New York City prosecutors have charged four Iranian spies with plotting to kidnap a U.S. journalist from Brooklyn, smuggling her out of the city on a speedboat then sailing down to Venezuela before flying to Tehran, after she criticized the regime for its human rights abuses.
Masih Alinejad, 44, a producer with Voice of America, told NBC News that she was the target of the plot. She was not named in court documents.
A federal indictment describes a plot that included attempts to lure Alinejad to Venezuela to capture her, and forcibly render her to Iran. The Iranians had a live feed of her home.
The Iranians researched how to get the author out of New York, according to the charging documents. One of the four researched a service offering ‘military-style speedboats for self-operated maritime evacuation out of New York City, and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran,’ the Justice Department said.
‘I’ve been targeted for a number of years but this is the first time that such an audacious plot has been hatched and foiled,’ she told NBC by email.
Masih Alinejad, who was born in Iran and now lives in New York City, has confirmed that she was the target of a plot by spies sent from Tehran to kidnap her
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.
This is the regime that kidnapped & executed Ruhollah Zam. They’ve also kidnapped and jailed Jamshid Sharmahd and many others pic.twitter.com/HUefdEbiil
— Masih Alinejad ️ (@AlinejadMasih) July 14, 2021
William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the F.B.I.’s New York office, 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.’
On Tuesday night Alinejad tweeted: ‘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.
‘This is the regime that kidnapped & executed Ruhollah Zam. They’ve also kidnapped and jailed Jamshid Sharmahd and many others.’
Zam, who had been living in exile in France, was detained after traveling to Iraq in 2019.
He ran Amad News, a popular anti-government website Iran accused of inciting the 2017-18 protests.
He was accused of ‘corruption on earth’ and executed in December 2020.
Sharmahd, who lived in California, went missing in July 2020 as he was making a stop in Dubai while trying to book an onward flight to India for a business trip.
Iranian state media reported in August 2020 that Iranian intelligence agents had captured the 66-year-old Iranian-German dual national. On the same day, Iranian state TV aired a program in which the dissident appeared to confess to masterminding a 2008 bomb attack that killed 14 Iranians and wounded 215 others at a mosque in the southwestern city of Shiraz.
He remains in custody and is yet to be charged, and his family say he has been denied a lawyer.
Mahmoud Khazein (left) and Omid Noori (right) are among four Iranians charged in the kidnap plot
Kiya Sadeghi (left) is accused of being an asset working for the Iranian spy chief, Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani (right)
Alinejad’s criticism of Iran
July 2018, The New York Times:
‘As a journalist in Iran, I often got into trouble exposing the regime’s mismanagement and corruption until, eventually, my press pass was revoked.
‘I was often threatened with arrest or worse for writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
‘Ultimately, I was forced to flee my homeland in 2009.’
July 2020, Voice of America:
‘I call on the leaders of European countries to join the U.S. in not only condemning Iran’s hostage-taking but also condemning its recent executions of prisoners.’
August 2020, The Washington Post:
‘The regime’s cruel treatment of women remains one of its biggest weaknesses, and my focus on related injustices explains why it remains so persistent in targeting me.’
The four named on Tuesday ‘monitored and planned to kidnap a US citizen of Iranian origin who has been critical of the regime’s autocracy, and to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,’ the indictment read.
Alinejad in Tuesday night, in a video accompanying her tweet, said in Farsi: ‘The police have been around my home for the past two weeks now.
‘When I asked them why they were here, they said it was to protect me.
‘This is also what the FBI told me.
‘They said they’d tell me later, but that the police has to be here often. They are here from 5am until midnight.
‘I’m so not used to being protected by the police. Every time I see them I assume it’s to arrest me.’
She laughed, and continued: ‘Yes, I’m also worried. I see them often – even when I go out to check on my flowers in my garden.
‘But it imbues me with a feeling of safety. This wouldn’t have happened in my homeland.
‘It’s a weird feeling.’
In 2020, Alinejad wrote in The Washington Post that she learned of the Iranian regime’s attempts to kidnap her.
‘It’s been a horrifying experience, but I can’t say that it’s been entirely unexpected,’ she wrote.
‘The regime has tried many forms of intimidation to silence me over the years.’
The four spies were named in court documents as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori.
The four defendants all live in Iran, the prosecutors said, identifying one of them, Farahani, as an Iranian intelligence official and the three others as ‘Iranian intelligence assets.’
A fifth defendant, Niloufar Bahadorifar, accused of supporting the plot financially but not participating in the kidnapping conspiracy, was arrested in California.
Journalist Ruhollah Zam, who had been living in exile in Paris, was lured to Iraq in 2019 and then taken to Iran. He was charged with ‘corruption on earth’, accused of stirring up protests in 2017, and executed in December 2020
Dissident Jamshid Sharmahd, 66, who lived in California, went missing in July 2020 as he was making a stop in Dubai while trying to book an onward flight to India for a business trip. He remains in custody in Iran and has not yet been charged
The charging documents say the men hired private investigators, by misrepresenting who they were and what they wanted, to surveil the author in Brooklyn during 2020 and 2021.
In 2018, Alinejad described in The New York Times why she fled her homeland.
‘As a journalist in Iran, I often got into trouble exposing the regime’s mismanagement and corruption until, eventually, my press pass was revoked,’ she wrote.
‘I was often threatened with arrest or worse for writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ultimately, I was forced to flee my homeland in 2009.’
In 2014, from the U.S., she began a campaign against forcing Iranian women to wear a hijab.
Her sister and niece appeared on state television to disown her.
Alinejad is seen at TheWrap’s Power Women Summit in Los Angeles in November 2018
She continued: ‘I have remained out of reach of the regime, but my family has taken the brunt. There has been financial pressure: threats to revoke business permits and licenses, for example.
‘Some relatives have been threatened with firing until they proved their loyalty by offering secrets about me. And, of course, the Intelligence Ministry regularly sends officers to pay visits to my elderly parents. At one point they offered to arrange a “family reunion” in Turkey.
‘I can only imagine what they had in mind for me.’
Her memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, was released in 2018.
Her brother, Alireza Alinejad, a father of two small children, was arrested in 2019 and taken to the infamous Evin prison where he was held for 10 months before being sentenced to eight years in prison.
Jason Brodsky, a senior analyst at Iran International, called it a ‘major case’.
‘The Iranian regime is being accused by the Justice Department of hatching a plot to kidnap a US citizen of Iranian origin,’ he told The National.
‘This is a tactic that the Islamic Republic has employed before.’
He pointed to the past cases of activist Ruhollah Zam — who was lured from France to Iraq, then kidnapped, taken to Iran, and later executed; and Habib Chaab who was kidnapped in Turkey by the Iranian regime.