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How Iranian Intelligence Hunts Down Dissidents While Protecting Al-Qaeda
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How Iranian Intelligence Hunts Down Dissidents While Protecting Al-Qaeda

Court documents show that the regime has long been trying to kidnap an Iranian journalist living in Brooklyn.

The Department of Justice made a stunning announcement this week. Four Iranian nationals have been charged with plotting “to kidnap a Brooklyn journalist, author and human rights activist.” A fifth individual is facing related charges. 

The indictment doesn’t name the intended victim. But Masih Alinejad, a well-known human rights campaigner, quickly made it known that she was the target. Alinejad’s revelation was hardly surprising. She’s dedicated her life to exposing the horrors of the Iranian regime, refusing to bow to pressure even as Iranian authorities locked up and harassed her family members.  

According to court documents, the Iranian regime has been trying to net Alinejad for years. In 2018, Iranian operatives tried to persuade her family to lure her to an unspecified location outside of the U.S. At that point, the Iranians planned to detain and extradite her back to Iran, where she would have been imprisoned and likely killed. 

The Iranians are well-practiced in such operations. They’ve hunted down dissidents around the globe. But Alinejad’s family refused to entrap her, so this early plot was evidently abandoned. 

At some point in 2020, Tehran’s tyrants moved onto another idea—a more elaborate plot to kidnap Alinejad from her Brooklyn home and then abscond with her either to Venezuela (which maintains friendly relations with the Iranians) or elsewhere. 

In devising the kidnapping scheme, Iranian intelligence allegedly relied on a 50-year-old named Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani. According to the indictment, Farahani “manages a network of sources for Iranian intelligence.” He is accused of serving as the ringleader for the plot against Alinejad. Farahani’s network includes three others charged by the U.S. government: Mahmoud Khazein, Omid Noori, and Kiya Safeghi. A fifth suspect, Niloufar (“Nellie”) Bahadorifar, who resides in California, is also charged with helping to finance the operation.

More details about this terrifying plan will undoubtedly be revealed in the months to come. But at least four observations immediately come to mind.

First, it’s telling that the Iranians did not cease their plotting on American soil after President Biden was inaugurated in January. Everyone knows that the Biden team seeks a less confrontational path forward with Tehran and is willing to grant concessions, including the removal of various American sanctions, in exchange for a return to the nuclear accord negotiated in 2015. Tehran’s kidnapping operation began in 2020, during President Trump’s last year in office, but it did not end there. The Biden administration’s diplomatic approach did not lead the Iranians to abort what would have been an especially provocative act. 

One can imagine the spectacle that would have occurred had Alinejad gone missing from her Brooklyn home in the middle of the night. It says much about how the Iranian regime views the U.S. that it did not really fear any reprisals, or even a modest disruption in the nuclear negotiations.  

Second, the court filings make clear that the kidnapping plot was overseen by the Iranian state—not some rogue actors. U.S. officials have fingered Iran’s main intelligence arm, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), as the hidden hand behind the operation against Alinejad. Dissident hunting is only one of the MOIS’s specialties. 

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the MOIS for committing countless human rights abuses in Iran and Syria, as well as for supporting terrorism. MOIS “agents are responsible for the beatings, sexual abuse, prolonged interrogations, and coerced confessions of prisoners, particularly political prisoners, which occurred in Ward 209 of Evin Prison,” Treasury explained at the time. The notorious Evin Prison is used to house leading anti-regime activists, including those who protested the June 2009 elections inside Iran. Its prisoners are subjected to horrific treatment. As Treasury reported, the “MOIS is known to have used abhorrent methods of interrogation such as mock executions and forms of sexual violence.”

It’s chilling to think of the fate that awaited Alinejad had Iranian intelligence succeeded in kidnapping her.

The criminal indictment references an “electronic device” that was apparently recovered from Farahani. It contains “a graphic showing a photograph” of Alinejad alongside “Iranian nationals Ruhollah Zam and Jamsid Sharmahd,” both of whom were vocal critics of the Iranian regime. Zam was “lured by Iranian intelligence services” to leave his residence in France in October 2019, captured, and executed inside Iran in late 2020. Sharmahd, “a lawful resident of the United States,” was similarly tricked into leaving the U.S. in July 2020. Sharmahd remains imprisoned inside Iran.

The graphic of all three of them contains a caption that reads: “Gradually the gathering gets bigger … Are you coming, or should we come for you?” Eventually, the MOIS decided to come for Alinejad in Brooklyn.

The MOIS has boasted of its prowess in kidnapping dissidents. On August 1, 2020, Mahmoud Alavi, the Iranian minister of intelligence and MOIS chief, appeared on Iranian television. Alavi crowed that the capture of Sharmahd was just one in a series of “complex operations in striking dissidents.” 

Indeed, according to the indictment, Farahani’s network not only surveilled Alinejad’s home in Brooklyn, but also potential victims in Canada, the U.K., and the UAE. Farahani and his men allegedly hired private investigators to investigate Iranian dissidents “under false pretenses,” claiming that they are delinquent debtors or wayward employees.

Third, al-Qaeda operatives living and working inside Iran often receive far better treatment than Iranian dissidents. Although al-Qaeda has complained about Iranian mistreatment at times, the jihadists are typically afforded a much better lifestyle. And along with other arms of the Iranian regime—namely, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—the MOIS is directly responsible for housing and harboring al-Qaeda’s men. 

The DOJ’s indictment specifically cites the same 2012 U.S. Treasury Department designation of the MOIS discussed above. In that designation, Treasury reported that in addition to assisting Hamas and Hezbollah, the MOIS “has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.” The MOIS has “also provided money and weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)…and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.”

Again, this is telling with respect to the Iranian regime’s behavior. While Iranian dissidents are lured to their death, al-Qaeda’s men receive passports from the MOIS to go about their international terrorist business.

Fourth, it is likely that this won’t be the last Iranian plot on American soil. In 2011, the DOJ announced that two individuals had been charged with planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. And in 2017, the DOJ revealed that two Hezbollah operatives had been arrested after it was discovered that they were laying the groundwork for possible terrorist attacks on key New York City landmarks and other locations.   

It’s no wonder Alinejad was targeted by Iranian intelligence. She’s on the side of freedom, while the Iranian regime sponsors terrorists.      

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.