Skip to main content

U.S. prosecutors are accusing an Iranian drug lord of recruiting two Canadian Hells Angels to assassinate Iranian defectors in Maryland at the behest of Tehran.

A federal indictment unsealed Monday accuses Naji Sharifi Zindashti, 49, of leading a network that has perpetrated the killings, tortures and kidnappings of Iranian dissidents around the world on the orders of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

For the planned slaying in Maryland, it says, he hired Damion Patrick John Ryan, 43, a Canadian also alleged to have run large-scale international drug and gun-smuggling operations, who in turn hired Adam Richard Pearson, 29, who was then living illegally in Minneapolis after killing a man in Alberta.

Between December, 2020, and March, 2021, the trio discussed the hit via SkyECC, a now-defunct encrypted app owned by a Vancouver-based company, the indictment says. Mr. Zindashti agreed to pay US$350,000. Mr. Pearson suggested the best way to send a message with the killing would be to deliver a barrage of bullets to the head. “We gotta erase his head from his torso,” the document quotes him as writing in one message.

U.S. authorities say they thwarted the plot before it could be carried out. All three men are charged with a murder-for-hire conspiracy, while Mr. Pearson faces additional gun and immigration charges. Both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Pearson are currently incarcerated in Canada in other cases while Mr. Zindashti is in Iran. The accusations have not been proven in court.

The indictment comes as tensions escalate between the U.S. and Iran and a day after a Tehran-backed militia killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan. It also lands amid mounting concern over foreign countries conducting political assassinations in Canada and the U.S.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against Mr. Zindashti and several of his associates Monday. Long accused of being a major international drug trafficker, Mr. Zindashti came under the employ of the Iranian government because Tehran was looking for ways to go after dissidents while keeping its own involvement at arm’s length, Treasury said.

Mr. Zindashti’s network has been tied to murders and kidnappings in at least five countries, including Canada, the U.S. government said. It did not specify what murders his people committed in Canada. The Vancouver Sun reported in 2018 that two years earlier, Mr. Zindashti hired two Canadian hitmen to kill a rival drug kingpin in Dubai; the assassins later turned up dead in British Columbia.

The intended victims in the current case, who are not named in the indictment, were an Iranian defector and someone who accompanied him out of Iran. They lived in Maryland, a state that includes many of Washington, D.C.’s suburbs.

In messages, Mr. Zindashti gave Mr. Ryan, a full-patch member of the Hells Angels, photos of the targets’ faces and maps of their address, prosecutors allege. Mr. Ryan and Mr. Pearson, an associate of the outlaw biker gang, discussed putting together a team of three or four people to carry out the hit, the indictment says.

The plot ended around the same time Sky Global, which owned SkyECC, was shut down following accusations from authorities in Europe and the U.S. that it was a front for organized crime.

Mr. Ryan, originally from the Vancouver area but more recently based in Ottawa, already faces criminal indictments in Manitoba and Ontario. He is accused of involvement in trafficking cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl and guns between Colombia, Mexico, Canada and Greece. In 2015, he was the failed target of an assassination attempt at the Vancouver airport. He has been tied to Hells Angels chapters in both Ontario and Greece, as well as the Wolfpack criminal group, police have said.

Mr. Pearson, meanwhile, fled to Minnesota after killing a man in Grande Prairie, Alta., in 2019. He was later arrested by the FBI and extradited. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year and received an eight-year prison sentence.

Deputy Conservative Leader Melissa Lantsman seized on the U.S. indictment to urge the Canadian government to ban Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity, as the United States has done. She pointed to an estimate last year by an Iranian-Canadian human rights activist that Iran has at least 700 operatives in Canada.

“These people are operating freely in Canada. We know that they are terrorizing Canadians and now their recruits are terrorizing our allies. Our closest ally, which we share a border with, and they are going in to recruit people from criminal organizations,” she said in an interview.

Currently, Canada recognizes the Quds Force, one branch of the IRGC, as a terrorist entity but not the entire IRGC, which is the theocratic regime’s military. The Quds Force is responsible for extraterritorial operations and military intelligence.

Last year, then-justice minister David Lametti argued that military service in Iran is mandatory and that declaring the IRGC as a terrorist entity under the Criminal Code could target innocent people.

Over the weekend, Iranian-backed militia used a drone to kill three U.S. soldiers and injure dozens more in Jordan. Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen have also been targeting ships in the Red Sea, and other groups across the Middle East have hit U.S. military bases in recent months.

The White House tried to turn down the temperature on Monday. “We are not looking for a war with Iran,” National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby told a press briefing.

Both Canada and the U.S. have been struggling with alleged foreign-backed assassination plots this past year. Canada accused the Indian government of being behind the slaying of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar last year in B.C. U.S. authorities reportedly foiled an Indian plot to assassinate Sikh activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe