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4 Iranian Nationals Charged For Alleged Plot To Kidnap Iranian-American Journalist

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. authorities say they've uncovered a plot by Iran to kidnap an Iranian American journalist in New York. For more than a year, Iranian agents allegedly pursued a kidnapping plan involving speedboats and a trip to South America. It might seem like the plot of a Hollywood thriller, but the FBI in a statement insisted it is not, quote, "some far-fetched tale." NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has more on this story, joins me now.

Ryan, first give us a little more detail on this plot and specifically who was targeted.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, according to the indictment, four Iranians with links to the country's intelligence services were planning to kidnap, as you said, an Iranian American journalist living in Brooklyn and rendition her back to Iran. The journalist isn't named in the indictment, but we know that it is Masih Alinejad. She has a huge following on social media, and she has used that to publicize the Iranian government's human rights abuses, its treatment of women, including, notably, the fact that the government in Iran mandates that women wear a headscarf in public.

CORNISH: How were they planning to kidnap her?

LUCAS: Well, this alleged plot dates back to at least June of 2020, when the Iranians, working from Iran, hired a private investigator in Manhattan to conduct surveillance on Alinejad. The investigator took photographs and videos of Alinejad and her family at their Brooklyn home. The investigator took photos of people who visited the home. The indictment says the Iranian intelligence agents, at their computers in Iran, researched travel routes from Alinejad's home to the Brooklyn waterfront. They researched speedboats and how to travel by ship from New York to Venezuela, which is a country led by an Iran-friendly government.

CORNISH: What has Alinejad had to say about all of this?

LUCAS: She said that the FBI contacted her about eight months ago to warn her. And at first, she scoffed at the idea, said she gets threats all the time. But she told CNN her view changed when the FBI showed her evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

MASIH ALINEJAD: Then when they showed me the photos of my private life with my husband, my stepchildren, my beautiful garden in Brooklyn, I was like, wow. So the government are that close to me? And then I took it serious.

LUCAS: She says the FBI moved her from safehouse to safehouse over the past several months to try to keep her safe from this.

CORNISH: How unusual is this?

LUCAS: Experts say the Iranian government has a history of doing things like this. Here is Karim Sadjadpour from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: There's really no government in the world that targets its critics overseas like the Iranian government. Since 1979, Iran has assassinated at least several dozen of its critics overseas.

LUCAS: The most recent case is of an Iranian activist based in France named Ruhollah Zam. He was lured from France to Iraq, where he was seized by Iranian agents, taken back to Iran and executed. The indictment unsealed yesterday says that the intelligence network that was targeting Alinejad was also targeting three dissidents in Canada as well as one in Britain, all of which suggest that this is bigger than just this one case. And an important note here to end on - the four Iranians charged here are at large and still believed to be in Iran.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.