US prosecutors have charged four Iranians, alleged to be intelligence operatives, with conspiring to kidnap a New York journalist who was critical of Tehran, according to a Justice Department indictment.
While the indictment, unsealed on Tuesday, did not name the target of the plot, the Reuters news agency has confirmed the person as Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, who has contributed to the Voice of America’s (VOA) Persian-language service and reports on human rights issues in Iran.
Asked by Reuters to confirm that Alinejad was the target of the plot, the Department of Justice (DoJ) declined to comment.
According to the indictment, the four Iranians hired private investigators under false pretences to surveil the unnamed journalist in Brooklyn, videotaping the victim’s family and home as part of a plot to take the person out of the country.
The four defendants planned “to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,” said US lawyer Audrey Strauss for the Southern District of New York.
In a statement posted on its website, the DoJ identified the suspects as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, also known as Vezerat Salimi and Haj Ali, 50; Mahmoud Khazein, 42; Kiya Sadeghi, 35; and Omid Noori, 45, all of whom are Iranian.
According to the indictment, Farahani is an Iranian intelligence official who resides in Iran. Khazein, Sadeghi and Noori are members of Iranian intelligence who also reside in Iran and work under Farahani. They had allegedly been plotting the journalist’s kidnapping from at least June 2020.
Assistant Director Alan E Kohler Jr, from the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said the government of Iran “directed a number of state actors” to carry out the kidnapping.
“We will use all the tools at our disposal to aggressively investigate foreign activities by operatives who conspire to kidnap a US citizen just because the government of Iran didn’t approve of the victim’s criticism of the regime.”
A resident of California, Niloufar Bahadorifar, also known as Nellie Bahadorifar, 46, is alleged to have provided financial services that supported the plot.
It is not the first time that Iranian operatives have been accused of going after Iranian dissidents.
In December 2020, Turkey arrested 11 people involved in the abduction and smuggling to Iran of an Iranian dissident wanted in connection with a deadly 2018 attack in southwestern Iran.
Habib Chaab, an Iranian ethnic Arab separatist leader, was drugged and kidnapped by a network working “on behalf of Iran’s intelligence service” after being lured into flying to Turkey by an Iranian intelligence operative, according to a senior Turkish official.
The US had also alleged that Iranian diplomats were behind the killing of an Iranian dissident, Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, in the Turkish city of Istanbul in November 2019. Two senior Turkish officials had told Reuters that the killing was instigated by two intelligence officers in Iran’s consulate in the country’s largest city.
Reached by phone on Tuesday after the indictment was released, Alinejad, who is also known as Masoumeh Alinejad, said she was in a state of shock.
She said she had been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation since the agency approached her eight months ago with photographs taken by the plotters.
“They showed me the Islamic Republic had gotten very close,” she said.
Alinejad said she had drawn the ire of Iran by publicising women in Iran protesting against laws requiring headscarves, as well as accounts of Iranians killed in 2019’s demonstrations.
Alinejad said the FBI agents moved her and her husband to a series of safe houses as they investigated the case.
She said she was still reeling from reading the indictment.
“I can’t believe I’m not even safe in America,” she said.
The Quincy Institute identifies Alinejad as a US government contractor aside from her work as an “anchor, writer, reporter” for VOA’s Persian Service.
Alinejad reportedly received more than $305,000 in contracts for her work at VOA Persia between May 2015 and September 10, 2019, according to the Quincy Institute, a Washington, DC-based think-tank.
News of the plot also comes as Iran announced on Tuesday that it was holding talks on prisoner exchanges with the US aimed at securing the release of Iranians held in US jails and other countries over violations of US sanctions.
“Negotiations are under way on the exchange of prisoners between Iran and America, and we will issue more information if Iranian prisoners are released and the country’s interests are secured and the talks reach a conclusion,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.