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Iranian operatives planned to kidnap a Brooklyn author, prosecutors say

  • >> Benjamin Weiser, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-07-14 13:38:51 BdST

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Masih Alinejad in New York, May 4, 2018. The Iranian-American journalist living in Brooklyn was the target of an international kidnapping plot orchestrated by an Iranian intelligence network, federal prosecutors said Tuesday, Jul 13, 2021. Cole Wilson/The New York Times

An Iranian American journalist living in the New York City borough of Brooklyn who has been a sharp critic of the Iranian government was the target of an international kidnapping plot orchestrated by an intelligence network in Iran, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

In an indictment unsealed in federal court in Manhattan, four Iranians were charged with conspiring to kidnap the journalist and author, Masih Alinejad.

Alinejad was not identified by prosecutors, but confirmed that she was the intended target of the plot. Last year, Alinejad wrote in a newspaper article that Iranian government officials had unleashed a social media campaign calling for her abduction.

The four defendants all live in Iran and remain at large, the prosecutors said, identifying one of them, Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, 50, as an Iranian intelligence official and the three others as “Iranian intelligence assets.” A fifth defendant, accused of supporting the plot but not participating in the kidnapping conspiracy, was arrested in California.

The indictment describes a plot that included attempts to lure Alinejad, an American citizen, to a third country to capture her and forcibly render her to Iran. The intelligence official, Farahani, and his network used private investigators to surveil, photograph and video record Alinejad and members of her household in Brooklyn, the government said.

The extensive surveillance that Farahani’s network procured included the use of a live, high-definition video feed depicting Alinejad’s home, prosecutors said.

“This is not some far-fetched movie plot,” William F Sweeney Jr, the head of the FBI’s New York office, said in a statement.

Audrey Strauss, the US attorney in Manhattan, said, “A US citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives.”

The indictment comes at a precarious moment in the fraught relationship between the United States and Iran.

President Joe Biden late last month ordered airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, telling Congress that he acted to defend US military personnel and deter Iranian attacks. At the same time, the two countries are working toward a resurrection of a 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear power.

Alinejad, who hosts a program called “Tablet” on Voice of America Persian, a US government-owned broadcaster, has been harshly critical of the nuclear deal.

In a brief phone interview Tuesday evening, Alinejad said that learning details of the plot was shocking to her but that she had told her husband and son not to panic.

“That shows that they’re not scared of America — they’re scared of me,” she said, adding, “Otherwise, they would not send anyone here to kidnap me.”

In a 2018 essay in The New York Times, Alinejad described her decision to leave Iran a decade earlier.

“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.”

According to the indictment, in 2018, the Iranian government tried to pay relatives of Alinejad who live in Iran to invite her to travel to a third country, apparently for the purpose of having her arrested or detained and taken to Iran to be imprisoned. Her relatives did not accept the offer, the indictment said.

The Iranian government began plotting to abduct her from the United States as early as June of last year, according to the indictment, with the goal of silencing her criticism of Iran’s human rights abuses, discrimination against women and use of arbitrary imprisonment and torture to target political opponents.

One of the Iranian agents charged in the case, Mahmoud Khazein, runs a group of companies that import marine, construction and agricultural equipment to Iran, largely for Iranian government entities, the indictment said. He has also advised Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the indictment said.

It was Khazein who researched travel routes from Alinejad’s home to a waterfront neighbourhood in Brooklyn, the indictment said. He also used an online real estate listing service to obtain screenshots of Alinejad’s home and the surrounding street.

Another of the agents, Kiya Sadeghi, researched a service offering what the indictment described as military-style speedboats for a self-operated maritime evacuation out of Manhattan; and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, whose leadership has friendly relations with the Iranian government.

In July 2020, Sadeghi, from Iran, contacted a private investigator in Manhattan, asking for the cost of conducting surveillance of someone in New York who he described as “a missing person from Dubai” who had “fled to avoid debt repayment,” the indictment said, quoting from a written message from the agent.

About a week later, Sadeghi, emailing from Iran, wrote to the investigator asking for photos of faces, cars and license plates, and even pictures of envelopes in the mail box with the names of tenants, the indictment said.

“Kindly be discreet as they are on the look out,” Sadeghi wrote.

© 2021 The New York Times Company