Four Iranian spies have been charged by New York City prosecutors after their plot to kidnap a U.S. journalist and smuggle her back to Iran for criticizing the regime was foiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
‘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.” William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the FBI’s New York office stated.
The journalist was not named in court documents, but came forward on her own to NBC News, revealing her identity as Masih Alinejad, a 44-year-old producer with Voice of America. A law enforcement officer corroborated this to NBC.
The federal indictment reveals the spies’ plan to bait Alinejad. They first needed to get her to Venezuela because the government sympathizes with the Iranian regime. From there, the intent was to capture her and forcibly return her to Iran, the country she fled in 2009.
One of the spies had researched ways to get Alinejad out of New York and looked at a service that offered “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,” according to the Justice Department.
“[The] defendants 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 stated.
The four spies facing charges are Alireza Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori. According to prosecutors, all four live in Iran and Farahani has been identified as an Iranian intelligence official.
A fifth defendant facing charges is Niloufar Bahadorifar, who bankrolled the plot but did not participate further. She was arrested in California.
“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,” Alinejad told NBC, continuing, “The regime has jailed my brother and interrogated my family. Now, this plot. All to silence me.”
The spies also allegedly plotted similar kidnappings of others who were critical of the Iranian regime including one person in the UK and three others in Canada.
In 2020, after learning of the dispelled plot, Alinejad wrote about her experience in The Washington Post.
“A few days ago, I woke up in my house in Brooklyn to learn that the Iranian government had unleashed a social media campaign calling for my abduction. Jame-Jam, the country’s top newspaper, warned: ‘Masih! Be ready! You’re the next to be kidnapped.’ Ebrahim Rezaei, deputy head of the Judiciary Committee in parliament, urged the intelligence services to kidnap me,” she penned.
“It’s been a horrifying experience, but I can’t say that it’s been entirely unexpected. The regime has tried many forms of intimidation to silence me over the years,” Alinejad explained.
The journalist was forced to leave Iran in 2009 after facing threats for her critical reporting of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She is now a U.S. citizen and remains critical of the regime. In 2014, she launched a campaign to combat forcing Iranian women to wear a hijab.
Her family remains in Iran where they receive threats to revoke business permits licenses, or being fired. Alinejad says the Intelligence Ministry regularly sends officers to see her elderly parents.
On Tuesday night, the journalist posted a video to Twitter expressing her gratitude to the FBI and law enforcement for saving her from a fate that other journalists have not been so fortunate to avoid.
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
“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. 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,” Alinejad detailed.
Ruhollah Zam, whom Alinejad referenced in her tweet, was not as fortunate as the American journalist. He had accused Iran of inciting protests in 2017 and 2018 on his news platform, Amad News.
Zam was intercepted by Iranian intelligence agents while on a layover in Dubai in July of 2020. He was accused of ‘corruption on earth’ by Iranian officials and executed in December 2020.
“A US citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives,” said the prosecutor, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss.
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