US federal officials have charged four Iranian nationals with plotting to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist, activist and author “for mobilising public opinion in Iran and around the world” against the Iranian government’s laws and practices, the US Department of Justice said in a statement on Tuesday.
Masih Alinejad, the Brooklyn-based author, was not named in the court documents. She, however, told NBC that she was the target of the alleged conspirators from Iran. A law enforcement official familiar with the case also identified her as the target.
The four Iranian nationals were identified in the New York court documents as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori.
They reportedly conspired to kidnap Ms Alinejad, who has been a vocal critic of the regime in Iran and has launched a campaign to abolish dress codes in her home country, including the mandatory wearing of the hijab.
The DOJ’s statement said one of the four Iranian operatives, Mr Farahani, is an “Iranian intelligence official who resides in Iran.” The three others are “Iranian intelligence assets who also reside in Iran and work under Farahani.”
A fifth individual, Niloufar Bahadorifar, aka Nellie Bahadorifar, was named for allegedly providing financial services to support the plot. Ms Bahadorifar, who currently resides in California, faces “additional structuring charges”, according to the statement. She has been charged with structuring cash deposits of approximately $445,000.
Alan E Kohler Jr, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence division, accused the Iranian government of attempting “to conduct surveillance on US soil — all with the intention to lure our citizen back to Iran as retaliation for their freedom of expression”.
“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,” he added.
Ms Alinejad, in a statement to NBC, talked about the “audacious plot” to kidnap her. “I have been targeted for a number of years but this is the first time that such an audacious plot has been hatched and foiled,” she said.
Ms Alinejad fled from Iran in 2009 and has lived in New York since 2014. “The regime has jailed my brother and interrogated my family. Now, this plot. All to silence me,” she said.
In 2018, Ms Alinejad said security forces “made my sister go on state TV to publicly disown me”. In 2019, her brother Alireza Alinejad was arrested and, after 10 months in detention, “including physical and psychological torture, he was secretly tried, without the presence of his lawyer and given an eight-year prison sentence”.
“ââThis thuggish behaviour will continue until the international community recognises that the Islamic Republic is not a normal regime,” she said.
Audrey Strauss, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, said the four Iranian nationals “monitored and planned” to kidnap Ms Alinejad “and to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best”.
Ms Alinejad wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post last year: “The regime has tried many forms of intimidation to silence me over the years. When I launched a campaign against the regime’s harsh dress code for women, including mandatory wearing of the hijab, the main TV news channel responded with a report falsely claiming I had been raped in the streets of London because I hadn’t been wearing a veil.”
Ms Alinejad wrote about the Iranian government’s history of silencing dissidents in her op-ed: “Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s agents murdered the Shah’s last prime minister, 77-year-old Shapour Bakhtiar, at his home in a Paris suburb in 1991. Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was assassinated in Vienna, TV personality Ferydoun Farrokhzad in Bonn, Germany.”
She also hosts a weekly satirical TV show on international radio broadcaster Voice of America’s Persian service. “Through these channels, I provide a platform for the voiceless people in Iran who on a daily basis share their videos with me,” she wrote.
On her social media on Tuesday, Ms Alinejad said: “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,” she added.