U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Five indicted in connection with plot to kidnap NY-based Iranian journalist

Incident Details

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Iranian journalist and women's rights activist ​​Masih Alinejad speaks at the 2019 Women In The World Summit. In July 2021, the federal government unsealed an indictment revealing a kidnapping plot against Alinejad.

— REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
April 7, 2023 - Update

California resident sentenced for assisting in plot to kidnap Iranian journalist in NYC

The Justice Department announced on April 7, 2023, that a California resident was sentenced to four years in prison for her connection to the attempted kidnapping of New York-based Iranian journalist and writer Masih Alinejad.

According to the Justice Department’s press release, U.S. citizen and Iranian Niloufar Bahadorifar provided financial support that aided the plot to kidnap Alinejad in an effort to silence her criticism of the Iranian government.

Bahadorifar, who was first charged in 2021 along with four Iranian nationals, pleaded guilty in December 2022 to conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Her crime included facilitating the payment of a private investigator hired to surveil Alinejad on behalf of Iranian intelligence services, according to the Justice Department.

Bahadorifar, who was sentenced to three years of supervised release in addition to the prison term, tearfully apologized to Alinejad in the hearing, saying she had been an unwitting participant and that Alinejad is a “hero to all Iranians.” Prosecutors in the case emphasized that Bahadorifar knew she was assisting an Iranian intelligence official, even if she was unaware of the ultimate aim of the plot.

The New York Times reported that during the sentencing hearing, Alinejad said that while the plot hasn’t deterred her work, she has been living in safe houses and experiencing nightmares.

Following the verdict, Alinejad praised the sentence in a video statement posted to Twitter.

“In my statement I said in the federal court, that this is beyond belief that anyone could even claim that they are unaware of the evil nature of the Islamic Republic,” Alinejad said.

January 27, 2023 - Update

DOJ charges three men in murder plot targeting Brooklyn-based Iranian journalist

The Department of Justice unsealed charges against three men on Jan. 27, 2023, related to an alleged murder plot against Iranian journalist and author Masih Alinejad.

Prosecutors federally indicted Rafat Amirov of Iran, Polad Omarov of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and Khalid Mehdiyev of New York with murder-for-hire, conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to prosecutors, the three men are members of an Eastern European criminal organization and all are in custody.

The Justice Department did not reveal the journalist’s identity when announcing the charges, but Alinejad later confirmed to The Associated Press and in a video posted to Twitter that she was the target.

“I just learned from 12 FBI agents that the 3 men hired by the Iranian regime to kill me on US soil have been indicted.” Alinejad wrote in the tweet.

In 2021, five men were indicted in a plan to kidnap Alinejad and forcibly return her to Iran. The following year, Mehdiyev was arrested near Alinejad’s Brooklyn residence. At the time of his arrest, police officers found an automatic rifle and ammunition in his vehicle.

In announcing the 2023 charges, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland did not specify whether the Iranian government had any involvement in the plot but vowed to pursue any attempts by foreign regimes to target American citizens.

“The Department of Justice will not tolerate attempts by an authoritarian regime to undermine those protections and the rule of law upon which our democracy is based. We will not tolerate attempts by a foreign power to threaten, silence, or harm Americans,” Garland said.

The three men face up to 10 years in prison for each murder-for-hire charge and a maximum of 20 years for money laundering.

Alinejad did not respond to requests for comment from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

July 28, 2022 - Update

Man armed with AK-47 arrested outside Iranian journalist’s Brooklyn home

A man armed with a loaded automatic rifle was arrested outside the home of Iranian journalist and writer Masih Alinejad on July 28, 2022.

According to a criminal complaint filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on July 29, law enforcement observed a man, identified as Khalid Mehdiyev, acting suspiciously near Alinejad’s home over the course of two days. Over that period, he approached the journalist’s residence, appeared to try to look through the windows and attempted to open the front door.

