US-Based Iranian and Chinese Dissidents Targeted by Host Countries' Espionage; FBI Steps Up Protection Measures

As China and Iran hunt for dissidents in the US, the FBI is racing to counter the threat

PTI | Washington DC | Updated: 06-05-2024 11:33 IST | Created: 06-05-2024 11:33 IST
US-Based Iranian and Chinese Dissidents Targeted by Host Countries' Espionage; FBI Steps Up Protection Measures
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After a student leader of the historic Tiananmen Square protests entered a 2022 congressional race in New York, a Chinese intelligence operative wasted little time enlisting a private investigator to hunt for any mistresses or tax problems that could upend the candidate's bid, prosecutors say.

"In the end," the operative ominously told his contact, "violence would be fine too." As an Iranian journalist and activist living in exile in the United States aired criticism of Iran's human rights abuses, Tehran was listening too. Members of an Eastern European organized crime gang scouted her Brooklyn home and plotted to kill her in a murder-for-hire scheme directed from Iran, according to the Justice Department, which foiled the plan and brought criminal charges.

The episodes reflect the extreme measures taken by countries like China and Iran to intimidate, harass and sometimes plot attacks against political opponents and activists who live in the US. They show the frightening consequences that geopolitical tensions can have for ordinary citizens as governments historically intolerant of dissent inside their own borders are increasingly keeping a threatening watch on those who speak out thousands of miles away.

"We're not living in fear, we're not living in paranoia, but the reality is very clear — that the Islamic Republic wants us dead, and we have to look over our shoulder every day," the Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad, said in an interview.

The issue has grabbed the attention of the Justice Department, which in the past five years has charged dozens of suspects with acts of transnational repression. Senior FBI officials told The Associated Press that the tactics have grown more sophisticated, including the hiring of proxies like private investigators and organized crime leaders, and countries are more willing to cross "serious red lines" from harassment into violence as they seek to project power abroad and stifle dissent.

Foreign adversaries are increasingly making well-funded intimidation campaigns a priority for their intelligence services, and more countries — including some not seen as traditionally antagonistic to the US — have targeted critics in America and elsewhere in the West, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their investigations.

The Justice Department, for instance, announced a disrupted plot last November to kill a Sikh activist in New York that officials said was directed by an Indian government official. Rwanda kidnapped Paul Rusesabagina of "Hotel Rwanda" fame from Texas and returned him to the country before releasing him, and Saudi Arabia has harassed critics online and in person, the FBI has said.

"This is a huge priority for us," said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the Justice Department's top national security official, describing an "alarming rise" in government-directed harassment.

He said the prosecutions are meant not only to hold harassers accountable but to send a message that the actions are "unacceptable from the perspective of United States sovereignty and defending American values — values around free expression and free association." Other nations also have seen a spike in cases.

An April report from Reporters Without Borders called London a "hotspot" for Iranian attacks on Persian-language broadcasters, with British counterterrorism police investigating an attack one month earlier on an Iranian television presenter outside his home in London. In Britain and elsewhere in Europe, harassment and attacks targeting Russians, including a journalist who fell ill from a suspected poisoning in Germany, have long been blamed on Russia's intelligence operatives despite denials from Moscow.

Inside the U.S., the trend is all the more worrisome because of an ever-deteriorating relationship with Iran and tensions with China over everything from trade and theft of intellectual property to election interference. And emerging technologies like generative AI are likely to be exploited for future harassment, U.S. intelligence officials said in a recent threat assessment.

"Transnational repression is a manifestation of the broader conflict between authoritarian regimes and democratic countries,'' Olsen said. "It's been a consistent theme of the way the world is changing from a geopolitical standpoint over the last decade."

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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