relative to Tehran. Khazein, a resident of Iran, also runs companies that import marine, construction and agricultural equipment to Iran, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors say the plan was bankrolled by a fifth person, Niloufar Bahadorifar. While working at a department store, she facilitated payments to the private investigators used by the group to track Alinejad.
Bahadorifar isn't facing charges for participating in the kidnapping conspiracy, according to the indictment, but was charged with conspiring to violate sanctions against Iran, to commit bank and wire fraud, and to commit money laundering. She is a California resident, originally from Iran, and was arrested on July 1 and arraigned a week later.