Rise in Iranian assassination, kidnapping plots alarms Western officials

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Rise in Iranian assassination, kidnapping plots alarms Western officials

By Shane Harris

Souad Mekhennet and 

Yeganeh Torbati

December 1, 2022 at 3:00 a.m. EST

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In the summer of 2021, officers from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service showed up at the Vancouver home of Ramin Seyed Emami, an Iranian Canadian musician and performer who hosts a popular Persian-language podcast.

Seyed Emami often features guests from inside Iran and delves into topicsthat are taboo in conservative Iranian culture, such as sex, mental health and losing religious faith.

One of the officers explained that the government of Iran had developed a list of people living abroad whom it deemed a threat to the regime, Seyed Emami said in an interview. The officer didn’t say whether the 41-year-old podcaster’s name was on it, but the implication was clear, and he was told to take security precautions.

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The Iranian government has stepped up its efforts to kidnap and kill government officials, activists and journalists around the world, including in the United States, according to government documents and interviews with 15 officials in Washington, Europe and the Middle East, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Tehran has targeted former senior U.S. government officials; dissidents who have fled the country for the United States, Britain, Canada, Turkey and Europe; media organizations critical of the regime; and Jewish civilians or those with links to Israel, according to the officials and government documents.

Iran’s intelligence and security services rely largely on proxies to carry out their plans, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to jewel thieves, drug dealers and other criminals in murder-for-hire schemes, the officials said. That hands-off approach probably caused some operations to fail, the officials said, as plots have been disrupted — and, in some cases, the hired hit men appear to have gotten cold feet and never carried out their orders.

But officials say Iran’s persistence makes it likely to eventually carry out the killing of a high-profile dissident, journalist or Western government figure, and that could spark direct confrontation with Tehran.

Iran’s security services have carried out lethal operations abroad since the regime took power four decades ago, officials said. More recently, they said, between 2015 and 2017, Tehran is believed to have killed at least three dissidents in Western Europe, including an Iranian Arab activist who was gunned down in front of his home in The Hague.

Dutch authorities accused Iran of involvement in another assassination plot as well as attempted bombings in Europe. In 2018, an Iranian diplomat who was stationed in Vienna was arrested and accused of enlisting an Iranian couple living in Belgium to plant a bomb at a huge rally in Paris for the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK, an exiled opposition group that Iran calls a terrorist organization.

The tempo of the plotshas dramatically increased in the past two years, and theyare among the most ambitious and far-reaching in recent memory, according to the officials and documents. Iran’s actions have led to diplomatic expulsions and warnings to potential targets from governments.

“The general feeling I got was they were beginning to take this issue seriously,” said Seyed Emami, who recalled that one of the Canadian officers asked him to place his phone in a bag designed to block electromagnetic waves, so their conversation could not be surveilled. “They realize if people are being threatened on their own land, it’s a whole different story.”

For Seyed Emami, the danger is very real. His father, an environmentalist, died in an Iranian prison in February 2018, and his mother was barred from leaving the country for over a year afterward. The Canadian officers warned Seyed Emami that he shouldn’t travel to any countries bordering Iran and to be aware of “honey pot” schemes, in which a potential romantic partner might lure him into the hands of Iranian operatives.

A spokesperson for the Canadian intelligence service, without commenting on Seyed Emami’s case, said in a statement that the agency “is aware that hostile state actors, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, monitor and intimidate Canadian communities, with diaspora communities often disproportionately targeted. … CSIS is actively investigating several threats to life emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran based on credible intelligence. Ultimately, these hostile activities and foreign interference undermine the security of Canada and Canadians, as well as our democratic values and sovereignty.”

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The intensity of the Iranian campaign is reflected in its global reach, officials said. Just since last year, Western security and law enforcement agencies said they have disrupted an attempt to assassinate former national security adviser John Bolton in Washington and one to kidnap an Iranian American journalist, Masih Alinejad,in New York City; multiple attempts to kill British nationals and others living in the United Kingdom; an operation using an Iranian drug dealer to murder French journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy in Paris; attempts to kill Israeli business people in Cyprus, including one allegedly overseen by a Russian Azerbaijani citizen that involved a surveillance team made up of Pakistani nationals; and a plan to use assassins recruited in a prison in Dubai to kill Israeli business people in Colombia.

Multiple calls and emails to Iranian officials and diplomats requesting comment went unanswered. The FBI declined to comment.

Iran’s plotting appears motivated by a number of factors, officials said. Lévy was targeted by a unit of the Quds Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), probably because of his international prominence as a public intellectual who has been critical of the country’s leadership. Intelligence officials said the Quds Force tapped an Iranian drug dealer, who recruited others to help in the slaying, and paid him $150,000. In a text message, Lévy declined to comment.

The plan to kidnap Alinejad from her home in Brooklyn is illustrative of a global effort to intimidate exiled Iraniansby showing they aren’t safe anywhere outside Iran. Last year, the Justice Department indicted four alleged Iranian intelligence officials and agents in the plot, saying they targeted Alinejad because she was “mobilizing public opinion in Iran and around the world to bring about changes to the regime’s laws and practices.”

