Four Iranians Charged for Plot to Kidnap U.S.-based Journalist

U.S. federal prosecutors charged an Iranian intelligence official and three members of his network for a plot to kidnap a New York-based Iranian-American journalist, author and human rights activist critical of Iran, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.

Masih Alinejad copyIranian-American journalist, Masih Alinejad, was targeted by Iranian intelligence. (Photo: U.S. Department of State, Wikimedia, License)The plot involved extensive surveillance of the target, as well as her friends, relatives, home and neighbourhood. The plan was to “lure” her to Venezuela, whose government has strong ties with Iran, which was supposed to be her next destination, “where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Audrey Strauss, said in the statement.

“Thanks to the FBI’s exposure of their alleged scheme, these defendants have failed to silence criticism by forcible abduction,” she added.

The indictment, unsealed on Tuesday, details how a live high-definition video feed was installed around the target’s house and that “days’ worth of surveillance” footage was found. It did not name the intended victim, but on Wednesday, Masih Alinejad, a U.S. citizen originally from Iran and known for her criticism of Iran’s human rights record, confirmed in a video posted to Twitter that she was the target.

She said she had for the past two weeks been given police protection in a bid to deter the threat, and further details emerged that she was informed of the plot by the FBI last year, and has since followed their protocol.

“I am grateful to FBI [sic] for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran's Intelligence Ministry's plot to kidnap me. This plot was orchestrated under Rouhani,” she said, referring to the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Charges against the four Iranian operatives behind the plot range from conspiring to kidnap and violating sanctions, to fraud and money laundering to purchase the surveillance equipment.

Leading the plot was 50-year old Iranian intelligence official Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, under whom intelligence assets Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi, and Omid Noori, worked. If found guilty, the suspects could face life imprisonment.

The plot, which has been at play since at least June 2020, wasn’t the first attempt to silence Alinejad for speaking out against the Iranian government. In 2018, Iranian officials attempted - but failed - to convince Alinejad’s relatives living in Iran to have her travel abroad, most likely in order to have her arrested and brought back to Iran.

But Alinejad isn’t the only victim.

Farahani and his network have allegedly targeted and deployed similar surveillance techniques against several other individuals living in Canada, the U.K. and the UAE, according to the Justice Department.

The Biden administration said Wednesday it “categorically” condemns the “dangerous and despicable” plot which Human Rights Watch said only “heightens concerns about Iranian efforts to target Iranian activists abroad.”

“However the Alinejad case plays out, Iranian authorities are doubtlessly determined to silence dissent and spread fear among outspoken critics outside the country,” the watchdog’s Middle East director, Michael Page, added.