Feds say Iran backed plot to kidnap US-based journalist

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has charged four Iranian nationals over an alleged plot to kidnap a Brooklyn-based journalist and human rights activist who published material critical of the Iranian government.

A superseding indictment from the U.S. District Court from the Southern District of New York was unsealed Tuesday, revealing charges against an Iranian intelligence official, Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, as well as “Iranian intelligence assets” Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori. 

Each of the four individuals have been charged with conspiring to kidnap; conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and sanctions against the government of Iran; bank and wire fraud conspiracy; and conspiring to commit money laundering.

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According to the newly unsealed documents, Farahani and the other Iranian intelligence members allegedly worked since at least June 2020 on devising a plan to kidnap an unnamed “U.S. citizen of Iranian origin,” referred to as “Victim-1” in court records.

While prosecutors only described Victim-1 as “an author and journalist who has publicized the government of Iran’s human rights abuses," The New York Times reported that Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad confirmed in an interview that she was the target.

The journalist wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece published last year that Iranian government officials had launched a social media campaign advocating for her abduction.

“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," FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney Jr. said in a statement. "Not on our watch."

According to a press release announcing the charges, the government of Iran had previously “attempted to lure Victim-1 to a third country in order to capture Victim-1 for rendition to Iran,” and in 2018 tried to “induce relatives of Victim-1, who reside in Iran, to invite the victim to travel to a third country for the apparent purpose of having Victim-1 arrested or detained and transported to Iran for imprisonment.” 

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The Justice Department noted that the relatives “did not accept the offer.” 

Prosecutors said that the charged intelligence officials throughout 2020 and 2021 used private investigators to track, photograph and record video of the journalist and household members of the victim, including though “the installation of and access to a live high-definition video feed of Victim-1’s home.”

Authorities said that as part of the alleged kidnapping plot, the group of Iranian nationals conducted research on how to potentially transport the person out of the U.S. and into Iran. 

The group also allegedly targeted victims in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, according to the Justice Department.

The agency said that Niloufar Bahadorifar, also known as “Nellie,” a 46-year-old who is originally from Iran but resides in California, allegedly provided financial services that supported the kidnapping plot. She was not charged as part of the alleged plot but was arrested earlier this month and faces other charges, officials said.

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Authorities said the four Iranian nationals are currently believed to be residing in Iran. 

U.S Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss, whose office is prosecuting the case, said in a statement included in the DOJ’s press release that if the group had been successful in forcibly taking the journalist to Iran, “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,” Strauss added. “A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives. Thanks to the FBI’s exposure of their alleged scheme, these defendants have failed to silence criticism by forcible abduction.”