Iranian intelligence plot to kidnap journalist followed longstanding pattern

Money, lies and brute force were the tools. New York-based journalist Masih Alinejad was the target. Silencing an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime was the objective.

An indictment unsealed in federal court Tuesday in New York revealed that the ambitious plot to capture Alinejad spanned three continents.

According to the plan, Alinejad, who works for Voice of America, was to be abducted at her home in Brooklyn, taken to a waiting speedboat and forced aboard a larger ship bound for Venezuela.

She would then, according to a federal law enforcement source WTOP spoke to, “likely be taken aboard a direct flight from Caracas to Tehran.”

William Sweeney, FBI assistant director in charge of the New York Field Office, said of the plan, “This is not some far-fetched movie plot. 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 conspiracy involved hiring private investigators, which prosecutors say the suspects accomplished “by misrepresenting their identities and the purpose of the surveillance to the investigators.”

They also allegedly laundered money into the United States from Iran in order to pay for surveillance, photos and video recordings of Alinejad.

It’s not clear what her fate would’ve been had the plan worked, but there is evidence that death was not out of the question.

2 victims

The chilling details in the indictment included the names and photos of two Iranians who weren’t as fortunate as she.

One of them was Ruhollah Zam, a resident of France with refugee status, who according to court documents “was lured by Iranian intelligence services to leave France in October 2019.”

While travelling abroad, Zam was captured by Iranian intelligence services and imprisoned in Iran. According to the indictment, he was executed by the Iranian government in December of last year.

The other victim is Jamshid Sharmahd, a broadcast journalist, who had lived in Los Angeles since 2003.

In 2011, he spoke with WTOP about Iran’s attempts to kill him dating back to 2009.

“I was at work when the police called me and asked me to come to come to the station,” he said. “When I arrived, they said my life was in danger, that they had reason to believe someone was trying to kill me. It was very clear the Iranian government was behind this.”

But despite his suspicion, prosecutors investigating the plot to kidnap Alinejad said Sharmahd, “a lawful resident of the United States, was lured by Iranian intelligence services to leave the U.S. in July of 2020.”

While travelling abroad, Sharmahd, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, was captured by Iranian intelligence services and remains imprisoned in Iran. His exact location is unknown.

In a broadcast on Iranian state-owned television on or about Aug. 1, 2020, Mahmoud Alavi, the head of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (“MOIS”), publicly claimed MOIS’s responsibility for Sharmahd’s capture, describing it as one of many “complex operations in striking dissidents.”

Parallels

The persistent efforts of Iranian intelligence to kidnap U.S. citizens and residents was documented in an eerie August 2020 Washington Post opinion submission by Alinejad.

“A few days ago, I woke up in my house in Brooklyn to learn that the Iranian government had unleashed a social media campaign calling for my abduction. Jame-Jam, the country’s top newspaper, warned: “Masih! Be ready! You’re the next to be kidnapped.”

That threat came 24 hours after Alavi announced Sharmahd was in Iranian custody.

Five people are charged in the plot against Alinejad. Iranian intelligence official Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani and other three men believed to be intelligence assets live in Iran are still at large. Niloufar Bahadorifar, a California woman who is believed to have supported the plot financially, was arrested.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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