Three men reputedly linked to Eastern European mobsters and Iranian officials, Khalid Mehdiyev, Rafat “Rome” Amirov, and Polad Omarov, were accused in a federal indictment unsealed Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, of plotting to murder the prominent Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
A brazen murder-for-hire assassination scheme cooked up in Iran to kill dissident journalist Masih Alinejad has netted three members of the Eastern European underworld, according to a federal indictment.
Unsealed Friday, Jan. 27, in Manhattan, the indictment alleges that Iranian agents paid Rafat “Rome” Amirov, Polad Omarov, and reputed gunman Khalid Mehdiyev to slay the dissident outside her Brooklyn flat.
But prosecutors suspect the plot fell apart on July 28 after New York Police Department officers stopped the wannabe shooter for blowing through a stop sign. Investigators later discovered stashed in his Subaru a Norinco AK-47-style assault rifle with an obliterated serial number. He’s been behind bars ever since.
Although she’s not identified in the indictment, Coffee or Die Magazine was told the alleged victim is the 46-year-old Alinejad, a prominent Iranian American feminist and political activist perhaps best known for her work at the Voice of America Farsi section.
In 2020, her brother, Alireza Alinejad, was sentenced to eight years in an Iranian prison for criticizing Tehran’s leaders. In that same year, Iranian agents hired henchmen to kidnap Masih Alinejad and spirit her to Iran to stand trial, but FBI officials said they foiled the conspiracy.
Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 to discuss the regime in Tehran. US State Department photo.
A married mother, Alinejad took to Twitter on Friday to confirm Amirov, Omarov, and Mehdiyev were “plotting to kill me on US soil.” And she urged President Joe Biden to pressure European allies to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
“The victim in this case was targeted for exercising the rights to which every American citizen is entitled,” said US Attorney General Merrick Garland in a prepared statement released Friday. “The victim publicized the Iranian Government's human rights abuses; discriminatory treatment of women; suppression of democratic participation and expression; and use of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and execution. The Department of Justice will not tolerate attempts by an authoritarian regime to undermine those protections and the rule of law upon which our democracy is based. We will not tolerate attempts by a foreign power to threaten, silence, or harm Americans. We will stop at nothing to identify, find, and bring to justice those who endanger the safety of the American people.”
Originally from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Amirov, 43, was arrested Thursday in New York and is slated to be arraigned Friday before US Magistrate Judge Sarah L. Cave.
Czech authorities nabbed Omarov, a 38-year-old with ties to Slovenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan, on Jan. 4, and his extradition to New York to face murder-for-hire and money laundering charges is pending.
Amirov and Omarov face up to 40 years in a federal penitentiary. Because of his added gun charge, Mehdiyev could spend up to 45 years behind bars.
FBI agents say Rafat “Rome” Amirov is linked to both Iranian officials and organized crime in Azerbaijan and Russia. US Department of Justice photos.
Also known as “Farkhaddin Mirzoev” and “PиM,” Amirov was living in Iran when he allegedly brokered the assassination scheme with Iranian agents over the summer on behalf of what international criminal investigators call vory v zakone, or "thieves-in-law."
They're underworld leaders tied to Russia and other post-Soviet republics. They're reputedly running rackets linked to narcotics and human trafficking, murder, kidnapping, extortion, and corrupting public officials.
Federal officials said Amirov and the other two conspirators belong to the same criminal cell, with their membership marked by an eight-pointed star tattooed on their left shoulders.
It's the most popular tattoo in the subculture of the thieves and usually is inked in Eurasian prisons by fellow gang members.
FBI officials say Polad Omarov is also known as Araz Aliyev, Polad Qaqa, and Haci Qaqa. He’s reputedly linked to gangsters in Georgia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. US Department of Justice photos.
Prosecutors said Amirov soon contacted Omarov — also known as “Araz Aliyev,” “Polad Qaqa,” and “Haci Qaqa” — who arranged a $30,000 payment to Mehdiyev, 24, to buy the AK-47 knockoff and ambush Alinejad outside her apartment.
Originally from Azerbaijan, Mehdiyev was living in Yonkers as a documented immigrant when allegedly contracted to carry out the hit.
On July 13, Amirov messaged Omarov a dossier on Alinejad, including images of her residence from an internet map service, her address, and two photographs of her, according to their indictment. FBI agents suspect the dossier, written in Farsi, originated with Iranian officials.
It was then passed to Mehdiyev, who videotaped Alinejad’s apartment and sent footage to Omarov, who forwarded it on to Amirov, prosecutors said.
Officials haven’t identified the man who met Mehdiyev in Brooklyn to fork over $30,000, all bills wrapped in rubber bands, as payment. But when Mehdiyev sent a digital photo of the stack to Omarov, Amirov allegedly proclaimed, “Let God help him, Amen, God willing!”
