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Iranian intelligence agents plotted brazen abduction of Brooklyn dissident journalist, U.S. prosecutors say

Dissident Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad, shown in New York in 2019, was the target of a kidnapping plot, federal prosecutors say. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Iranian intelligence agents plotted to abduct an Iranian American journalist living in Brooklyn and take her to the Middle Eastern country, possibly via a daring maritime evacuation, the Justice Department alleged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday.

Four Iranians were charged in federal court in Manhattan with conspiring to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an exiled journalist and women’s rights activist who has long been critical of the regime in Tehran. Alinejad was not identified by prosecutors, but she confirmed on Twitter that she was the intended target.

U.S. prosecutors charged four Iranian agents with plotting to kidnap a New York journalist, according to a Justice Department indictment unsealed on July 13. (Video: Reuters)

“I am grateful to FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry’s plot to kidnap me. This plot was orchestrated under Rouhani,” she wrote Tuesday, referring to outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Wednesday that U.S. accusations that Iran is plotting to kidnap a dissident Iranian abroad are “baseless and ridiculous,” the Associated Press reported. He described the plot as “Hollywood-style scenarios” unworthy of a response.

“Making such an imaginary story is not unlikely by the U.S. Its entire short history is full of assassination, kidnapping and sabotage in other countries,” Khatibzadeh said.

Several exiled Iranian dissidents have recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances, although an abduction on U.S. soil would have been especially brazen. In her tweet, Alinejad referred to Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who lived in exile in France but was lured to Iraq in 2019; he was later executed. She also noted the case of Jamshid Sharmahd, a California-based member of an Iranian militant opposition group who was abducted last year while traveling abroad and is now in an Iranian prison.

One of the four defendants owned an electronic device that contained a composite graphic showing a picture of Alinejad alongside the two other dissidents, prosecutors wrote in their indictment. They said a caption on the graphic, in Farsi, read: “Gradually the gathering gets bigger … are you coming, or should we come for you?”

From the archives | Opinion: Iranian officials have declared they want to kidnap me. It’s happened to others before.

“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,” FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement Tuesday, adding: “Not on our watch.”

Alinejad, a longtime critic of the theocratic government in Tehran, received a human rights award in Geneva in 2015 for creating a Facebook page inviting women in Iran, where hijabs are mandatory, to post pictures of themselves without their headscarves. She is a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that critically view Iran, according to the AP.

On CNN, Alinejad said she only found out about the “shocking” details of the plot on Tuesday night.

“I still cannot believe it — that in New York, the Islamic Republic was allowed actually to threaten and follow an Iranian American citizen, here, in the land of the United States of America,” she said.

U.S. officials also allege that before the kidnapping plot, Tehran attempted to financially induce Alinejad’s relatives, who reside in Iran, to lure her to travel to a place where it might be easier to abduct her to Iran for imprisonment. Her relatives did not accept the offer.

Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If the plot had succeeded, Alinejad’s fate would have been “uncertain at best,” said Audrey Strauss, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“Among this country’s most cherished freedoms is the right to speak one’s mind without fear of government reprisal,” Strauss added. “A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives.”

The four defendants all live in Iran, prosecutors said, identifying one of them, Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, as an Iranian intelligence official and the three others as “Iranian intelligence assets.” A fifth defendant, Niloufar Bahadorifar, accused of supporting the alleged plot but not participating in the kidnapping conspiracy, was arrested in California.

It wasn’t clear whether the four Iranians accused of the kidnapping conspiracy had legal representation in the United States. An attorney for the fifth defendant did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The four defendants may never see the inside of a U.S. court. Washington has no diplomatic relations with Tehran, and the Justice Department could not immediately be reached for comment on any plans to extradite the accused Iranians.

At the Wednesday White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki condemned Iran’s “dangerous and despicable” reported plot, describing actions to silence voices working to address the situation inside and outside of Iran as “appalling.”

“We will forcefully defend U.S. citizens and U.S. interests,” Psaki said. This includes President Biden’s actions to defend U.S. forces from Iranian-backed military groups and diplomatic efforts to “constrain” Iran’s nuclear program, she said.

Asked about the potential impact on nuclear talks with Iran, Psaki said, “We have never assessed Iran to be a good actor in the world,” but said the talks are in U.S. interests and will continue.

Starting around the middle of last year, Farahani and his network used private investigators to surveil Alinejad’s home in Brooklyn and other members of her household, the indictment said. They allegedly misrepresented their identities to the investigators and used laundered money to pay them.

The accused also allegedly researched ways to get Alinejad secretly to Iran, including looking into travel routes from her apartment to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn. One agent researched a service offering “military-style speedboats for self-operated maritime evacuation out of Manhattan,” prosecutors said, and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country that has friendly relations with the regime in Iran.

When the FBI first warned her that her home was not safe for her, she told CNN that she thought: “You’re kidding me. I receive daily death threats. What’s new? I’m here in America — they cannot do anything,” she said.

But when they showed her photos investigators took of her private life — “My husband, my stepchildren, my beautiful garden in Brooklyn” — she saw how close the government was to her. And then she took it seriously, she told CNN.

In a video that Alinejad posted Tuesday on Twitter, she is sitting next to an apartment window with a police car parked, lights flashing, on the street below.

“The police have been around my home for the past two weeks now … to protect me,” Alinejad says, according to the English subtitles scrolling with the video. Laughing nervously as she speaks, she adds: “I’m so not used to being protected by the police. Every time I see them, I assume it’s to arrest me.”

Alinejad told CNN that despite “fear inside [her],” her activism will not change after learning of this plot.

“I am not scared of being dead or being executed,” she said. Alinejad told CNN that what scares her is how “the whole world kept silent about such a regime” and allowed them to oppress in the United States. “That is more scary.”

Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.

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