Four Iranian intelligence operatives schemed to kidnap a New York-based journalist and smuggle her to Iran in a bid to silence her criticism of human-rights abuses in the Islamic republic, federal authorities said on Tuesday.
In a series of tweets, writer and activist Masih Alinejad acknowledged she was the target, and she did the same in an email to The New York Post, without commenting further.
The US Department of Justice says it has charged the four with kidnap. The indictment did not name the target but it was Iranian-born writer Alinejad, The Hill reports.
The Manhattan US attorney didn’t identify Alinejad by name but said she would have faced a fate that’s “uncertain at best” if the kidnap plan had not been foiled by the FBI.
“This is not some far-fetched movie plot,” FBI assistant director William F Sweeney said. “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.”
The kidnap ring, led by Iranian intelligence official Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, allegedly began conspiring to kidnap Alinejad inside the US as early as June 2020.
The conspirators also allegedly plotted to lure a person in the UK and three others in Canada to Iran. Details have not yet been released.
All of the targets had been critical of the Iranian government, says the Manhattan indictment.
Prosecutors said the Iranian government had sought to lure the New York-based journalist to a third country where the abduction was planned. The plotters even offered money to the writer’s relatives in Iran to betray her, which they refused to do, the indictment contends.
The plotters allegedly hired private investigators to spy on Alinejad’s New York home and family, and set up a high-definition live video feed of the property. They also researched a service offering military-style speedboats for evacuation from New York City, and maritime routes to Venezuela, an Iranian ally.
Alinejad, 44, runs My Stealthy Freedom, which campaigns against mandatory wearing of the veil for Iranian women.
She told the New York Times that the plot showed the Iranian authorities were “scared” of her, “Otherwise, they would not send anyone here to kidnap me.”
US authorities said the kidnappers were aided by a fifth defendant, California resident Niloufar Bahadorifar, who was arrested on July 1. She is not accused herself of participating directly in the plot, but is charged with providing financial aid to the conspirators and violating sanctions against Iran. She has pleaded not guilty and been released on bail, authorities said.
The justice department also said the defendants are charged with fraud, money laundering and sanctions violations.
The lucky abduction target 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.”
All four defendants are based in Iran and remain at large, officials said.