Four Iranian nationals have been charged in New York City with conspiring to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist who has publicized the Iranian government’s human rights abuses, charges Tehran has called "baseless."
The suspects are an Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network who allegedly conspired to kidnap the journalist with the backing of the Iranian government.
The Justice Department identified the journalist only as a U.S. citizen based in Brooklyn, who is also described as a human rights activist.
But Masih Alinejad, an activist and writer living in Brooklyn, confirmed that U.S. authorities had told her she was among the targeted victims and said she was the U.S. resident in the indictment.
Alinejad has contributed to the U.S. government-funded Voice of America Persian-language service and reports on human rights issues in Iran.
"I am grateful to FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran's Intelligence Ministry's plot to kidnap me. This plot was orchestrated under [Iranian President Hassan] Rohani," Alinejad wrote on Twitter.
In a separate video statement for VOA, Alinejad thanked the U.S. authorities for protecting her and her family.
Asked by Reuters to confirm that Alinejad was the target of the plot, the Department of Justice declined to comment.
"As alleged, four of the defendants 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," said U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss for the Southern District of New York.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the charges were "ridiculous and baseless."
William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of New York's FBI office, said the activities described in the indictment, including elaborate surveillance of the journalist's house, sounded a bit like a "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.
An indictment unsealed on July 13 in federal court in Manhattan names Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, who is also known as Vezerat Salimi and Haj Ali, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi, and Omid Noori, all of Iran.
According to the indictment, Farahani is an Iranian intelligence official. The other three are described as "Iranian intelligence assets" who work under Farahani.
In addition to the kidnapping charges, the indictment also alleges sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering. If caught and convicted, the four could all face life in prison.
Since at least June 2020, Farahani and the others plotted to kidnap the victim "in furtherance of the government of Iran's efforts to silence [the journalist's] criticisms of the regime," the Justice Department said.
Farahani and his alleged accomplices hired private investigators to surveil, photograph, and video record the targeted journalist and household members, the statement said. It said the surveillance included a live high-definition video feed of the journalist's home.
They also researched a service offering military-style speedboats for transport out of New York City to Venezuela, a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran.
The indictment also alleges that the government of Iran in 2018 tried to lure the journalist to a third country to enable a capture. Relatives in Iran who were offered money to assist in the scheme refused to participate.
Another Iranian named in the indictment, Niloufar Bahadorifar, also known as Nellie, was arrested on July 1 in California on charges that she provided financial and other services to Iranian residents and entities in violation of sanctions against Iran, according to the Justice Department. She has not been charged with kidnapping.
Bahadorifar has pleaded not guilty and been released on bail, authorities said. Her lawyer declined to comment, according to the Associated Press.