Four Iranian nationals have been charged in an alleged plot to kidnap a US journalist and human rights activist living in New York, court documents show.
According to an indictment unsealed Tuesday in a New York federal court, Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, aka Vezerat Salimi and Haj Ali, 50; Mahmoud Khazein, 42; Kiya Sadeghi, 35; and Omid Noori, 45, all of Iran, conspired to kidnap a Brooklyn journalist critical of the Iranian regime.
The four were charged with conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud and money laundering, according to the indictment. They are based in Iran and remain at large, authorities said.
“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,” US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss said in a news release.
A fifth person, Niloufar “Nellie” Bahadorifar, was also charged with sanctions violations conspiracy, bank and wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and structuring charges for allegedly providing financial services that supported the plot, according to the attorney’s office.
Bahadorifar, a California resident originally from Iran, was arrested on July 1 in California and arraigned on July 8, prosecutors said. Her attorney Martin Cohen declined to comment.
Masih Alinejad, an activist with over 5 million followers on Instagram, said she is the journalist targeted in the plot. Authorities released the indictment and did not name Alinejad publicly.
Speaking to CNN on Wednesday morning, Alinejad said the FBI approached her about eight months ago and said her house was not safe.
“And I was like, you must be kidding me because I receive daily death threats, what’s new? I’m here in America, they cannot do anything,” she said. The FBI then revealed photos of her “private life” allegedly taken by private investigators at her home, and she said she was shocked the Iranian government got close to her “and then I took it serious.”
She was under FBI protection until now, she told CNN, adding that she was in different safe houses for her protection. Still, she said she would not stop her activism, in which she shares photos and videos of “voiceless” Iranian mothers protesting the regime.
“Not at all, you know why? Because these mothers are my heroes. Millions of Iranians who share photos and videos of themselves practicing their civil disobedience, those are the Rosa Parks of Iran,” she said. “They are my heroes. To be honest, I have fear inside me, but what gives me power, these people. I am going to stop my activities the day when the Iranian people stop saying no to the Islamic Republic.”
She also posted a video to Twitter on Tuesday that shows a law enforcement vehicle with its top lights on outside what she says is her home. She speaks in Farsi but the video includes English subtitles.
“The police have been around my home for the past two weeks now. When I asked them why they were here, they told me it was to protect me,” said Alinejad, according to the English subtitles. “They are here from 5 a.m. to midnight.”
“I see them often, even when I get out to check on my flowers in my garden. But it imbues me with a feeling of safety when I see the police protect me. This wouldn’t have happened in my homeland. It’s a weird feeling,” she said.
The alleged details of the plot
Before the alleged kidnapping plot, the indictment said, the government of Iran tried to lure Alinejad, referred to as Victim-1 in the indictment, by having her relatives who lived in Iran invite her to travel to a third country, with the apparent purpose of having her “detained and transported to Iran for imprisonment.”
Her relatives did not accept the offer, prosecutors said in their statement.
According to the indictment, Farahani, an Iranian intelligence officer who resides in Iran, and his network, allegedly hired private investigators, “to surveil, photograph and video record Victim-1 and Victim-1’s household members in Brooklyn” on multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021.
Farahani’s network procured days’ worth of video and photographs and installed a live high-definition video feed of the victim’s home.
The intelligence network also researched ways to transport Victim-1 out of the US and to Iran, prosecutors said. Sadeghi allegedly researched a service offering military-style speedboats and researched travel from New York to Venezuela, which has friendly relations with Iran.
According to officials, Farahani’s network has targeted other victims in other countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.
“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,” FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said. “When we find you, you will be brought here and held accountable under U.S. law.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh called the allegations “baseless and ridiculous,” the semi-official news agency ISNA reported.
“This is not the first time that the United States has undertaken such Hollywood scenarios,” he said.
The US State Department said that “the Iranian government continues to deny Iranians their human rights, including through severe restrictions on the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression.”
“The Biden Administration will continue to call out and stand up to Iran’s human rights abuses, and will support others who do so both here and in Iran,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
CNN’s Mirna Alsharif, Jennifer Hansler, Eric Levenson, Sharif Paget, Mostafa Salem and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.