Iranian intelligence agents hatched a plan to kidnap a journalist in Brooklyn and spirit her away to Iran in retaliation for her criticism of the Iranian regime, the Justice Department alleged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday.
The Iranian agents planned to take the journalist, who is an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, back to Iran, where, according to the Justice Department, “the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best.” The Justice Department described her as “a journalist, author, and human rights activist, residing in Brooklyn, New York, who has publicized the Government of Iran’s human rights abuses.” The Iranians also allegedly mounted a thorough campaign to surveil her home in service of their mission.
Masih Alinejad, an award-winning presenter for Voice of America’s Persian Service and a fierce critic of Iran’s policies on women’s rights, told The National that she was the intended victim: “They had plotted to kidnap me.” An unidentified law enforcement officer also told NBC New York that Alinejad was the target.
Alinejad thanked law enforcement in a video posted Tuesday evening from her apartment. Police cars, which she said had been present near her home every day from 5 a.m. to midnight for two weeks, could be seen through a window.
“I’m not so used to being protected by the police. Every time I see them, I assume it’s to arrest me,” she said. “It imbues me with a feeling of safety when I see the police protect me. This wouldn’t have happened in my homeland.”
Alireza Farahani, 50, Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45, are charged with conspiracy to kidnap, conspiracy to violate the sanctions against Iran, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and conspiracy to launder money. Niloufar Bahadorifar, 46, is charged with conspiracy to violate sanctions, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, structuring fraudulent deposits, and conspiracy to launder money.
Bahadorifar, a California resident, was arrested there July 1 on charges from another indictment. He allegedly provided financial services to the foreign nationals in violation of the sanctions on Iran for upward of five years.
Farahani, Khazein, Sadeghi, and Noori live in Iran and have not been taken into custody, according to the release. Farahani is described as an Iranian intelligence official, and the other three co-conspirators are referred to as “Iranian intelligence assets.”
Farahani allegedly directed his associates to research various ways to illegally return their target to Iran. Sadeghi allegedly produced research on procuring speedboats similar to those used in the military that could evacuate the intended victim from New York City and then transport her to Venezuela, which has friendly relations with Iran. Meanwhile, Khazein allegedly researched routes the wannabe kidnappers could take from her Brooklyn home to the water to Venezuela and from there to Tehran. The Justice Department included a screenshot of Khazein’s search for “brooklyn new york to caracas by boat” in Google Maps.
Farahani and others also allegedly contracted multiple private investigators to surveil the journalist, photographing her, members of her household, and her visitors, as well as installing a live high-quality camera feed that recorded her house at all times in 2020 and continuing into 2021. They allegedly misrepresented their identities to the investigators and used laundered money to pay them.
Farahani allegedly owned an electronic device that showed a picture of the journalist in a triptych with two people, Ruhollah Zam and Jamshid Sharmahd, whom Iranian intelligence had kidnapped. One had been imprisoned, the other executed. A Farsi caption to the photos read, “Gradually the gathering gets bigger... Are you coming, or should we come for you?”
Before allegedly plotting to kidnap the journalist in the U.S., the group of Iranians plotted to entice her into a foreign country where it might be easier to nab her. They attempted to recruit her relatives into the scheme, but the family members declined to participate, according to the Justice Department.