But Mehdiyev didn’t keep all the cash. He wired $10,000 from the box to Omarov’s “romantic partner” in Eastern Europe and, on July 20, sent another image of the rifle he bought, calling it in Turkish a “war machine,” according to the indictment.
FBI officials say Khalid Mehdiyev was the gunman hired to murder the Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad, but he was arrested for a traffic violation by New York Police Department officers on July 28, 2022. US Department of Justice photos.
FBI agents said that Mehdiyev began staking out Alinejad’s Brooklyn flat that day, and continued the surveillance through July 28.
On the morning of July 24, Omarov messaged Mehdiyev to ask where he was, and the Yonkers man responded, “at the crime scene,” according to the indictment. Omarov shot back, “OK. You are a man!”
Mehdiyev’s initial plan appeared to be to block both sides of the street, and then gun Alinejad down as she stepped out of her front door. On July 26, he and Omarov apparently strategized how they’d get her outside, but the ploy to ask for flowers from her garden failed when she didn’t come to the door, prosecutors said.
The next day, Amirov in Iran sent Omarov what FBI agents called “intelligence” about Alinejad’s activities, including that she talked on the phone daily from 5:40 a.m. to 5:50 a.m., Iranian time, by the door.
According to FBI agents, Khalid Mehdiyev videotaped himself loading an AK-47-style rifle in late July of 2022. US Department of Justice photos.
On July 28, Omarov forwarded video showing Mehdiyev’s rifle in the suitcase, but Amirov responded the gunman needed to “keep the car clean,” which FBI agents interpreted as meaning not to shoot Alinejad from inside the Subaru Forester “in order to prevent forensic evidence of the murder” from remaining in the SUV.
But FBI officials said he never got a chance to pull the trigger because Alinejad became suspicious about activity near her residence and exited the area.
Friday’s unsealed indictment doesn’t dwell on why she got spooked, but court records tied to Mehdiyev’s arrest indicate he repeatedly exited and entered the SUV, ordered food to be delivered to his Subaru, approached Alinejad’s residence and peeped through her windows, and then tried to open her front door.
After she fled, Mehdiyev took off 15 minutes later.
On July 28, 2022, New York Police Department officers allegedly found inside Khalid Mehdiyev's Subaru Forester sport utility vehicle a suitcase containing a Norinco AK-47-style assault rifle loaded with a round in the chamber and a magazine attached, along with a separate second magazine. US Department of Justice photo.
Moments later, however, two NYPD officers stopped him for allegedly motoring past a stop sign.
The cops quickly discovered that Mehdiyev was driving on a suspended learner’s permit. A search of police databases also revealed the Subaru got a parking ticket on July 23 only a block away from Alinejad’s apartment.
After his SUV was towed to the Brooklyn precinct house, officers discovered in the rear seat the suitcase holding the Chinese-made Norinco AK-47-style weapon, with a round in the chamber and a magazine inserted in the rifle. There also was a spare magazine. Combined, they held 66 rounds.
There also was a black ski mask, $1,180 in cash, an expired employment authorization card issued by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and a pair of spare license plates with different numbers on them to go with the Illinois plate on the vehicle.
Thousands of AK-47 assault rifles sit on the flight deck of the guided-missile destroyer The Sullivans on Jan. 7, 2023. US officials said its sailors seized 2,116 AK-47 assault rifles from a fishing vessel transiting from Iran to Yemen in the Gulf of Oman. US Navy photo.
His alibi: Mehdiyev claimed the rent in Yonkers was too damned high and he was scouting a new place to live in Brooklyn in a borrowed SUV when he came across Alinejad’s apartment.
According to investigators, he admitted to opening her screen door but changed his mind about knocking because there might be a sleeping or sick occupant inside.
The cash was to rent a hotel room if he couldn’t find a flat, and he didn’t even know about the firearm because it was in the Subaru before he borrowed it, he added.
FBI agents said he later confessed that the rifle was his, and then asked to speak to a lawyer.
“I appreciate your checking, but I have no statement now,” Mehdiyev’s prominent court-appointed criminal defense attorney, Stephanie Carvlin, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
On July 23, 2021, national security advisor Jake Sullivan met with prominent Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad. US Department of State photo.
On Aug. 7, Amirov messaged Omarov about the growing press coverage of Mehdiyev’s arrest in Brooklyn, according to their indictment.
“He has become popular, brother,” Amirov wrote.
“I hope he will not make trouble for me,” Omarov replied.
But Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said Mehdiyev got them all into a lot of trouble, and they’re not getting out of it.
“Today’s indictment exposes a dangerous menace to national security – a double threat posed by a vicious transnational crime group operating from what it thought was the safe haven of a rogue nation: Iran,” she said in a prepared statement. “As national security and criminal threats continue to blend, the Department of Justice will use all its tools to zealously protect freedom and hold accountable all those who would use violence to undermine it.”
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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