The operatives allegedly hired private investigators to photograph and take video recordings of Alinejad and her family and researched how they might use speedboats to secret her out of New York and eventually on to Venezuela, “a country whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

This July, police arrested a man in Brooklyn and found a loaded assault rifle in his vehicle. Prosecutors did not identify Alinejad, but she wrote on Twitter that she was the intended target, posting a doorbell video of a man appearing to take cellphone footage of the entrance to her home.

“I’m still shocked that the Islamic Republic has tried on two occasions to eliminate me, an American citizen, on U.S. soil. And not paid a price,” Alinejad said in an emailed statement.

Officials and experts said that plots directed against U.S. citizens also are driven by revenge for the killing in January 2020 of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force. The Trump administration launched an airstrike on Soleimani while he was in Baghdad in what officials justified as a defensive measure, accusing Iran of “actively developing plans” to attack American diplomats and military forces in the region. At the time, analysts warned that the U.S. strike was likely to incur reprisal attacks.

The U.S. decision to kill a top Iranian general

Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. counterterrorism official and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that, of the 124 foreign plots by Iran he has tracked since 1979, 36 have occurred since Soleimani’s killing, which he called “an extraordinary increase.” More than a quarter of those took place in the United States, compared with just under 15 percent before Soleimani died, Levitt added.

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Levitt said that Iran has a long history of lethal operations, but also of surveilling targets and formulating plans for killings and abductions that security services put on a shelf for future activation. Now, though, he said, “they’re not collecting information so they can try to abduct and kill people if they want to. They are actively trying to abduct and kill people.”

Norman T. Roule, a veteran CIA officer who managed the intelligence community’s Iran activities, said Tehran is eager to demonstrate its capabilities — and other adversaries of the West are probably watching.

“If the international community has no red line for these operations, why shouldn’t another rogue country feel it could undertake similar aggression without cost?” Roule said.

Sounding alarms

The frequency of the operations and their potential to escalate tensions with Iran have prompted Western governments to raise their defenses.

In June, the United Kingdom filed a notice with Interpol alleging a suspected member of the Quds Force had helped to arrange attempted “lethal operations against Iranian dissidents in the U.K. in 2020.” The operative, identified as Mohammed Mehdi Mozayyani, had also “conspired to conduct lethal operations against Iranian oppositionist groups” in Albania in 2018 and 2019, according to the Interpol “blue notice,” which asked law enforcement agenciesto begin gathering evidence against Mozayyani and any activities he may be planning or conducting in their countries. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the document.

This month, the head of Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, said in public remarks that authorities had uncovered at least 10 “potential threats” to kidnap or kill British nationals or people based in the United Kingdom. Days earlier, the British Foreign Office summoned Iran’s senior diplomat in the country to answer for threats against journalists. Iran has targeted employees at BBC Persian and Iran International, a Persian-language news channel headquartered in London, labeling them instruments of the West and peddlers of anti-regime sentiment, according to British officials and Iranian nationals living in the country.

Man with assault rifle arrested near Iranian American writer’s Brooklyn home

This month, the Metropolitan Police stationed armed officers outside Iran International’s London office. The news organization has been reporting extensively on the recent protests in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

“The volume of threats against our staff has gone up in step with the protests we report,” Adam Baillie, a spokesman for Iran International, said in a statement to The Post. Two senior journalists havereceived death threats, and staffers have limited contact with their family members in Iran for fear of retaliation against them, he said.

“The threat from IRGC or IRGC-connected operatives here in Britain itself is frightening,”Baillie said. “And that’s what it’s designed to do: frighten and intimidate.”

The Iranians’ recruitment of agents appears as varied as the geographic distribution of their targets. Intelligence officials say that while serving a prison sentence in Dubai in connection with the kidnapping and subsequent death of an Iranian British businessman, Rahmat Asadi, an operative for the IRGC’s intelligence arm, met two Colombian brothers involved in international jewelry theft. While in prison, the officials alleged, Asadi trained the brothers in conducting lethal operations and assigned them to kill American and Israeli individuals in Colombia following their release in 2021. The brothers never followed through with the operations, officials said, but their recruitment underscored the lengths to which Iran has gone to place operatives around the world.

Multiple Iranian agencies have been implicated in the plots, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security as well as the Quds Force and the IRGC Intelligence Organization. But the orders to try to kidnap or kill abroad come from the senior level of the government, officials and experts said.

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Iran’s foreign operations tend to follow a playbook. Agents first trail their targets and collect information on their daily habits, including the routes they take to and from work, as well as any plans they may have to travel out of their home country. Tehran then uses that “pattern of life” information to direct proxy operatives to try to kidnap or kill the target,officials said.

In an operation in Cyprus allegedly targeting Israelis living on the Mediterranean island, officials accused the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization of hiring a network of Pakistani nationals to conduct surveillance, including a man who they said used his job as a motorcycle delivery man for a local food company as cover. Officials allege that in the fall of 2021, he passed his information to his handlers in Tehran, as well as to another man in Cyprus hired to carry out the killings.

Last year, Cypriot officials charged Orkhan Asadov, a 38-year-old Russian Azerbaijani national, in connection with plots to murder Israeli citizens.

