An Iranian-American activist who was allegedly targeted by her homeland government in a New-York-to-Caracas abduction scheme is warning Canada to protect Iranian dissidents from similar abduction attempts.
“There are three Canadian citizens that are under surveillance, and I’m calling on the Canadian government to take this threat seriously,” Masih Alinejad said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “As far as the Islamic republic is in power, I’m telling you: No one is safe.”
She said she does not know who the Canadians are.
Ms. Alinejad, who lives in Brooklyn, has for years been a famous figure on Persian-language social-media channels, her popularity growing with her decisions to publicly denounce repression by the Iranian regime. This week, U.S. authorities alleged she was an intended target of a kidnapping campaign by Iranian intelligence operatives.
Several foreign governments have lately criticized Iran for forcibly repatriating some of its most outspoken citizens and prosecuting them as security threats. One was executed. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice charged four Iranian intelligence officials with plotting such schemes. The FBI also arrested and charged an Iranian woman living in California with helping the others move money.
U.S. prosecutors said in an indictment that the four Iranian intelligence officials misrepresented themselves in e-mails to detective agencies in the United States and Canada. The Iranian officials hired private eyes to surveil expatriates, and funnelled the information to their government, the prosecutors said.
This Iranian spy network “has targeted individuals in other countries, including Canada,” U.S. prosecutors say in the document. They added that since June, 2020, the spy network has “worked to procure the services of private investigators in Canada under false pretenses and conduct surveillance on multiple targets.”
Court documents filed in the Southern District of New York do not name any detective agencies. And they refer to the Canadian targets only as Victim 2, Victim 3 and Victim 4. No related conspiracy charges are known to have been laid north of the border. “The RCMP will not comment on this specific matter at this time,” said Sergeant Caroline Duval.
Ms. Alinejad said this week that she is the person the indictment refers to as Victim 1. In the document, U.S. prosecutors describe a Brooklyn-based woman who has sought to use social media “to mobilize public opinion in Iran and around the world to bring about changes.”
Ms. Alinejad said she is used to death threats, and the FBI had been shuttling her to safe-houses in recent months before revealing the conspiracy to her. The FBI recently allowed her to return home under guard.
A few weeks ago, she said, the FBI showed her pictures and videos of her daily life taken by high-quality cameras – footage that the agency acquired from the private investigators who had taken the images over several months after they were hired by Iran.
“That was really disturbing, especially when I saw [a] picture of my innocent stepson. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said.
The FBI’s counterintelligence cyber squad helped put together the case, and watched the conspiracy unfold on computers, the indictment said.
The Iranians were observed conducting internet image searches of people’s homes and looking up how to travel out of the United States by boat. Prosecutors say the group “researched a service offering military-style speedboats for self-operated maritime evacuation out of New York City, and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran.”
“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 statement.
Five years ago, fears about state abductions from Canada emerged in a lawsuit between two Iranian-Canadian real estate developers in Toronto. During those legal proceedings, developer Sam Mizrahi said he was warned that the Iranian government was targeting his former business partner, Mahmoud Reza Khavari.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned him to keep a distance, Mr. Mizrahi said in an affidavit at the time. “Information I received from the [Khavari family] and officials at CSIS was that Iran was sending a special force to Canada to ‘retrieve’ Mr. Khavari.” (Mr. Khavari was not brought back to Iran.)
In recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has been accused of spying on the cellphone of a Saudi dissident living in Quebec and trying to force him to return home. And last year, a former Saudi intelligence official living in Toronto alleged in a lawsuit that the kingdom may have tried to fly a “Tiger Squad” of operatives to Canada to abduct him.
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