Four Iranians have been indicted in New York City over a plot to kidnap the prominent Iranian activist-in-exile Masih Alinejad.
The four were said by Manhattan federal court to be an Iranian intelligence officer and three members of an Iranian intelligence network. The FBI said it believes the plot was part of a wider plan to lure three people in Canada, and a fifth person in the United Kingdom, to Iran. Victims were also targeted in the United Arab Emirates.
Masih Alinejad has been a major voice in Iranian human rights advocacy for more than a decade, and is the founder of the “White Wednesdays” and “My Stealthy Freedom” campaigns. Her own brother has been jailed inside Iran in a bid by the regime to silence her.
Speaking to Associated Press on Tuesday, Alinejad said: “I knew that this is the nature of the Islamic Republic – kidnapping people, arresting people, torturing people, killing people – but I couldn’t believe this was going to happen to me, in the United States of America.”
The would-be kidnappers were named in the indictment as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, aka “Vezarat Salimi,” 50, Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Nouri, 45.
The group engaged the services of a New York private investigator to take extensive photos and video footage of Alinejad and her family. They had a camera installed to gain access to a live feed of her Brooklyn home, and according to authorities, stored up a large amount of footage depicting Alinejad’s guests, objects around the house, and her body language.
The network, authorities added, had “laundered money into the US from Iran in order to pay for the surveillance, photos, and video recordings”.
As part of the kidnapping plot, Farahani and his co-conspirators researched ways to transport Alinejad out of the US. Sadeghi researched a service offering military-style speedboats with a view to fleeing from New York to Venezuela, while Khazein looked up the distance from Alinejad’s house to Tehran.
FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said: “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 plot is thought to have got under way around June 2020. Before this, in 2018, the regime had tried to pressure Alinejad’s family to invite her to meet in a third country, so as to have her arrested and brought back to Iran. Her family refused.
It follows the kidnapping and execution of dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam by the Islamic Republic last year. Zam was lured from Paris to Baghdad with the promise of an interview, then forcibly taken back to Iran and hanged.
An electronic device the FBI seized from Farahani contained a graphic of Masih Alinejad pictured alongside with what officers described as “two other individuals captured by Iranian intelligence, with one later executed” – thought to be Ruhollah Zam and Jamshid Sharmahd. The picture’s Farsi caption, they said, stated: “Gradually the gathering gets bigger... Are you coming, or should we come for you?”
All four of the kidnapping suspects remain at large. But the FBI also arrested a fifth person, Niloufar “Nellie” Bahadorifar, 46, of California, on July 1 this year for apparently helping to finance the operation.
Bahadorifar was charged with conspiring to violate sanctions against Iran, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering. Since about 2015, investigators said, she had allowed Iranians “access to the US financial system” through card accounts, and facilitated Kazein’s payment Kazein to the private investigators. She was also charged with structuring cash deposits totalling more than approximately $445,000.
If caught and convicted, Masih Alinejad’s would-be captors could face life in prison in the US. After being moved to a safe house, she told reporters on Tuesday: “I am a journalist, I am an activist, I give a voice to the voiceless people inside Iran... I'm not going to give up."