Four Iranian intelligence agents and a co-conspirator living in the U.S. allegedly plotted to kidnap a journalist and human rights activist from Brooklyn after she criticized their country's regime, according to federal charges announced Tuesday.
Court documents allege that Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, 50; Mahmoud Khazein, 42; Kiya Sadeghi, 35; and Omid Noori, 45; are accused of conspiring to kidnap and bring the victim to Iran after the person had been working to sway public opinion both in the country and globally to change the current regime's laws and practices.
"This is not 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," said FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney. "FBI special agents and analysts will continue to aggressively hunt for foreign operatives who attempt illegal action inside our borders or against our citizens."
A fifth person, Niloufar Bahadorifar, is accused of providing financial support since approximately 2015. While she is not charged with participating in the kidnapping conspiracy, Bahadorifar allegedly provided financial services that supported the plot, and was charged with conspiring to violate sanctions against Iran, commit bank and wire fraud, and commit money laundering. She was also charged with structuring cash deposits totaling more than approximately $445,000.
Bahadorifar has been living in California, where she was arrested July 1 and awaits arraignment. The four others accused in the plot are based in Iran, and remain at large.
The author was not named in court documents, but a law enforcement official familiar with the case identified her as Masih Alinejad. She later confirmed to NBC News that she indeed was the target, and has been "targeted for a number of years but this is the first time that such an audacious plot has been hatched and foiled."
She went on to say that the agents allegedly behind the plot are from Iran's Ministry of Intelligence, "which means (Hassan) Rouhani, the so-called moderate president, know and approved of the plot. The regime has jailed my brother and interrogated my family. Now, this plot. All to silence me."
Alinejad said in an interview Tuesday evening that she was sent to different safe houses in order to protect her from the threat, and was told by the FBI that Iran intelligence operatives sent someone to her home in Brooklyn to take pictures of her and her family.
In 2020, she wrote in the Washington Post that she learned of the Iranian regime's intention to kidnap her. "It’s been a horrifying experience, but I can’t say that it’s been entirely unexpected. The regime has tried many forms of intimidation to silence me over the years."
The activist said that she has done nothing criminal, instead has just worked to "give a voice to voiceless people inside Iran," and wants to give those people a platform to "be their own storytellers." She said that the regime "is not scared of me, they're scared of the people inside Iran."
U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said that the victim's fate "would have been uncertain at best" had the alleged conspirators enacted their plan.
"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," Strauss said. "Thanks to the FBI’s exposure of their alleged scheme, these defendants have failed to silence criticism by forcible abduction."
Prosecutors say the Iranian government directed followers to kidnap the author to get her back to Iran. Farahani is an Iranian intelligence official who lives in Iran and Khazein, Sadeghi and Noori are Iranian intelligence assets who work for him, the Justice Department said.
The charging documents say that the men hired private investigators, by misrepresenting who they were and what they wanted, to surveil the author in Brooklyn during 2020 and 2021. Prosecutors said Farahni's intelligence network also researched how to get the author out of New York prior to the abduction plot, hatching plans to lure her to a third country where they would capture her. One of those plans included having Alinejad's family inside Iran tell her to meet them somewhere outside the country, but the relatives refused.
One of the four researched a service offering "military-style speedboats for self-operated maritime evacuation out of New York City, and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran," the Justice Department said.
Farahani, Khazein, Sadeghi and Noori were each charged with conspiring to kidnap, conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and sanctions against the government of Iran, conspiring to commit bank and wire fraud and conspiring to launder money. A conviction on the kidnapping charge alone could carry a life sentence; the other charges bring up to 20-30 years in prison each.