Shahram Poursafi, the IRGC member alleged to have set up the Bolton operation, recruited an individual via social media to help arrange the assassination and directed surveillance in advance as Bolton came and went from his office in Washington, federal authorities allege. Unbeknown to Poursafi, his ostensible co-conspirator was an informant for the FBI.

The informant strung Poursafi along for months, obtaining more details about the murder plot, for which Poursafi was prepared to pay up to $300,000, according to court filings. Throughout his conversations with the ostensible hit man, Poursafi alluded to discussions he was having with more senior officials, who wereeager for the operation to move ahead.

U.S. authorities have said the plot against Bolton was meant to avenge the killing of Soleimani.

Western officials allege Poursafi also tried to orchestrate the murder last year of Itzik Moshe, a businessman in Georgia who has worked on improving relations between the South Caucasus country and Israel.

‘A life of fear’

Sometimes, rather than attack its targets abroad, Iran has constructed deception operations to lure dissidents and critics to countries friendly with Tehran, where they are kidnapped or turned over by local authorities, officials said.

In October 2019, Ruhollah Zam, a prominent Iranian journalist living in exile in France, went to Iraq believing that he had been granted an interview with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s leadingShiite Muslim religious authority. Zam, who had been jailed in Iran and was accused of inciting protests in 2017 and 2018, ran Amad news, a popular anti-government website, which had more than 1 million followers on Telegram.

Once in Iraq, Zam was arrested by local authorities and extradited to Iran, according to public reporting and officials familiar with Zam’s case. The promise of an interview with Sistani was a ruse orchestrated by the IRGC. Sistani’s representatives have denied that the religious leader had any planned meeting with Zam.

The IRGC publicly boasted of its own deception, portraying Zam’s capture as a triumph for the Iranian security services, which had outfoxed their Western adversaries. Zam was tried and sentenced to death for “corruption on Earth.” He was hanged on Dec. 12, 2020, at the age of 42.

Other activists have been captured while traveling abroad. In August 2020, Jamshid Sharmahd, a 67-year-old California resident and German Iranian citizen, was kidnapped allegedly by agents for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence during a flight layover in Dubai and spirited to Iran. Iran accuses Sharmahd of leading a “terrorist” group trying to overthrow the government, which he denied during a trial that human rights activists denounced as a sham. Sharmahd’s family fear he will be sentenced to death.

Iran issues first known death sentence linked to uprising

Activists and dissidents who have fled Iran have faced relentless harassment from Tehran.

Mehdi Hajati, a former Shiraz city councilman who had spoken out against corruption in Iran and defended the rights of Bahais, a harshly persecuted religious minority, hoped he might find sanctuary in Turkey. But almost as soon as he arrived in the fall of 2021, he began to receive threats.

Hajati had been jailed for eight months by Iranian security forces. On the day he tweeted to his followers that he had left Iran, an Iranian friend in Turkey who had also recently escaped received a message from an IRGC intelligence official who had interrogated both men in prison.

“It seems that a friend who is more traitorous than you has come to Turkey and joined you, his spy friend,” said the message, a screenshot of which Hajati shared with The Post. “Teach that Bahaihypocrite how to sleep with his eyes open and watch his back even in the shower and washroom!”

The friend who received that message, Mohammad Shabani, died in October under what Hajati called suspicious circumstances. Shabani’s wrists were cut, and he had fallen from the fourth floor of his apartment building, according to one person who knew him, Adel Javan. Somefriends wonder whether Shabani was driven to suicide by harassment from Tehran.

One person who was in touch with Shabani in the weeks before his death shared screenshots of some of his messages. On Sept. 10, Shabani wrote that he had received death threats, including pictures of himself on the street in Turkey and of his home there. He said that without further help with his refugee case, he would be “condemned to a life of fear and home imprisonment for the next 10 years.”

A little more than a month later, Shabani was dead.

Hajati, now living as a refugee in Turkey with his family and awaiting resettlement to a third country, said he receives a near-constant stream of threatening messages via social media, screenshots of which he provided. The threats tend to escalate when Hajati speaks out via a prominent platform or when there is unrest in Iran, and they have reached a new intensity during the domestic uprising of the past two months.

More worrisome for Hajati are attempts by the authorities to implicate him in a recent deadly attack at Shiraz’s Shahcheragh holy shrine, which he fears they could use as a possible justification for his eventual kidnapping or killing.

In October, Turkish intelligence agents summoned Hajati and questioned him about his activities for five hours, told him he risked deportation if he did not stop his activities, and that, with the level of threats against him, they could not guarantee his safety.

Hajati replied that he could not “abandon the people in the streets who are being shot, and even if it threatens my life I will continue my activities.”

Turkish officials did not respond to requests for comment.

But the threats have shrunk his family’s world to their 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom home, with Hajati unable to go outside except for medical care or to speak with Turkish authorities.

“It’s an absolute constant loneliness,” Hajati said. “I don’t know what disaster is worse than this for a person that by name they are free but they are imprisoned at home, and just because of the Islamic Republic’s constant threats and intent to destroy them.”465Comments

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