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Moving from safehouse to safehouse takes a toll on survivors of assassination plots

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In the past few years, the Justice Department has foiled at least four state-sponsored assassination plots on U.S. soil. It's part of a growing trend in which foreign governments look to silence critics overseas. One of the targets in the U.S. was Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist and activist. NPR's Ryan Lucas tells the story of how the threat against her has changed her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: On a rooftop garden high above Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, guests sip cocktails and nibble on appetizers as the setting sun kisses the buildings across the street. They are here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Masih Alinejad's campaign against the compulsory headscarf, or hijab, in Iran. Inside, over plates of fragrant Persian food, the guests are shown a brief video in which Alinejad talks about her activism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASIH ALINEJAD: I launched a campaign called My Stealthy Freedom - asked women to join their photos and videos without hijab. This was direct challenge against one of the main pillar of the Islamic Republic. I was bombarded by thousands of photos of women without hijab.

LUCAS: Iranian women also sent her videos of themselves without their hijab, which Alinejad then posts on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: Alinejad's campaign has gained her a massive audience - some 10 million followers across social media. It also has put her in the crosshairs, literally, of Iran's government. Last year, the Justice Department announced it had foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate Alinejad in New York City. What the department didn't say was that the plot almost succeeded.

In late July 2022, the suspected hit man stood on the front porch of Alinejad's Brooklyn home. Video shows the man - bearded and dressed in a black T-shirt and baggy shorts - outside her front door. Alinejad was home at the time, on a Zoom call with the Russian chess champion and political activist Garry Kasparov and the Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

ALINEJAD: I was in a very deep conversation. It was very tense, and we were talking about initiating new organization. So that's why I didn't want to leave the meeting. So when I heard someone knocking the door, I was like, OK, after the meeting. So I didn't open the door.

LUCAS: That Zoom call likely saved her life. The FBI, she says, was aware Iran was targeting her, but she says the feds didn't know that the man on her front porch was the suspected hit man and that he had a gun. When Alinejad didn't answer the door that day, the suspect eventually left. He was pulled over by the cops for running a stop sign near her house. They found an AK-47-style rifle in the back seat of his car. He was arrested, and investigators unraveled the plot from there.

ALINEJAD: I actually asked the FBI, what happened that I'm alive now? And they said you were lucky.

LUCAS: Alinejad is explaining all of this at an outdoor restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., as children play in a fountain nearby. The day of the suspected hit man's arrest, the FBI whisked her and her family to a safe house - not for the first time. A few years ago, the FBI foiled an alleged Iranian plot to kidnap Alinejad, and she spent more than two months in an FBI safe house. Over the past few years, she and her family have moved from one safe house to another.

How many safe houses have you been in?

ALINEJAD: I don't know. I lost count. I mean, it's about 20 in three years.

LUCAS: Sometimes she and her family only have an hour or so to pack their bags. It is a temporary life, she says, and it can be disorienting.

ALINEJAD: So sometimes during the night, I wake up, and I don't know where I am. 'Cause, like, takes - I'm not sure whether, you know, you understand it or not. It's like, I wake up, and I don't know - this is my house. This is a hotel. This is a safe house. So it's not easy.

LUCAS: She and her husband had to sell their Brooklyn house after the foiled assassination plot. It was too well known. It wasn't safe. Now the couple is looking to buy a place in New York, but it's hard to get past a co-op board, Alinejad says, when a quick Google search reveals the Iranian government has sent a hit man to murder you.

ALINEJAD: Who is going to sell a co-op to a person being followed by killers? So we're getting reference letters from neighbors, from colleagues, to actually convince the members of - like, the board members in co-op to please accept us. We're good people. Ignore the killers.

LUCAS: The threat against her life did not end with the foiled plot. U.S. officials have told Alinejad that Iran is still actively trying to kill her. The FBI declined 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, Kambiz Foroohar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS WAILING)

KAMBIZ FOROOHAR: I never thought it would come to this.

LUCAS: Over coffee at a sidewalk cafe in New York, Foroohar says moving from safe house to safe house has taken a toll. The couple doesn't hang artwork on the walls or put up family photos, he says, because they never know how long they'll be in one place.

FOROOHAR: And every location that we are is very sterile for us. 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.

LUCAS: Foroohar says, when the FBI told him and Alinejad that Iranian operatives were surveilling them, they were in shock. He knew Iran's leaders didn't like her activism, but he never thought they'd try to kill her. Still, both he and Alinejad are able to find humor in their predicament.

FOROOHAR: You can't really talk about it on a day-to-day basis with people 'cause it doesn't happen to everyone's life experience. You know, 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 doing shooting (ph) outside my house. That's a conversation killer (laughter).

LUCAS: But 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 says, when a man threw liquid in Alinejad's face.

FOROOHAR: For a brief moment, she thought, oh, my God, it's acid. And she thought, my God, my face is going to burn. And she rushed into a shop and poured - was pouring water - got some bottle of water and just pouring water over her face.

LUCAS: It wasn't acid. It was coffee. But Alinejad lives with the fear that anywhere she goes, he says, danger may lurk behind every door.

FOROOHAR: Sometimes if someone walks too closely behind us, she gets nervous. Or if she gets in the elevator, someone else walks in, she walks out. These have small effects.

LUCAS: He calls these moments of nervousness. But most of the time, he says, Alinejad is ready to fight the good fight.

Back in Washington, Alinejad says she knows the toll her work has taken on her family. It's forced Foroohar to spend less time with his children. Some friends, out of fear, have distanced themselves from her.

ALINEJAD: 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, when I see that he doesn't have his art. When I see that, anywhere I go, he gets almost heart attack if I don't answer his phone call.

LUCAS: Sometimes she says she asks herself whether it's worth it - putting herself, family, her friends in potential danger - and the answer she comes back to is yes.

ALINEJAD: I'm not carrying any weapon. I don't have guns and bullets. But the regime - that they have guns, bullets, everything - they are scared of me. That gives me power, you know? It gives me hope.

LUCAS: Alinejad says she 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.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "GUNSHOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.