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She was the target of an Iranian assassination plot. She now lives in its shadow

Iranian rights activist Masih Alinejad speaks during a press conference in March in association with the World Liberty Congress to urge action on political prisoners around the world, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Saul Loeb
/
AFP via Getty Images
Iranian rights activist Masih Alinejad speaks during a press conference in March in association with the World Liberty Congress to urge action on political prisoners around the world, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Masih Alinejad is lucky to be alive.

In late July 2022, a hitman was standing on the front porch of her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. The man, bearded and wearing a black T-shirt and baggy black shorts, had allegedly been hired as part of a plot hatched in Iran to assassinate Alinejad, a dissident and outspoken critic of the Iranian regime.

The only thing separating him from Alinejad was her front door.

Alinejad was home at the time, on a Zoom call with the Russian chess champion and political activist Gary Kasparov and the Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

“I was in a very deep conversation. It was very tense, and we were talking about initiating a new organization, so that’s why I didn’t want to leave the meeting,” Alinejad said. “So when I heard someone knocking at the door, I was like, OK, after the meeting, so I didn’t open the door.”

That Zoom call likely saved her life.

When she didn’t answer the door, the suspect returned to his car and drove off, running a stop sign near her house. The police pulled him over and found an AK-47-style rifle in the back seat of his car. He was arrested, and from there the FBI unraveled what prosecutors say was a murder-for-hire scheme directed from Iran to assassinate Alinejad.

“I actually asked the FBI what happened that I’m alive now,” Alinejad told NPR. “They said 'You were lucky.' "

She was lucky, in part, because the FBI was aware Iran was targeting her, but the bureau didn’t know that the man on her porch was part of the alleged assassination plot or that he was armed with a gun, she said.

The murder-for-hire scheme to kill Alinejad is one of at least four state-sponsored plots that the Justice Department says it has foiled in the past several years. It is part of a growing trend in which foreign governments look to silence critics overseas.

The threats against her have turned her life upside down

Alinejad was recalling her ordeal over dinner in downtown Washington, D.C., in May. She had just arrived from New York for a brief visit following the death of Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash.

Alinejad, who was born in Iran and now lives in exile in the U.S., is a journalist, activist and outspoken critic of Iran’s government. For the past decade, she has waged a campaign against the country’s compulsory headscarf, or hijab, for women.

She has gained a massive audience on social media — some 10 million followers across platforms. Her activism has angered Iran’s leaders and put her in the regime’s crosshairs.

The U.S. Justice Department said in 2021 that it had foiled an Iranian plot to kidnap Alinejad in New York City, whisk her by speedboat to Venezuela and then transport her to Iran, where she most likely would have faced trial.

Two years later, the department announced that it had foiled another plot directed from Iran, but this time to assassinate Alinejad. A federal indictment charged four alleged members of an Eastern European criminal organization with ties to Iran of being tasked with killing her. It was one of those four men, Khalid Mehdiyev, who was on her front porch and later arrested.

Mehdiyev and two of his codefendants are in U.S. custody and have pleaded not guilty. A trial is scheduled for next year.

Since the kidnapping scheme was first exposed, Alinejad and her family have moved from one FBI safehouse to another — almost 20 over the past four years, she said. Sometimes they have advance warning; sometimes they only have an hour or so to pack their bags.

It is a temporary, disorienting way to live.

“Sometimes, during the night, I wake up and I don’t know where I am,” she said. “It’s like I wake up and I don’t know, this is my house? This is a hotel? It’s a safehouse? So it’s not easy.”

She and her husband, Kambiz Foroohar, had to sell their Brooklyn house after the foiled assassination plot. It was too well known and no longer safe, the authorities told them.

The couple is now looking to buy a place in New York City, but it’s hard to get past a co-op board, Alinejad said, when a quick Google search reveals that the Iranian government is trying to kill you.

“Who is going to sell a co-op to a person being followed by killers?” she said. “So we are getting our reference letters from neighbors, from colleagues to actually convince the members of the board, members in the co-op that please, accept us, we are good people, ignore the killers.”

The threat against her life did not end with the foiled plots. American officials have told her that Iran is still actively trying to kill her, she said.

The FBI declined to comment for this story. Iran’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.

The threat against Alinejad doesn’t just affect her. It affects her friends. It affects her family, including her husband.

Like Alinejad, Foroohar said that the constant moving from safehouse to safehouse has been one of the toughest challenges.

It has meant, at times, that he’s been separated from his children, who are Alinejad’s stepchildren. It feels like they are living in an Airbnb all the time.

The couple doesn’t hang artwork on the walls or put out family photos, he says, because they never know how long they’ll be in one place.

“Every location that we are in is sterile for us,” Foroohar said over coffee at a New York café. “And I want that messy, chaotic feel of a home where albums are everywhere, pictures are everywhere, books are everywhere, you know? It’s just, like, a mess that is your mess and it’s your home.”

Foroohar said that when the FBI first showed them photos that they were under surveillance by Iranian operatives, he and Alinejad were in shock. It felt like they themselves were characters in a movie, he said.

He knew Iran’s leaders didn’t like Alinejad’s activism, but Foroohar said he never thought they’d try to kill her.

“That’s a very radical step to take,” he said.

Still, the couple has been able to find humor in their predicament.

“You can’t really talk about it on a day-to-day basis with people because it doesn’t happen to everyone,” he said. “You can talk about the Knicks game. You can talk about the Yankees, or you can talk about the weather. But, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, there’s a guy with a machine gun outside my house' — that’s a conversation killer.”

Foroohar knows better than anyone how the threat on Alinejad’s life has taken a toll on her. He tells a story to illustrate how.

He and Alinejad were out together in New York one day, he said, when a man threw liquid into her face.

“For a brief moment, she thought, ‘Oh my god, this is acid,’” he said. “She thought, ‘My face is going to burn.’ And she rushed into a shop, got some bottled water and was just pouring water over her face.”

It turned out the liquid wasn’t acid. It was coffee. But Alinejad lives with the fear that anywhere she goes, he said, danger may lurk behind every door.

“Sometimes someone walks too closely behind us, she gets nervous,” he said. “Or she gets in the elevator, someone else walks in and she walks out. These have small effects.”

He calls these "moments of nervousness." Still, most of the time, he said, Alinejad is “ready to fight the good fight.”

How will it end?

Alinejad said she knows her work has taken a toll on her family. It’s forced Foroohar to spend less time with his children. Some friends have distanced themselves from Alinejad out of fear for their own safety.

“I always carry the guilt on my shoulder when I see that my husband doesn’t have a normal life, when I see that he misses his children, he doesn’t have his art, when I see that anywhere I go, he gets almost a heart attack if I don’t answer his phone call,” she said.

Sometimes she asks herself whether it’s worth it — putting herself, her family and friends in potential danger. And the answer she comes back to, she said, is yes.

“I’m not carrying any weapon. I don’t have guns and bullets,” she said. “But the regime, they have guns, bullets, everything, they are scared of me. That gives me power, you know? It gives me hope.”

Alinejad doesn’t know how this all ends, or whether it ever does.

But she says right now, she still has her voice and she is going to keep using it.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.