Authorities charge 4 in Iranian plot to kidnap U.S.-based journalist, 4 others
Plan included luring 3 people in Canada and 1 in U.K. to Iran, indictment alleges
An Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged in Manhattan with plotting to lure a U.S.-based journalist and human rights activist from New York to Iran, authorities said Tuesday.
An indictment in Manhattan federal court alleges that the plot was part of a wider plan to lure three individuals in Canada and a fifth person in the United Kingdom to Iran. Victims were also targeted in the United Arab Emirates, authorities said.
Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. State media in Tehran did not immediately acknowledge the alleged plot, though Iran has become more aggressive in recent years about seizing opposition journalists and dissidents abroad amid tensions over its tattered nuclear deal.
According to the indictment, all of the targeted victims had been critical of Iran.
Alleged target expresses shock
While the identities of the alleged victims were not released, Reuters has confirmed the alleged U.S. target is Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, who has contributed to the U.S. government-funded Voice of America 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 declined to comment.
But Alinejad, reached by phone by Reuters after the indictment was released, said she was in a state of shock. She said she had been working with the FBI 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.
'Some far-fetched movie plot'
Although not charged in the kidnapping plot, Niloufar Bahadorifar, also known as Nellie, was arrested July 1 in California on charges that she has provided U.S. financial and other services to Iranian residents and entities and some financial services supported the plot and violated sanctions against Iran, according to a release.
The indictment said Bahadorifar, 46, originally from Iran, works at a California department store. Bahadorifar's lawyer, Assistant Federal Defender Martin Cohen, declined to comment.
Bahadorifar has pleaded not guilty to charges lodged at the time of her arrest and been released on bail, authorities said. She still faces arraignment on charges in Tuesday's superseding indictment.
WATCH | Authorities charge 4 in plot to lure U.S.-based journalist to Iran:
The rest of the defendants are fugitives believed to be based in Iran, authorities said.
U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said the four defendants charged in the kidnapping plot "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."
"Among this country's most cherished freedoms is the right to speak one's mind without fear of government reprisal. A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives," she added.
"Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm by foreign powers," acting U.S. assistant attorney general Mark J. Lesko said. "Through this indictment, we bring to light one such pernicious plot to harm an American citizen who was exercising their First Amendment rights."
William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of New York's FBI office, noted that the indictment sounded a bit like "some far-fetched movie plot."
"We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not on our watch," he said.
Private investigators allegedly hired
The Iranian intelligence officer, who remains a fugitive, was identified as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani.
Farahani, 50, and three other defendants tried since at least June 2020 to kidnap the U.S. citizen of Iranian origin who lives in Brooklyn, the indictment said. If caught and convicted, the four could all face life in prison.
Farahani and the network he led on multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021 lied about his intentions as he hired private investigators to surveil, photograph and video record the targeted journalist and the journalist's household members, the indictment said. It said the surveillance included a live high-definition video feed of the journalist's home.
The indictment alleged that the government of Iran in 2018 tried to lure the journalist to a third country so a capture would be possible, even offering money to the journalist's relatives to try to make it possible.
The relatives, the indictment said, refused the offer.
Not the first time, authorities say
Authorities said Iranian intelligence services has previously lured other Iranian dissidents from France and the United States to capture and imprison critics of the Iranian regime and have publicly claimed responsibility for the capture operations.
They noted, as did the indictment, that an electronic device used by Farahani contains a photograph of the New York journalist alongside pictures of two other individuals. Those individuals, the indictment said, were captured by Iranian intelligence authorities. One was later executed and the other was imprisoned, it said.
The others charged in the kidnapping plot were identified as Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45, all from Iran.
According to the indictment, Sadeghi researched a service offering military-style speedboats that could perform a maritime evacuation out of New York City that would ultimately reach Venezuela, whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran.
Khazein, it said, researched travel routes from the journalist's residence to a waterfront neighbourhood in Brooklyn and the location of the journalist's residence relative to Venezuela and Tehran.
With files from Reuters