Explained: The Iranian ‘plot’ to kidnap a dissident journalist from the US

Federal prosecutors in the US on Tuesday charged four Iranian nationals for plotting to kidnap a New York-based journalist and author who was sharply critical of the Iranian government.

Although the unsealed indictment by the Department of Justice did not reveal the target of the plot, Reuters news agency confirmed that it was the Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, a contributor to the US government-funded Voice of America Persian language service and who has reported on human rights issues in Iran.

After the indictment was made public, Alinejad said she was in a state of shock, and that she had been cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation since the agency approached her eight months ago with pictures of her taken by the alleged plotters.

US authorities alleged that the persons charged were operatives of Iranian intelligence, and that the attempt to abduct Alinejad formed part of a trend set by Tehran in recent years in which overseas activists are tricked into travelling to destinations where they are kidnapped and then sent to Iran.

How did the alleged Iranian operatives plan to kidnap Alinejad?

Alinejad, who was a journalist in Iran, fled the country in 2009 after she got into trouble for writing articles critical of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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Alinejad has aggressively covered human rights abuses in Iran, including arbitrary detention, discrimination against women and the use of torture to silence opponents. Last year, she wrote in a newspaper that Iranian government officials had started a social media campaign calling for her abduction.

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As per US prosecutors, in 2018, the Iranian government tried to pay Alinejad’s family members in Iran to invite her to a third country, apparently with the intention of abducting her there. Her relatives refused the offer, prosecutors said.

This model was similar to the one used in 2019 to capture Ruhollah Zam, a critical Iranian journalist living in France who was lured to a third country from where he was abducted and brought to Iran. He was executed in December last year.

After this did not work, in June last year, the Iranian government began plotting to abduct her from the US itself, as per the indictment. To do this, the agents hired private investigators in the US to keep surveilance on Alinejad and her family members in Brooklyn, claiming she was a missing person from Dubai and had fled the country to avoid paying debt. This included a live, high-definition video feed showing her home.

One of the accused in the kidnapping plot used an online real estate listing service to get screenshots of Alinejad’s home and the surrounding street, and researched routes from her home to a waterfront area in Brooklyn. Another agent looked for what the indictment described as military-style speedboats for an evacuation out of Manhattan by sea, and researched maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a foe of the US and friend of the Iranian regime.

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Earlier this year, the FBI informed Alinejad of the plot, and moved her and her husband to a series of safehouses as they investigated the case.

Audrey Strauss, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that the plotters planned “to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,” as per a Reuters report.

In the indictment, prosecutors identified one of the four persons charged for the kidnapping conspiracy as 50-year-old Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, an Iranian intelligence official, and the three others as “Iranian intelligence assets,” as per a New York Times report. All four live in Iran and remain at large.

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A fifth person, who is not charged with taking part in the conspiracy but with supporting it, has been arrested from the US state of California.

William Sweeney, the head of New York’s FBI office, said in a statement, “This is not some far-fetched movie plot.”

We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a US-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran,” Sweeney said, “Not on our watch.”

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