Monday, July 19, 2021

The New Yorker

Iran's Hollywood Kidnapping Plot Exposes Its Paranoia

At first, Masih Alinejad didn’t believe the F.B.I. The Iranian-born journalist and activist thought that she was safe after going into exile, in 2009, even as government propaganda continued to target her from afar. State television variously reported that she was a drug addict and accused her of being a spy for Western governments. Her parents and siblings, who remained in Iran, were harassed, threatened with loss of employment, and instructed to lure Alinejad to neighboring Turkey for a “family reunion,” so that agents could supposedly “just talk” to her. “Stalin would have been proud,” Alinejad recounted. Her brother, Alireza, warned her about a potential trap. In 2019, he was arrested, and the next year he was sentenced to eight years in prison. He remains in jail.

Yet the warning from the F.B.I., late last year, struck Alinejad—who now has five million followers on Instagram, a million on her Facebook campaign against compulsory hijab, and a show on the Voice of America’s Persian-language service—as too bizarre even for the Islamic Republic. In September, F.B.I. agents showed up at her home in Brooklyn, where she was living with her husband and stepchildren, to report that they had uncovered a plot by Iranian intelligence to kidnap or kill her. “My first reaction was laughing. I was making a joke,” she told me. “I told them, ‘I’m used to it. I received death threats daily on social media.’ ” The agents then revealed that private investigators, allegedly hired by an Iranian intelligence network, had been closely surveilling her for months. They showed her photographs that the operatives had taken of her hourly movements, and also pictures of her family, friends, visitors, home, and even the cars in her neighborhood. “When I saw my photos—they even took pictures of my stepson—I was shocked. I got goosebumps. He’s fourteen,” she said. She agreed to go to a safe house—first one, then another, then a third, over several months. It was the beginning of a series of traumas that included separation from her stepchildren, helping the F.B.I. agents create traps for the Iranian network, and the demise of her unwatered houseplants. Read on...