US charges four Iranians with plot to kidnap New York journalist

In recent years, Iranian intelligence officers have tricked a number of overseas activists into travel to destinations where they were kidnapped and sent back to Iran, US authorities said.

Masih Alinejad, Iranian journalist and women's rights activist, speaks on stage at the Women In The World Summit in New York, US, April 12, 2019
Masih Alinejad, Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist, speaks on stage at the Women In The World Summit in New York, US, April 12, 2019 (Reuters)

An Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged in Manhattan with plotting to kidnap a prominent Iranian opposition activist and writer in exile and take her back to Tehran.

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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 on Tuesday.

The identities of the alleged victims were not release d but Brooklyn-based Masih Alinejad confirmed that authorities had told her she was among the targeted victims.

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.

The four Iranians hired private investigators under false pretenses to surveil the journalist in Brooklyn, videotaping her family and home as part of a plot to kidnap her, according to prosecutors.

‘Forcibly take victim’

The four defendants planned “to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,” Audrey Strauss, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said.

The Iranian operatives hired private investigators in Manhattan to surveil Alinejad and her family, claiming that she was a missing person from Dubai who had fled the country to avoid paying a debt, prosecutors said

Prosecutors said the Iranian operatives had researched how they might spirit the journalist out of New York on a high-speed boat headed for Caracas.

Iran directed the operation against the journalist with “the intention to lure our citizen back to Iran as retaliation for their freedom of expression,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.

In 2019, Iranian intelligence officers lured Ruhollah Zam, a journalist living in France, out of the country, capturing and later executing him in Iran on sedition charges, prosecutors said.

Representatives for the Mission of Iran to the UN could not be reached for comment.

Alinejad said she had drawn the ire of Iran by publicising women in Iran protesting laws requiring head coverings, as well as accounts of Iranians killed in demonstrations in 2019.

Alinejad said Iranian operatives had tried multiple times to lure her to Turkey with threats and promises to meet family, she said.

FBI agents warned Alinejad earlier this year that Iran was planning to kidnap her, moving the journalist 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.

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