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Iranian spies plotted to kidnap US journalist who criticized Iranian regime, DOJ says

FBI agents. (Melanie Rodgers Cox/US Air Force)
July 14, 2021

The U.S. Department of Justice charted five Iranian nationals on Tuesday in connection with a plot to kidnap a New York-based journalist and human rights activist who had been critical of the Iranian government.

In a Tuesday press statement, the DOJ said the alleged kidnapping plot was led by Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, aka Vezerat Salimi or Haj Ali, an Iranian intelligence official, in an attempt to bring the unidentified victim back to Iran. The DOJ also named Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori as three more “Iranian intelligence assets” who worked with Farahani. The DOJ also named Niloufar Bahadorifar, aka Nellie Bahadorifar, an Iranian national currently residing in California, who allegedly provided financial support to the kidnapping plot.

“Since at least June 2020, Farahani and his intelligence network have plotted to kidnap a U.S. citizen of Iranian origin (Victim-1) from within the United States in furtherance of the government of Iran’s efforts to silence Victim-1’s criticisms of the regime. Victim-1 is an author and journalist who has publicized the government of Iran’s human rights abuses,” the DOJ said.

While the DOJ press release announcing the charges, and the charging documents themselves only referred to the U.S. journalist and activist as “Victim-1,” the New York Times reported Masih Alinejad was the target of the kidnapping plot, as she confirmed in an interview with the newspaper. Alinejad is a host for Voice of America’s Persian service, and is the author of the book “The Wind in My Hair” a memoir about leaving Iran and her activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab rule for Iranian women.

On Tuesday, 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 [Iranian President Hassan Rouhani]. This is the regime that kidnapped & executed Ruhollah Zam. They’ve also kidnapped and jailed Jamshid Sharmahd and many others.”

Farahani, Khazein, Sadeghi and Noori have been charged with conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering. Bahadorifar is not charged with participating in the kidnapping conspiracy, but was charged with conspiring to violate sanctions against Iran, commit bank and wire fraud, money laundering and structuring cash deposits totaling more than approximately $445,000.

The DOJ alleged that prior to the kidnapping plot, the Iranian government had engaged in efforts to lure Alinejad back to Iran, including by including her relatives to invite her to travel to a third country, where Iran could more easily arrest her and transport her to Iran for imprisonment.

The accused plotters in this latest effort to kidnap Alinejad allegedly hired private investigators to spy on and photograph and video record her and members of her household. The plotters allegedly laundered funds from Iran into the U.S. to pay for the surveillance on their victim. The same accused plotters are also alleged to have arranged surveillance on other victims in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.

The accused plotters also researched methods for getting her out of the country once they had captured her, including maritime services to transport her from New York to Venezuela, where the Venezuelan government is friendly with Iran and opposed to cooperating with the U.S. government.

“As alleged, four of the defendants monitored and planned to kidnap a U.S. 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,” said U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss for the Southern District of New York.

Alan E. Kohler Jr. the Assistant Director for the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said, “The government of Iran directed a number of state actors to plot to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist and American citizen, and to conduct surveillance on U.S. soil – all with the intention to lure our citizen back to Iran as retaliation for their freedom of expression.”