Four Iranians alleged to be intelligence operatives have been charged for plotting to kidnap a New York journalist and smuggle her to Tehran in a bid to silence her criticism of human-rights abuses in the Islamic nation, according to a Justice Department indictment. Later, Brooklyn-based firebrand journalist Masih Alinejad acknowledged that she was the target of the four intelligence operatives.
According to the New York Post, Alinejad acknowledged that she criticized Iran saying that it was responsible for human rights violation in a series of tweets. The Iranians also allegedly mounted a thorough campaign to surveil her home in service of their mission.
The indictment, which was unsealed on Tuesday, did not name the target of the plot, but sources confirmed that it was Iranian-American journalist Alinejad. She too later confirmed the same to the New York Post. Manhattan US Attorney Audrey Strauss, without taking Alinejad's name, said she would have faced a fate that's "uncertain at best" if the plan hadn't been foiled by the FBI.
Alinejad told the outlet that she was approached by over a dozen FBI agents eight months back. They alerted her of a possible plot being hatched by the four Iranian operatives and put her family up in three safe houses across New York.
"'You are not safe here,'" Alinejad said the feds told her in their initial meeting. 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 US-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not on our watch," he said.
According to the indictment, the four Iranians hired private investigators under false pretences to surveil Alinejad in Brooklyn, videotaping the victim's family and home as part of a plot to take the person out of the country.
The entire plan was devised by high-ranking officials in Iran and the New York operation to kidnap Alinejad was led by Iranian intelligence official Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani. The operatives allegedly began conspiring to kidnap Alinejad inside the United States since at least as early as June 2020.
Not only Alinejad, Iranian government officials also targeted her relatives in 2018 to convince her to go to Iran on invitation where she would have been arrested or detained and then imprisoned in Iran, authorities said.
Evidence in the case allegedly includes a photo of Alinejad stored on an electronic device used by Farahani. That photo shows Alinejad alongside two other people who were attested by Iranian intelligence. One of them was later executed while the other was imprisoned in Iran, authorities said.
After learning about the plot and shifting her family to safe houses, FBI agents started monitoring Alinejad's day-to-day activities. FBI also later showed her the surveillance photos that captured her everyday, private life â including images of her husband, step-children, and her beloved sunflower garden.
"I was shocked. I got goosebumps when I saw this is my private life," she told the outlet.
The kidnap ring on the other hand surveyed the easiest route out from Alinejad's home to the waterfront. They also initially thought of first taking her to Venezuela and then to Iran.
However, Alinejad, told the outlet that she knew that she was being followed and a kidnap plot was being hatched by never took it seriously.
"That was a member of the parliament in Iran, saying that the intelligence service should kidnap Masih from America," she recalled, adding, "So, it was not something secret for me, but I still couldn't believe it. I didn't take it seriously until the FBI showed up eight months ago," she said.
Finally she was saved. Alinejad had also contributed to the Voice of America's (VOA) Persian-language service and reports on human rights issues in Iran.
Farahani, 50, and the other intelligence operatives â Mahmoud Khazein, 42; Kiya Sadeghi, 34; and Omid Noori, 45 â were charged in a Manhattan federal court indictment with crimes including kidnapping conspiracy, sanctions violations conspiracy, and bank and wire fraud conspiracy. However, they are based in Iran and remain at large.