July 15, 2021
WASHINGTON – A VOA Persian TV host and outspoken Iranian government critic who says she was the target of a U.S.-exposed Iranian plot to kidnap her has shared new details of the scheme, including its alleged aims of eliminating her and her popular social media accounts.
In a video message recorded Tuesday, Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad said Federal Bureau of Investigation agents told her that Iran’s Islamist rulers “not only wanted to make sure that I physically didn’t exist anymore, they also wanted to destroy my Instagram, Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp channels.”
Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department said a New York federal court unsealed an indictment charging five Iranian nationals with involvement in the alleged plot to kidnap a “Brooklyn journalist, author and human rights activist for mobilizing public opinion in Iran and around the world to bring about changes to the [Iranian] regime’s laws and practices.” The Justice Department press release did not name the target of the scheme.
Alinejad, who lives in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, later confirmed on her social media accounts that she was the targeted person.
WATCH: Masih Alinejad talks to VOA about the plot to abduct her
In her Tuesday video message, the host of VOA Persian’s Tablet show said the FBI has barred her from leaving the U.S. for her own safety.
The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, declined to comment on VOA Persian’s request for a response to Alinejad’s account of her recent conversations with FBI agents.
In a separate video message posted to Twitter on Tuesday from her Brooklyn home, Alinejad said police have been deployed around the house for the past two weeks as another security precaution. A police car could be seen through her window as it sat parked outside her building.
“It imbues me with a feeling of safety when I see the police protect me,” Alinejad said, adding: “This wouldn’t have happened in my homeland.”
Alinejad worked as a journalist in Iran in the 2000s, writing articles exposing government mismanagement and corruption until authorities revoked her press pass and threatened her with arrest. She fled her homeland in 2009, first to Britain, before settling in New York in 2014.
As host of Tablet, Alinejad discusses Iran’s social and cultural problems, including restrictions imposed by its ruling Shiite clerics on women’s rights and press freedom. She also has led social media campaigns to encourage secular Iranian women to resist the government’s compulsory Islamic veiling laws and to highlight the suffering of Iranians whose loved ones have been killed by Iranian authorities for joining anti-government protests.
Sharing further details of the alleged plot to abduct her, Alinejad told VOA that the FBI first informed her of the plot eight months ago and described it to her as Iran’s first kidnapping scheme on U.S. soil.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh dismissed the U.S. disclosure of an alleged Iranian kidnap plot in comments published Wednesday by state media. He called it a “baseless and ridiculous accusation unworthy of a response.”
Acting VOA Director for Programming John Lippman said VOA’s security office was notified of the threat to Alinejad last year.
“With the support of senior management, VOA worked to relocate the studio in which she records her program to a more secure location,” Lippman said. “The revelation of this most recent incident underscores the ongoing – and often very dangerous – challenges faced by journalists like Masih Alinejad who are working to bring discussion forums on important topics to the Iranian people who are currently denied access to independent media.”
The Justice Department said four Iran-based suspected intelligence agents — Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori — planned to kidnap and forcibly take their intended victim to Iran. It said the group researched methods of transporting the victim out of the U.S., such as by using a military-style speedboat service for evacuation out of New York City and maritime travel to Venezuela, whose government is an Iranian ally. None of the four have been arrested.
The indictment said the Farahani-led network also worked with an Iranian resident of California, Niloufar Bahadorifar, to procure the services of a private investigator who conducted surveillance of the target’s home multiple times between July 2020 and February 2021 and who transferred photos and videos from that surveillance in return for payments.
It said the Iranian network misled the investigator by claiming the images were meant for an unnamed client who was looking for someone who fled Dubai to avoid a debt repayment.
In her Tuesday video message, Alinejad said the FBI showed her the private investigator’s surveillance images of herself, her husband and his children.
“I got worried like anyone else would be,” Alinejad said. “Then, I thought about it. We have been scared of the Islamic regime for a lifetime. But now the Islamic regime is scared of me.”
Alinejad previously accused Iranian authorities of trying to silence her by arresting her brother Alireza in September 2019 and sentencing him in July 2020 to eight years in prison for alleged national security offenses. She denounced her brother’s imprisonment as a hostage-taking.
When asked to comment on the kidnap plot, a State Department spokesperson said in an email to VOA: “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. This is a law enforcement matter and we refer you to the Department of Justice for any further inquiries,” the spokesperson added.
The Justice Department’s statement said Farahani, Khazein, Sadeghi and Noori have been charged with conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud and money laundering. It said Bahadorifar also was charged with several crimes for allegedly providing financial services to the four men. She was arrested in New York on June 29 and transferred to California, where prosecutors asked a court on July 1 to hold her in pre-trial detention, according to U.S. court documents seen by VOA Persian.
The State Department’s comment was criticized as weak in Twitter remarks by rights activists and advocates of a tougher U.S. policy toward Iran.
Speaking again in a Wednesday video message, Alinejad vowed to press on with her work. “I’ll only stop when the Iranian people stop [having to] say no to religious dictatorship. All of these wounds make me stronger,” she said.