It is not every day that two FBI agents leave multiple messages urging you to call back. That is what happened to me in late September 2020, and although I was concerned, I told them I really didn’t have the time. I was in the midst of organizing the United For Navid campaign to protest the cruel execution of the popular wrestler Navid Afkari who had been arrested for protesting against the theocratic regime in Iran. I had a lot to do.
But they insisted and soon, an unmarked car arrived to whisk my husband, Kambiz Foroohar, and I to a meeting. Four months earlier the two agents had visited my home to discuss cyber-bullying and online threats. I had always imagined the FBI to be staffed with white men in dark suits, like the lead character in the movie Men in Black, but John and Jane (not their real names) were different.
I told them then that I was used to being a target of cyber attacks. I had left Iran in 2009 and moved to the US in 2014, just months after I had created the My Stealthy Freedom campaign to protest compulsory hijab rules in Iran. Although I’m physically in Brooklyn, thanks to social media and the internet, I am in Iran every hour of every day. I knew that my harsh criticism of Iran’s clerical establishment, my campaign against the compulsory hijab, and my efforts to highlight Tehran’s rights abuses had angered Iranian officials. They had already tried to silence me through intimidation, smearing my name, and pressuring my family. My brother Ali has been jailed for eight years, my sister was pressed to disown me publicly on national television and my mother is constantly harassed.
As the car ride came to a halt in a basement car park in September 2020, my initial suspicion was that I was going to reprimanded by the feds for my criticism of the Islamic Republic. I had grown up with a deep fear of the country’s security forces and felt that nothing good was likely to come out of my meeting at FBI headquarters in New York. It was worrisome that whatever I had done was serious enough to require an office visit. Due to Covid restrictions, most offices had instigated work-from-home policies.
We walked into a conference room with six agents and were later joined by an assistant District Attorney from the Southern District of New York, one of the most important jurisdictions.
“We have been alerted that someone is monitoring your movements and taking photos and videos of you and sending them to the intelligence ministry in Tehran,” John said, meaning the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The FBI had come to the conclusion, based on this and other evidence, that a plot was afoot to kidnap me. I was shocked to read in the indictment that the plot had been to kidnap me from the waterfront in Brooklyn and then transfer me via boat to Venezuela.
I had always thought I was safe in the US. I knew that Islamic Republic agents operated in Europe and a number of dissidents had been killed there — but I’d assumed that Iran’s operators couldn’t touch me as far afield as America.
The agents were not forthcoming as to how they had uncovered this plot against me. I can only guess that the CIA had intercepted a message and alerted the FBI.
“The fact that the MOIS are planning an operation in our backyard makes us furious,” Jane said. “We are not going to let them get away with this.”
A week later, the agents showed me the surveillance photos that had been intercepted. It was disconcerting to know that Iranian intelligence agents in Tehran were looking at those same photos of me doing ordinary things at my home and garden or going out of my front door. And it wasn’t just me. They surveillance team had taken photos of my husband, my stepson and even our neighbors.
“At least I look good,” I quipped when I was shown them. Rather than being scared, I was furious. I wanted to expose their brazen acts in every media outlet possible.
At a follow-up meeting in late October, I met with James Dennehy, the head of the Intelligence and Surveillance Division of New York. Dennehy, who resembles the actor Josh Brolin, is a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type. “This is the biggest operation ever conducted by the Islamic Republic on US soil,” he said. “I want to punch back. I want to shake their tree. We have a chance to be aggressive rather than reactive.”
Dennehy wanted my family and I to move into a safe house but without anyone knowing we had changed our location. That involved a great deal of coordination and subterfuge. With the US elections approaching, the agents felt there was no need to take any chances.
“All the lights are blinking red and that’s not good,” another agent said. “An Iranian reconnaissance team is operating here and there could be a lethal team in place. We just don’t know.”
So, before the US elections we moved to a secret place and although we changed our location twice, we stayed in safe houses. We sometimes returned to our original home in Brooklyn for a quick hour or two before heading out again, to make it seem as though we still lived there. All the time the FBI were monitoring signals going to Tehran.
Opposition activists Jamshid Sharmahd was abducted from Dubai in July 2020 and Habib Chaab was kidnapped from Turkey in October 2020. If there was any doubt as to what awaited me if I was taken to Iran by a kidnapping team, it was put to rest on December 12 when the Islamic Republic executed dissident journalist Rouhallah Zam. Sam had been lured from France to Iraq, where he was kidnapped and taken to Iran. After a sham trial and a televised confession, he was hanged.
Although we have recently returned to our home in Brooklyn, police patrol cars and undercover officials are never far away. And though this plot is over, I will always be a target. “You will always have a bullseye on your back,” one agent warned me. “As long as the Islamic Republic endures.”
I refuse to live in fear. Whenever I feel down, I think of all the mothers whose children were killed during the November 2019 protests or the women who have been jailed because they protested against compulsory hijab. My protest will continue.
Masih Alinejad is a freelance journalist and activist living in New York