In a first incident of its kind even for the Islamic Republic, the US Department of Justice this week announced the foiling of a plot to kidnap an Iranian-born activist on American soil. Five people – four of them said to be Iranian intelligence agents – were indicted for their part in a plan to abduct Alinejad from New York and take her back to Iran.
Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani, 50, Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Nouri, 45, were charged with kidnapping conspiracy, conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and violating Iran sanctions. All three are thought to reside in Iran and Farahani was described as an “intelligence official”, while Khazein, Sadeghi and Nouri were said to be intelligence “assets”.
A fifth person living in California, Niloufar “Nellie” Bahadorifar, was arrested on July 1 in connection with the case. Bahadorifar was accused of providing financial support to the group in aid of the plot, including structuring cash deposits of more than $445,000.
From as early as June 2020, the FBI said, the group began hiring private investigators to surveil, photograph and record Masih Alinejad’s movements around her home in Brooklyn, as well as her family and house guests. They also researched the possibility of hiring speedboats to get from New York City to Venezuela, and routes from Alinejad’s home to a waterfront neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The Islamic Republic has been accused countless times of plotting to assassinate Iranian dissidents abroad, or else attempting to abduct them and bring them back to Iran. But this is the first time the US government has accused Iranian nationals of laying the groundwork for an attempted abduction inside the United States itself. The FBI also uncovered evidence that the same group was planning to target other people in Canada and the UK.
Who are the individuals indicted by the US Department of Justice, and what do we know about them?
Alireza Farahani, aka “Haj Ali”, aka “Vezarat Salimi”
Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, also known as “Haj Ali” and “Vezarat Salimi” to his colleagues, was described by US authorities as a 50-year-old Iranian intelligence official who organized the other would-be defendants in the kidnap attempt. The FBI believes he is currently in Iran.
In its statement on the unsealed indictment, the US Department of Justice stated that a device used by Farahani had contained a picture of Masih Alinejad alongside two other people who had been captured by Iranian intelligence, together with the caption: “Gradually the gathering gets bigger... Are you coming, or should we come for you?”
The two other pictured individuals were Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist and founder of the Amad News Telegram channel, who was abducted after being lured from Paris to Baghdad in 2019 and executed last December, and Jamshid Sharmahd, who was forcibly taken from Dubai to Iran last year and remains in jail. Last year, Masih Alinejad shared a set of similar images being shared by pro-regime elements inside Iran that called for her to be kidnapped or hanged.
The US DoJ said Farahani led the intelligence network that targeted Alinejad and procured the private investigators to record extensive images and footage of her at home. This included the installation of a video camera close to her house, which monitored her every move.
Pictures published by the FBI in the warrant for his arrest show him in a variety of different contexts. In one image, he appears to be standing alongside others in a religious setting not dissimilar to one of the Shia shrines in Iran.
Khazein, a 42-year-old Iranian national said to have worked under Farahani, is also thought to reside in Iran. Khazein is said to have researched routes from Alinejad’s home to the waterfront and was also responsible for payment of the private investigators, through “Nellie” Bahadorifar. He is also understood to have business interests in the United States going back to 2015, which Bahadorifar had offered to manage on his behalf.
Iranian media reports suggest that Khazein is a well-known figure in Iranian sports circles, and also in the arts. He has been photographed alongside such figures the director and comedian Mehran Modiri, the singer Salar Aghili, and Afshin Peyrovani, a former football coach who played for the national team in the 1988 World Cup.
Khazein has also previously served as a board member of the Sepid Shipping Company, a legal entity registered in Malta alongside dozens of similar firms that was re-sanctioned by the US in 2019 for allegedly being owned or controlled by the Iranian government.
Niloufar Bahadorifar, 46, known as “Nellie”, was arrested in California on July 1, 2021 and arraigned on July 8. She works in a department store.
Bahadorifar has not been charged with kidnapping-related offences, but is accused of violating sanctions by providing Iranians with access to US banks and financial entities going back to 2015, and of providing financial services to the would-be adductors.
She is accused of facilitating payments to the private investigators that were used to tail Masih Alinejad, through cash deposits totalling some $445,000. Employees of the Iranian government are forbidden from making use of US financial services.
Kia Sadeghi and Omid Nouri
Kia Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Nouri, 45, are the other two residents of Iran charged in connection with the plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad.
According to the FBI’s detailed indictment, Sadeghi researched and hired private investigators in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom by falsely claiming that he worked for a company based in Dubai looking to track down money stolen from his client.
In this way, he was able to trick a Manhattan-based private investigator into collecting information on Alinejad. “We require your services to conduct a surveillance [sic] on potential address of missing person,” he wrote to the firm in July 2020. “Will need high quality pictures/video of persons living in the address and cars they drive.”
He also provided the company with a contact telephone number in the UAE, and later asked them for “photos of faces and cars (license plates) residing at residence, and if possible picture of envelopes in the mailbox”. From August 2020 also asked the firm to tail Alinejad if she went to visit friends, and from September, for pictures of the faces of anyone visiting the address – up to and including salespeople.
Omid Nouri, meanwhile, was also instrumental in paying investigators in the US communicated with someone tailing a possible separate victim in the UK.