An Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged in Manhattan with plotting to kidnap a prominent Iranian opposition activist and writer in exile and take her back to Tehran, authorities said Tuesday.
An indictment in Manhattan federal court alleges that the plot was part of a wider plan to lure three individuals in Canada and a fifth person in the United Kingdom to Iran. Victims were also targeted in the United Arab Emirates, authorities said.
Related: Iran’s foreign minister talked on Clubhouse. Was it an act of rare access or political opportunism?
But the Iranian Foreign Ministry responded to the accusations by the US as “baseless and ridiculous.” The ministry's spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh derided the plot as “Hollywood-style scenarios.”
Related: Iranian American composer Sahba Aminikia: Music transforms like raindrops that 'wash this part of humanity'
Though US prosecutors didn't identify specific individuals, journalist and dissident Masih Alinejad says that she was one of the targets of the plot.
She is a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that view Iran critically, and she has worked as a contractor for the US-funded Voice of America’s Farsi-language network since 2015. She became an American citizen in October 2019.
Alinejad spoke from Brooklyn with The World's host Marco Werman about the unfolding events.
Marco Werman: How have you been feeling since this indictment was announced?
Masih Alinejad: I'm trying to feel good because I know that the regime is trying to make me feel miserable. But I'm doing my best to make them miserable, to be honest.
When did you first learn about this plot to kidnap you? And what makes you sure it was you?
I was told by the FBI, like, eight months ago. They came to my house and they announced that face-to-face that you're not safe here in your house. I was making a joke about it and telling them that, look, I receive daily death threats. So, what is new? And they actually came later and they showed me that I am under surveillance. The intelligence services are taking photos of me, filming my movements here in Brooklyn. And that's why I took them seriously when they sent me to safe houses.
You took them seriously. What did you think initially when they told you all this?
Look, we always hear that Iranian dissidents and journalists are not safe in Europe. But always people think that here in America, they're not going to do anything. And that was the first time that I saw these officials so close to myself, especially when I saw private pictures of my stepchildren, a private picture of my husband, even me watering my garden. And it was like, wow, they're following me, they're chasing me here in New York. And then I heard the details 10 minutes before the statement came out that they were trying to take me with a speedboat to Venezuela and kidnap me from there. I was like, OK, they're going to do the same thing they did to Ruhollah Zam, another Iranian dissident journalist a year ago. They did the same. They kidnapped him from Iraq and then they executed him in Iran.
So, you mentioned that you were taken to a safe house, yeah? The FBI took you to a safe house.
Yes, they did. And they actually asked me to cooperate with them without mentioning this. They wanted me to go live on Instagram. So, they were trying actually to find whether the intelligence was going to find my location, and they did.
So, let me get this straight. The FBI, it sounds like they wanted to use you as kind of a bait almost.
Actually, I was a little bit worried, but I made sure that I'm going to be safe. And actually, I had a goal, because I wanted them to be identified, and now I'm so happy. At least four of them, including one American citizen, are being identified.
So, presumably, you believed at that point, and now, that you're in danger?
To be honest, it does not only mean danger. Of course, the government actually interrogated my mother. They brought my sister on TV to disown me publicly. They arrested my brother. Right now that I'm talking to you, my brother is in prison just for being my brother. And the Iranian Revolutionary Court made a law saying that anyone who sends videos to Masih Alinejad will be charged up to 10 years in prison. So you see, they did everything to keep me silent, and now they're trying to scare me in New York.
You said your brother is in jail in Iran. Will you continue speaking out against the regime there?
Seven thousand people got arrested in Iran's protests. And all of them are like my brothers and sister. You know, it's not an easy decision. Do you really understand how sometimes I cannot breathe, how I feel when I think about this 21st century and I'm not allowed to hug my family? It's not an easy decision at all. But freedom is not free. And I'm sure that the blame should be put on the hostage-takers. And sometimes, they're trying to make me feel guilty. And I always tell myself that those who shot people in the head, those who lash people, those who hang people for protesting, those who beat up people in the street for just having a normal life, should feel guilty, not me fighting for my dignity.
How would you like the Biden administration to respond to your case in terms of its own relationship with Iran?
Oh my God. Actually, that breaks my heart, because I just heard that they called this kidnapping a law enforcement issue. This is not a law enforcement issue. This operation speaks volumes to how the Islamic Republic thinks of Western values. And actually, these kidnappings and killings of the dissidents must be condemned, not just burying human rights under a nuclear deal. Because if you don't fight this religious dictatorship, then it's going to infect the rest of the world.Right now that I'm talking to you, the US citizen, the Swedish citizen, the British citizen, a German citizen, French citizen, they are in an Iranian prison because the government took them hostage and is using them like bargaining chips. So, you see, I want the Biden administration to understand that I'm not fighting for myself. I'm actually fighting for my people, that they don't have any voice. And this is my duty. And I want the Biden administration to support me and support millions of other people who are crying for justice.
When you fled Iran, you had your press credentials revoked by the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. You did not feel safe. You thought being abroad in the US, for example, would give you safety. Did you think at the time that the arms of leaders in Tehran would stretch this far outside the country?
That's such a question. I cannot believe it. Yeah, you're right. No, I never thought that. I always thought that here they wouldn't dare to reach out to dissidents. But when the Islamic Republic is in power, when ISIS is in power, when the Taliban is in power, no one would feel the same around the world.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.