WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice has charged three members of an Eastern European criminal group with ties to Iran with attempting to assassinate a prominent U.S. journalist and activist critical of the Iranian regime.
In a 25-page indictment unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Department of Justice said the three men were enlisted last year to murder an American citizen of Iranian origin on U.S. soil. The indictment did not identify the victim by name but said the person wrote critically about Iran’s treatment of women, protesters and other issues.
Soon after the charges were announced, writer and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad revealed that she was the target of the assassination plot.
“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. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards have been conducting these terrorist operations for four decades. Islamic Republic is ISIS with oil. #WomanLifeFreedom,” she tweeted.
The attempted assassination occurred after the FBI and federal officials disrupted an Iranian group’s previous attempt to silence Alinejad on U.S. soil. But the second plot last summer didn’t succeed either.
“Fortunately, their plot failed because we didn’t,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a press conference announcing the indictment.
The three defendants who were charged are Rafat Amirov, Polad Omarov and Khalid Mehdiyev. Amirov, a citizen of Azerbaijan and Russia who was living in Iran during the plot, was taken into custody in New York on Thursday. Mehdiyev, also a citizen of Azerbaijan, was living in Yonkers, N.Y., and was arrested at the end of July. Omarov, a citizen of Georgia, was arrested in the Czech Republic in early January and the U.S. will request his extradition to the U.S., the Justice Department said.
The indictment alleges that Amirov was tasked in July 2022 by people in Iran with targeting the victim, saying he “received targeting information about the victim.” He sent images of the journalist’s residence in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Omarov, which the indictment said showed the time and battery level in Farsi numbers “consistent with the tasking originating from within Iran.”
Omarov then directed Mehdiyev to carry out the plot against Alinejad and Amirov and Omarov arranged to pay Mehdiyev $30,000 in cash. Mehdiyev then obtained an AK-47-style assault rifle to carry out the murder, prosecutors said.
Ahead of the attempted assassination, Mehdiyev “surveilled the victim and members of the victim’s family; took photographs and videos of the victim’s residence in Brooklyn and surrounding neighborhood; and devised schemes to lure the victim out of the victim’s house,” the indictment said.
Before he could carry out the plot, however, Mehdiyev was arrested near Alinejad’s home in July with the assault rifle in his possession.
“At the time of the arrest, Mehdiyev, at the direction of Amirov and Omarov, was preparing imminently to execute the attack on the victim,” the indictment said.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said at the press conference Friday that U.S. law protects its citizens in the peaceful exercise of their constitutional and civil rights, as the journalist was doing in questioning Iran’s actions.
“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,” Garland said. “We will not tolerate attempts by a foreign power to threaten silence or harm Americans. We will stop at nothing to identify, find and bring to justice those who endanger the safety of the American people.”
As NBC News previously reported, Alinejad became a thorn in the side of the regime after she created the #WhiteWednesdays social media campaign, inviting Iranian women to post videos and photos of protests online.
For the Iranian government, “the compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth. It is like the main pillar of the Islamic Republic,” Alinejad told NBC News in September.
“When mullahs took power in Iran, what was the first thing they did? They forced women to wear the hijab. Why? Because they use our bodies, like a political platform. So they write their own ideology on our bodies.”
Since the 1979 revolution that toppled Iran’s monarchy, the theocratic Iranian regime has had a history of targeting its enemies abroad. Western governments and human rights organizations have accused Iran of carrying out numerous assassinations and attempted killings over the years.
In November, Britain’s domestic spy chief accused Iran of plotting to kidnap or kill at least 10 British nationals or U.K.-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.
By Rebecca Shabad and Julia Ainsley