Thwarted abduction of vocal Iranian critic leads to an ecosystem of espionage.
Earlier this month, the FBI foiled a kidnapping attempt of an Iranian-American journalist living in New York. The agency arrested four Iranian individuals in connection with the plot. Following the arrests, the conspirators were found to be part of a spy network linked to Iran’s government.
Journalist Masih Alinejad, 44, confirmed that she was the intended target. For years, she has been an outspoken critic of Iran’s religion-based government, especially where women’s rights are concerned. Alinejad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, directed much of her criticism towards the Iranian government’s practice of forcing women to wear hijabs, or head coverings. In 2019, the head of the revolutionary courts said anyone caught sending Alinejad videos disparaging the hijab policy or attempting to undermine the law, would spend up to 10 years in prison for cooperating with a hostile foreign government.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which ousted the ruling Shah of Iran and his family, several Iranians and Iranian-Americans have been harrassed, threatened, or imprisoned for disparaging Iran’s government and its laws. “Even now they’re scared of their own people,” said Alinejad in an interview with the New Yorker, which details how Iran’s government attempts to silence criticism. “They can censor papers. They can arrest journalists. They can shut down any party, or any women’s rights organization. But they cannot do anything to people sharing stories with me about how they are being oppressed.”
The FBI reports that the four arrested includes senior Iranian intelligence official, Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, 50, who supervised Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45. Another individual based in California, Nilourfar “Nellie” Bahadorifar, 46, was taken into custody at the beginning of this month and charged with funding the plot. They intended to pay for the kidnapping via money laundering.
The network planned to abduct Alinejad from her Brooklyn, New York home then take her out to Venezuela’s territorial waters. Notably, Venezuela maintains relations with Iran. From Venezuela, she was to be sent to face uncertain consequences in Iran.
Reportedly, the network has tried to bribe some of Alinejad’s relatives. In their luring, they wanted them to invite her to a third country where she would have been arrested. But the relatives refused.
“I said that’s not exactly news, I get death threats daily,” she wrote in an email to the Guardian. Alinejad wrote that she was warned by the FBI of a plot against her eight months ago. Then, the FBI told her that Iran’s intelligence ministry had her under video and photo surveillance. “The plot is pretty horrific, but the FBI had my back,” she wrote. “My family stayed in three safe houses for three months.”
A critic of Iran’s government for years, Alinejad lived in Iran and still has family members there. She fled Iran in 2009 during a government crackdown after presidential elections. She has a Persian program on Voice of America, and organizes the “White Wednesdays” and “My Stealthy Freedom” campaigns. Defying the Iranian government, Iranian women participating in the campaign record themselves in public without hijabs.
Opponents of Alinejad’s anti-hijab campaigns have said that she has played into the hands of U.S. officials promoting a “regime change,” or the end of Iran’s religious conservative government by a coup or any other means. They felt this was particularly true during the Trump administration.
The Biden administration condemned the attempted kidnapping. An anonymous source told Politico that the kidnapping attempt notwithstanding, the U.S. will “continue our effort to limit Iran’s nuclear program through a return to mutual compliance with the deal while also actively protecting American citizens and American interests on non-nuclear issues.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the U.S. will continue trying to revive the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal through the Vienna negotiations.
Despite her critics, Alinejad is undeterred. “As an Iranian journalist and activist, my crime is to give voice to the mothers whose children were killed by the Islamic Republic of Iran,” she stated in a Radio Free Europe interview. “To women who have had enough of the institutionalized gender apartheid. To minorities who are discriminated against. But this is enough to petrify the Islamic republic.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists was founded in 1981 to support journalists working in countries that suppress news media freedoms. The program notes that being a reporter is an increasingly dangerous line of work. Its website reports that eight journalists have been killed this year, 273 were imprisoned in 2020, and 66 remain missing globally.
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