When agents from the FBI came to her house in Brooklyn, New York, last December to warn her of a kidnapping plot orchestrated by the Iranian government, journalist and activist Masih Alinejad did not at first take them seriously.
In a first-hand account given to The National, the 44-year-old journalist described a sense of shock over the indictment, unsealed by the Department of Justice on Wednesday, which charges four Iranian regime operatives with attempted kidnapping.
“When the FBI came to my house, I couldn’t believe it at first. I was laughing initially, but when they showed me photos that Iran’s intelligence gathered of me, of my husband, my son and our own house, I realised that this is not funny — it is serious,” Alinejad said in a phone interview on Wednesday night, hours after the plot was made public.
Her day-to-day life changed as the FBI carried out its investigation.
“I went to three safe houses,” she said, describing law enforcement efforts to protect her.
The Department of Justice indictment charges the four intelligence officials and one Iranian national residing in California with conspiracy to kidnap the journalist and forcibly take her to Tehran. This is the first known plot attributed to Iran that has involved kidnapping a US citizen on American soil.
Alinejad is still processing the details of the case and adjusting to having a police car outside her home.
She said the information she was shown by the FBI included an Iranian agent capturing photos of her while gardening, leading to her abandonment of the hobby she loves, and that US law enforcement had prohibited her from travelling overseas.
“They said, 'We are not going to allow you to travel abroad. We are here to protect you,'” she said of her conversation with authorities. “I wish the FBI was in France and didn’t let Ruhollah Zam travel to Iraq.”
Zam was a journalist living in Paris who was critical of the Iranian regime. He was lured to Iraq where he was kidnapped, taken to Iran and executed last December.
The indictment said Iranian operatives Omid Noori, Mahmoud Khazein, Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani and Kiya Sadeghi, as well as Niloufar Bahadorifar, an Iranian living in the US, were looking to transport Alinejad via speedboat to Venezuela and from there to Iran.
Ms Bahadorifar is due to be arraigned in a US court in the coming days.
Asked if she knew any of the people named in the indictment, Alinejad said that she cried when the FBI showed them to her. “[Two of the names] mean 'hope' and 'flower' in [Farsi] — that’s all I was able to think of.”
The journalist, who was born, raised and worked in Iran covering corruption and human rights abuses by the regime, left the country in 2009. She said she has faced multiple threats from authorities in Tehran because of her work.
Her younger brother, Alireza, has been in regime custody since 2019, and her 70-year-old mother has been interrogated.
“They brought my sister on TV to disown me publicly,” she says.
Part of her struggle is understanding how “a tiny, 45-kilogram woman can scare such a regime. So, they intimidate my family, they try to make me go to Turkey [through her parents], but I don’t fear them.”
With a social media following of over seven million, Alinejad said the plot was not about her but about the voices of Iranians she is empowering.
In the last two months, videos she has shared of Iranian women rejecting the veil and morality police beating a dog-owner have gone viral.
“[Iranian authorities] are scared because my videos get more viewers than the Supreme Leader of Iran when he speaks.
“I have only one life and I will continue giving voice to those people,” she defiantly added.
Asked if anyone from President Joe Biden's administration had reached out to her after the indictment, Alinejad said there has not been any contact yet, but she hoped for the administration’s support even as it tries to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
“I have hope that the Biden administration gets US hostages in Iran out, but I am here … support me and do not bury human rights under the nuclear deal,” she said.
Contacted by The National about the case, the State Department said it supports human rights in Iran.
“The Biden administration will continue to call out and stand up to Iran’s human rights abuses and will support others who do so both here and in Iran.”
But as to this particular situation, the US spokesman said, “this is a law enforcement matter and we refer you to the Department of Justice for any further inquiries.”