Iranian kidnapping plot shows that transnational abductions are becoming 'mainstream,' human rights activists say

A newly released Justice Department indictment charging four Iranian intelligence operatives with plotting to kidnap a New York-based journalist who had criticized the Iranian regime dramatically underscores how transnational abductions are becoming the new “normal” for repressive regimes around the world, two human rights activists said Wednesday.

“It’s a horrific attempt to silence dissent,” Saudi activist Lina Alhathloul said during a Freedom House webinar about the alleged Iranian plot to lure Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad to a third country so she could be forcibly rendered to Iran.

Iranian-American journalist Alinejad Masih shows an FBI car guarding outside her apartment in this still image from an undated social media video posted on July 14, 2021. (Twitter/@ALINEJADMASIH via Reuters)
Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad. (Twitter/@alinejadmasih via Reuters)

Her sister, prominent women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul, was abducted in Dubai in 2018 and flown to Saudi Arabia, where she was thrown in prison and tortured under the direction of a top aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, according to U.S. officials and accounts from the Alhathloul family.

“This is very much a moment when we see this phenomenon is becoming mainstream,” added Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy at Freedom House, an international watchdog group that promotes the cause of freedom. “It’s becoming something that dozens of governments around the world use to control exiles and diaspora members.”

The comments came during a Freedom House-sponsored panel dedicated to the growing threat of the transnational repression trend, as detailed in a recent report and video from the group, and to the new season of Yahoo News’ "Conspiracyland," an eight-episode podcast that uncovered new details about the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

As was noted in the panel discussion, there are striking parallels between the Saudi plot to assassinate Khashoggi and the alleged Iranian plot to kidnap Alinejad. Both targeted journalists who, after criticizing their governments, had moved to the United States to live in exile. Khashoggi had excoriated the harsh crackdowns by MBS, including the detention of Loujain Alhathloul. Alinejad had criticized the corruption and repressive measures of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)
Jamal Khashoggi. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)

Both plots involved extensive surveillance on U.S. soil. In Khashoggi’s case, Saudi operatives recruited spies inside Twitter to steal personal data about regime critics and later used sophisticated spyware to hack the phones of one of those critics who was in extensive contact with the Saudi journalist. In Alinejad’s case, Iranian intelligence operatives used private investigators to follow, photograph and video-record the Iranian American journalist and members of her family in Brooklyn, according to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, who on Tuesday brought the indictment against the Iranian operatives, all of whom reside in Iran.

Yet, as Schenkkan noted, the failure of the U.S. government, first under President Donald Trump and more recently under President Biden, to impose any sanctions against MBS sent a message to authoritarian regimes around the world that there would be no meaningful price to pay for abducting or even murdering their citizens on foreign soil. “Countries do it because they can get away with it and because the consequences are not there,” Schenkkan said.

Alhathloul said it was disheartening that defenders of the Saudi regime are citing the alleged Iranian plot against Alinejad to minimize or even normalize what happened to Khashoggi.

“It’s always so sad and frustrating to see that countries use the crimes of their rivals to minimize and justify what is happening within their own sphere,” she said. “You see the Saudis saying, ‘Iran is worse than us.’ My message is we should be against repression whatever the nationality of the criminal is.”

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