July 14 (UPI) -- Federal prosecutors have charged four Iranian operatives with a sprawling international scheme to kidnap a New York City-based journalist and critic of the regime in Tehran.
The indictment, unsealed in a New York Federal court on Tuesday, identifies the four individuals as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, 50, Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45. All reside in Iran and are at large, the prosecutors said.
A fifth person, Nellie Bahadorifar, 46, an Iranian national living in California, was arrested and charged with providing financial services to support the conspiracy.
Prosecutors did not identify the target of the plot but Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist, activist, author and Brooklyn resident, confirmed via Twitter that she was the one they had intended to kidnap.
"I am grateful to FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran's Intelligence Ministry's plot to kidnap me," she said.
Prosecutors said the Iranian government had starting in 2018 attempted to lure Alinejad to a third country through the use of her Iran-based family in order to arrest and then transport her to Iran for imprisonment with the plot altering to try and kidnap her in the United States starting in June of last year.
The United States accuses Farahani and is intelligence network sources of having researched methods to extract Alinejad from the United States and to transport her back to Iran.
According to the indictment, the network through misrepresentation hired private investigators to surveil, photograph and video record Alinejad and her home on "multiple occasions," including during this year, and paid for the services with money laundered into the United States from Iran.
Sadeghi, the indictment said, falsely told the private investigators that he worked for a Dubai-based company looking for a person who had stolen money from his employer.
The indictment accuses Khazein, the chief executive of a group of companies that import various products to Iran, of having researched travel routes from Alinejad's home to a Brooklyn waterfront and Sadeghi of researching a service offering military-style speed boats for maritime evacuation out of New York City as well as maritime travel routes from Manhattan to Venezuela, a country with friendly relations with Iran.
"This is not some far-fetched movie plot," FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney, Jr., said 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."
The prosecutors said in the indictment that Farahani and his network have targeted other victims in Canada, Britain and the United Arab Emirates.
In the indictment, the prosecutors said on an electronic device used by Farahani is a photograph of Alinejad along with Iranian nationals Ruhollah Zam and Jamshid Sharmahd with the caption "Gradually the gathering gets bigger ... are you coming or should we come for you?"
Both critics of Tehran, Zam and Sharmahd have been arrested by the regime.
Zam was lured to leave his residence in France in October of 2019 and was captured and then imprisoned by the Middle Eastern country. He was executed in December of last year.
Sharmahd, who resided in the United States, was lured to leave the country in July of last year and was capture by Iranian operatives while traveling abroad and imprisoned in Iran where he still resides.
"Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm by foreign powers," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Lesko. "Through this indictment, we bring to light one such pernicious plot to harm an American citizen who was exercising their First Amendment rights, and we commit ourselves to bring the defendants to justice."
In a statement broadcast by Voice of America Farsi, Alinejad said the FBI notified her that her safety was compromised eight months ago, which she attempted to brush off as she has received death threats before but the agents showed her images of her daily life the Iranians had taken of her.
"When the FBI came, I sat down with 12 agents. I jokingly told them that whenever the police in Iran gathered, we'd think they'd torture us, interrogate us or execute us. I couldn't believe that these policemen wanted to protect me," she said. "I wish the French police did the same thing to protect Ruhollah Zam."