Four Iranian nationals were indicted Tuesday on charges of plotting to abduct a journalist in New York and smuggle her out of the country to Iran, the Justice Department said.
US-based journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, who is of Iranian descent and is an outspoken critic of the Tehran government, confirmed on Twitter that she was the target of the alleged plot.
“I am grateful to the FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry’s plot to kidnap me,” she said, with a video clip of her standing by her a window with a police car in the street outside, lights flashing.
“This plot was orchestrated under Rouhani,” she added, referring to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as a political moderate.
Alinejad founded the My Stealthy Freedom movement, which encourages women to remove their hijabs.
The four men named in the indictment are an Iranian intelligence official and three officers who work under him, according to a statement from the Justice Department. It said they all live in Iran.
A fifth co-conspirator in California is accused of financing the alleged operation.
According to the Justice Department indictment, the intelligence officers had first tried in 2018 to force relatives of their kidnap target, referred to only as Victim-1, to lure her to a third country to be arrested and brought to Iran to be imprisoned.
They then moved to surveiling the victim and other members of her household in Brooklyn, New York, “on multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021,” the Justice Department’s statement said.
Evacuation by Speedboat
The agents hired private investigators to “surveil, photograph and video record” their target, according to the charge sheet.
It alleged that the men researched how to bring Alinejad from the United States to Iran. One of the accused allegedly looked into travel routes from her home to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, while another was researching a “service offering military-style speedboats for self-operated maritime evacuation out of Manhattan.”
They also examined ways of getting their kidnap victim from New York by sea to Venezuela, which has close ties to Tehran.
The indictment said that in July of 2019, the chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Courts said that anyone sending out video attacking the regime, in particular contradicting the law that women must cover their heads, “was committing the crime of cooperating with a hostile foreign government and would be sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.”
The Iranian network uncovered by the FBI was also scoping out other targets in Canada, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, and had tried to deploy similar methods of surveillance there, the indictment said.
The four agents were identified as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori.
A fifth Iranian residing in California, Niloufar Bahadorifar, was suspected of having helped in financing the plot.
“Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm by foreign powers,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Mark Lesko said in the Justice Department’s statement.
Iran is considered one of the most repressive toward journalists of the world’s regimes, exerting “relentless control” over the flow of information in the country, according to Reporters Without Borders. The NGO said 860 journalists have been arrested, imprisoned and in some cases executed since the 1979 revolution.
In January 2016, Iran exchanged jailed Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian for seven Iranians in custody in the United States. Rezaian had been arrested together with his wife in July 2014, while Iran was negotiating over its nuclear program, which the West suspected had a military application.
While his wife was released after two months, he was accused of spying for the United States and spent 544 days in the notorious Evin prison in northern Tehran, where he said he was subjected to sleep deprivation and threatened with beheading.
Iran has more than a dozen Westerners – most of them also holders of Iranian passports – in prison or under house arrest, including the French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, who has been jail for two years.