New York Police Department officers stopped Mehdiyev near the residence on July 28 after he failed to obey a stop sign, and he was placed under arrest after they determined that he was driving without a license.

In a subsequent search of the vehicle, according to the complaint, officers found: “a suitcase containing a Norinco AK-47-style assault rifle (the ‘AK-47’), loaded with a round in the chamber and a magazine attached, along with a separate second magazine, and a total of approximately 66 rounds of ammunition.”

According to the complaint the serial number on the weapon had been removed. The NYPD also found $1,100 in cash and two other license plates with different numbers and from different states than the Illinois plate on the car.

Mehdiyev told officers that he was in the area looking for a new apartment and approached Alinejad’s residence to inquire about renting a room and that he had borrowed the vehicle. After initially claiming that he didn’t know the suitcase contained a gun, he admitted that the AK-47 was his and that he had been in Brooklyn “because he was looking for someone.”

Mehdiyev has been charged with possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number and faces up to five years in prison, a fine or both.

While the complaint does not name Alinejad, the journalist told The New York Times that she has security footage of Mehdiyev at her door and that authorities confirmed that he was outside her home.

“I came here in America to be safe,” Alinejad told the Times. “First, they were trying to kidnap me. And now I see a man with a loaded gun trying to enter my house. I mean, it’s shocking.”

Alinejad said she and her family have since relocated.

According to a White House press release, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with Alinejad and her husband on Aug. 3 on behalf of President Joe Biden, expressing his concerns about her safety.

“The U.S. Government will use all tools at its disposal to disrupt and deter threats from Iran, including those which target U.S. citizens and dissidents living in the United States,” the press release stated. “[Sullivan] further noted that President Biden will continue to receive updates on [Alinejad’s] situation, and indicated that the United States stands with Alinejad and all those in Iran who demand equal rights and dignity.”

In July 2021, a federal indictment revealed that four Iranian nationals had conspired to kidnap Alinejad, who fled the country in 2009 and has been critical of the Iranian government. A fifth individual was indicted on charges of providing financial support for the plot, but wasn’t alleged to have participated in the kidnapping conspiracy.

July 13, 2021

Brooklyn, New York-based Iranian journalist and writer Masih Alinejad was the target of an international kidnapping plot, according to a federal indictment unsealed on July 13, 2021.

Four Iranian nationals allegedly involved in the country’s intelligence network were indicted with conspiring to kidnap Alinejad, who fled the country in 2009 and has been critical of the Iranian government, The New York Times reported. A fifth individual was indicted on charges of providing financial support for the plot, but wasn’t alleged to have participated in the kidnapping conspiracy; she was arrested in California on July 1.

In an op-ed published by The Washington Post in August 2020, Alinejad wrote that “the Iranian government had unleashed a social media campaign calling for my abduction.” According to the Times, the Iranian government had attempted to induce Alinejad’s relatives into luring her into an abduction in 2018 and began plotting her kidnapping in earnest as early as June 2020.

“As alleged, four of the defendants monitored and planned to kidnap a U.S. citizen of Iranian origin who has been critical of the regime’s autocracy, and to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,” U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a news release.

According to the indictment, the defendants used private investigators to surveil Alinejad’s residence in Brooklyn, capturing photographs and video of her and other members of her household. They also reportedly researched means of transporting Alinejad out of the country, including using military-style speedboats to travel from New York to Venezuela, the government of which has friendly relations with Iran.

Alinejad told CNN after the indictment was unsealed that she has been under FBI protection since the end of 2020, and had been staying at different safe houses.

The four defendants were each charged with conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud and money laundering and face life in prison, but remain at large, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

“This is not some far-fetched movie plot,” William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the FBI’s New York office, said in the news release. “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. Not on our watch. When we find you, you will be brought here and held accountable under U.S. law.”

In a statement published by The Iranian Students’ News Agency, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the allegations as “baseless and ridiculous,” CNN reported.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].