On Tuesday, an unsealed Justice Department indictment exposed a shocking international kidnapping plot. According to federal prosecutors, Iranian intelligence official Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani and three other foreign intelligence assets conspired to kidnap Iranian American author and journalist Masih Alinejad from her home in Brooklyn.
Alinejad is a champion of women's rights and an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As host of Voice of America Persian's show Tablet, she has reported extensively on the regime's human rights abuses, particularly those carried out against women.
Recently, she supported Iranian women protesting laws requiring head coverings, tweeting in solidarity, "More women from inside Iran [are speaking out] against #ForcedHijab & risking jail by saying No to Islamic Republic….Iranian people risk everything to reject whole regime." Despite her American citizenship and residency, however, the abduction plot reveals that Alinejad was risking it all, too, by speaking out from Brooklyn.
Third-country captures are commonly employed by Iranian intelligence to eliminate critics, dissidents, and human rights advocates. Operatives used a similar tactic to abduct and eventually execute journalist Ruhollah Zam in 2020. Had the FBI not raised the alarm, Alinejad's future seemed similarly grim. Upon the revelation, she tweeted, "I'm glad to be alive and appreciate your support. Spare a thought for many other Iranian dissidents kidnapped and executed by this regime."
In a statement, Audrey Strauss, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, lamented, "A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives." Indeed, the foiled plot represents a chilling attempt by foreign actors to silence an activist exercising her right to free expression on American soil.
The indictment details an elaborate kidnapping plot under the direction of the Iranian intelligence network. Planning reportedly stretched back as far as June 2020. According to federal prosecutors, Farahani enlisted private investigators under false pretenses to stalk Alinejad and her family. He even set up a high-definition livestream of her Brooklyn home.
The operatives traced routes from her home to the waterfront, planning to lure her onto a chartered high-speed military style boat heading to Venezuela, whose socialist regime is friendly to Iran. They then intended to capture Alinejad and force her to return to Iran. The four kidnappers named by the FBI are Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi, and Omid Noori. All are presently at large in Iran.
The would-be abductors are charged with kidnapping conspiracy, sanctions violations conspiracy, and bank and wire fraud conspiracy. "This is not some far-fetched movie plot," said FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. in a statement. "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."
Although the FBI caught on before the plot could be carried out, these events nonetheless set a terrifying precedent for dissidents, journalists, and human rights advocates at home and abroad. Iran's abduction attempt is an assault not just on Alinejad but on the very tenets of freedom. No person on American soil should live in fear of retaliation for simply speaking out to defend human rights.