At first, Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad brushed off the threat after half a dozen FBI agents showed up at her New York City home.
Alinejad, who fled Iran in 2009, has played a role in encouragingagainst the law in Iran mandating women wear a headscarf, or hijab. She lives in Brooklyn and asks women back home to send her videos of them taking off their hijabs. Alinejad spreads those images online to her 10 or so million followers, fueling the protest movement and making Alinejad a target of the Iranian government, even though she is in the U.S.
"There were, like, six or seven FBI agents. When they came to my house, they told me that, 'Your life is in danger.' I was like, 'OK, tell me something new.' Because we Iranians are used to it," Alinejad said. "But they actually said, 'No, this time it's different.' They said that 'the Iranian regime hired a private investigator on U.S. soil to take photos of your movement, your daily life, your routine.' And I was like, 'Wow, so they're here in New York, in Brooklyn?'"
The plots against Masih Alinejad
Alinejad was the target of ain 2021 and a the following year.
The first plan was to kidnap Alinejad and take her by speedboat to Venezuela, before heading to Iran so she could stand trial. The Iranian government has denied the plot.
A year later, Iran paid a 24-year-old Azerbaijani living in Yonkers, New York, $30,000 to buy a semi-automatic weapon and kill Alinejad. Khalid Mehdiyev allegedly lurked outside of Alinejad's home for a week.
"He received a text message from the guy inside Iran, saying that 'Go and knock the door. Then take her to the backyard garden,'" Alinejad said.
Home surveillance video captured a man pacing back and forth with a cellphone. He took off eventually, but was later pulled over for running a stop sign.
Officials said they found a gun in the car. Mehdiyev, along with Rafat Amirov and Polad Omarov, were all charged this year in what the Department of Justice described as an "assassination plot directed from Iran." The men are alleged members of an Eastern European criminal organization. Iran has continued to deny any involvement.
"They were all from a criminal syndicate," Alinejad said. "This is what the Islamic Republic is really good at, like, using drug dealers, using criminals to do their dirty job on Western soil."
Alinejad testified before Congress in September. She said that unless the Biden administration's policies toward Iran change, her life will continue to be in danger.
"The administration has only taken token measures to punish the Islamic Republic, always careful not to antagonize the ayatollahs," she testified. "Their condemnation of the kidnapping attempt was vaguely worded and showed weakness. That only emboldened the Iranian regime to initiate the assassination plot."
During the testimony, she said she had been told that there had been more than 31 credible threats made against her on U.S. soil.
"I believe that when I'm not in the spotlight, when media like you are not paying attention to me, finally they're going to come after me," Alinejad said.
From Iranian dissidents to U.S. government officials
Alinejad hasn't been the only one targeted by Iran. Video shared on a Telegram channel affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard earlier this year includes a vow to kill former American government officials, including former President Donald Trump, to avenge the 2020 U.S. assassination of, the Iranian general accused of being the mastermind behind several terror plots around the world.
Those threats have been deemed credible enough that several officials have been under round-the-clock protection, including former Defense Secretaryand former Secretary of State . Iran has reportedly offered a hitman a million dollars for Pompeo's head, law enforcement and expert sources said.
, a former national security adviser, was also threatened.
"They bargained the price for me would be $300,000, which I have to say I found insulting," Bolton said.
An indictment against an Iranian operative from the IRGC's Quds Force inTehran, Shahram Poursafi, alleges that beginning in October 2021, he attempted to arrange Bolton's murder. Poursafi allegedly attempted to pay $300,000 to people in the U.S. for the murder, the Justice Department said. The department said there was no evidence that Poursafi had ever been to the U.S. He remains at large overseas and is wanted by the FBI.
Iran has denied involvement in the alleged plot, with a spokesman for the country's foreign ministry saying the "baseless claims" were "made with political goals and motivations," according to an automated translation of a statement published by the state-run Fars News Agency.
"This was not internet chatter. This was a negotiation to murder an American citizen, a former government official," Bolton said.
Bolton still has police and Secret Service parked outside of his home for protection.
Iran's use of criminal proxies
The FBI has an arrest warrant out for an Iranian intelligence officer accused of hiring a hitman online to kill Bolton.
Government officials in Tehran regularly use proxies around the world, according to Matt Jukes, head of Counter Terrorism Policing in the U.K.
"I think we're always going to see this collaboration between criminal organizations," Jukes said. "We know that this will not always be a direct line from a state organization to a threat to a potential kidnapping."
A recording given to "60 Minutes" by a foreign intelligence agency shows how Iran recruits criminals. In the recording, an Iranian smuggler from Urmia, a town near the Turkish border, describes a call he got from Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
"Their request was that I find people who could work for them," the smuggler said in the recording. "What kind of work? 'Anything. Like: catching someone for us so they can be beaten up or gotten rid of.'"
Surveillance video shows him recruiting Mansour Rasouli, an alleged drug dealer, for the task. Rasouli allegedly agreed to arrange assassinations throughout Europe for the Iranian government, for money. But a few weeks later, Rasouli was kidnapped at night and interrogated in a car, reportedly by Israeli intelligence. They extracted a cellphone confession, during which Rasouli admitted he was paid $150,000 upfront and promised a million dollars if he killed three people for the Iranians.
His targets were an Israeli at the embassy in Istanbul, an American general in Germany and a journalist in France. The French target was identified as philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, a vocal critic of the regime in Tehran. The identity of the American general remains a mystery.
Iran's shadow war on the rise
The plot to kill the three through Rasouli was prevented, but in recent years, several Iranian dissidents have been successfully kidnapped, smuggled to Iran and executed.
Officials with the FBI and several intelligence agencies say Iran's efforts to intimidate, abduct and assassinate perceived enemies of the regime have become more frequent.
Jukes said that British intelligence has foiled 15 Iranian kidnapping and assassination attempts since last year.
"I have been involved in national security policing for over 20 years. What we've seen in the last 18 months is a real acceleration," Jukes said.
In the U.S., Bolton views Iran's targeting of American citizens as something close to an act of war. He feels the U.S. is not deterring Iran.
"I think this also goes to an unwillingness on the part of the administration to confront the ayatollahs in a way that they understand," he said.
The Biden administration didn't respond to requests for an interview.
Masih, who has had to go into hiding with her family, said American sanctions on Iran aren't enough.
"Look, when you negotiate with the killers, you're empowering them," she said.
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