NEW YORK (AP) — 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. resident 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.
The identities of the alleged victims were not released but Masih Alinejad, an activist and writer living in Brooklyn, confirmed that authorities had told her she was among the targeted victims and said she was the U.S. resident in the indictment.
“I knew that this is the nature of the Islamic Republic, you know, kidnapping people, arresting people, torturing people, killing people. But I couldn’t believe it that this is going to happen to me in United States of America,” Alinejad said in an interview with The Associated Press.
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. That includes Alinejad, who has publicized Iran’s human rights abuses.
She said authorities had come to her last year and told her she was being watched, including photos being taken of her home. She said she had been living under U.S. government protection since then, including time spent in various safe houses.
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.
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.
The Iranian intelligence officer, who remains a fugitive, was identified as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani.
According to the indictment, Farahani, 50, and three other defendants tried since at least June 2020 to kidnap the U.S. resident, confirmed to be Alinejad. If caught and convicted, the four could 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 Alinejad and her household members, the indictment said. It said the surveillance included a live high-definition video feed of the activist’s home.
The indictment alleged that the government of Iran in 2018 tried to lure her to a third country so a capture would be possible, even offering money to her relatives to try to make it possible. The relatives, the indictment said, refused the offer.
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 Alinejad 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 Alinejad’s home to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn and the location of her residence relative to Venezuela and Tehran.
Alinejad said the plot wouldn’t stop her from her activism.
“I have only one life and I’m not going to live in paranoia. I’m not going to live in fear,” she said. “I have two options — feel miserable, make my oppressors feel miserable, so I choose the second one.”