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    Iranian charged with hiring Canadian hitmen to kill exiles in Maryland

    The Justice Department charged one Iranian and two Canadian nationals for their alleged roles in a murder-for-hire plot against two Maryland residents, according to newly unsealed court documents.

    Federal officials said the FBI thwarted the 2021 scheme, whose alleged conspirators include an “Iran-based narco-trafficker” and two Canadians, one of whom was a member of the Hells Angels motorbike gang. The man and woman intended as the plot’s victims, neither of whom were identified, were residing in Maryland after one of them defected from Iran, according to the DOJ.

    Prosecutors named the mastermind of the plot as Iran-based Naji Sharifi Zindashti, 49, accusing him of recruiting a team of gunmen through an encrypted messaging service to travel to Maryland to assassinate the pair. According to court documents, Zindashti spent months concocting the plot with the assistance of Canadian nationals Damion Patrick John Ryan, 43, and Adam Richard Pearson, 29, who were named as co-defendants.

    Zindashti offered to pay $370,000 for the murders, according to messages exchanged among the co-defendants between December 2020 and March 2021, as described in court documents. In another message, Pearson said to Ryan: “We gotta erase his head from his torso,” according to the documents.

    “Today’s charges show a pattern of Iranian groups trying to murder U.S. residents on U.S. soil,” Assistant Director Suzanne Turner of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said in a statement Monday. “Mr. Zindashti and his accomplices’ alleged plot is reprehensible, and the FBI will not tolerate such acts against U.S. residents, and we will continue to pursue these individuals until they are brought to the U.S. to face justice.”

    Rise in Iranian assassination, kidnapping plots alarms Western officials

    Zindashti is based in Iran, the DOJ said; the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Iran. Prosecutors were cooperating with authorities in Canada over Ryan and Pearson, who are currently incarcerated there on unrelated offenses. Federal officials did not specify a potential motive, but accused Zindashti’s network of previously killing and kidnapping perceived critics of the Iranian government.

    The same day the indictment was unsealed, U.S. Treasury officials announced a slew of sanctions against Zindashti, whom they accused of targeting Iranian dissidents at the behest of the country’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The sanctions prohibit Zindashti and key associates from engaging in any U.S.-linked transactions.

    According to court documents, the defendants communicated using the Sky ECC encrypted messaging service, with Zindashti enlisting Ryan with an offer to “make some money,” who in turn recruited Pearson for a “job” in Maryland.

    Prosecutors alleged that in January 2021, Ryan then exchanged messages with Pearson, who was illegally residing in Minnesota under an assumed name at the time, to discuss the logistics of traveling to Maryland. Pearson said he would “make sure I hit this guy in the head with ATLEAST half the clip,” according to the court documents. According to the documents, Pearson said that he may charge over $100,000 for the job — to which Ryan responded that he would “get u what u want.”

    According to prosecutors, messages exchanged between Zindashti and Ryan show that the pair agreed on a payment of $350,000, with an additional $20,000 to cover travel expenses.

    According to the Department for Justice, the maximum penalty for those convicted of federal “Murder-for-Hire” offenses is 10 years in prison and a fine, with that penalty extending to 20 years where personal injury results and life imprisonment or the death penalty where death results.

    A Minnesota federal grand jury charged all three men in December with conspiracy to use interstate commerce in the commission of a murder-for-hire plot. Pearson was also charged with two counts related to unlawful possession of a firearm.

    The Treasury said that Zindashti’s “network has carried out numerous acts of transnational repression including assassinations and kidnappings across multiple jurisdictions in an attempt to silence the Iranian regime’s perceived critics,” adding that Iran “increasingly relies on organized criminal groups … to obscure links to the Government of Iran and maintain plausible deniability.”

    Officials accused Zindashti’s associates of involvement in the kidnapping of Habib Chaab, an exiled Iranian opposition figure who was lured to Istanbul in 2020, drugged and smuggled back into Iran. Chaab, an Iranian-Swedish dual national, was executed in May 2023 after he was accused of masterminding a 2018 attack on a military parade in a closed-door trial.

    The Treasury alleged that the Iranian government also “used Zindashti and his men” to carry out the assassination of Mas’ud Vardanjani, a government critic and former Iranian cybersecurity official, in Istanbul in 2019. Zidashti was also behind the murder of two men, including a British-Iranian dissident, in 2017, the department said.

    Turkey says Iranian intelligence was behind elaborate plot to kidnap opponent in Istanbul

    The Iranian government has in recent years been accused of coordinating a string of daring plots to assassinate and abduct expatriate Iranians critical of it.

    In 2019, dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam was lured from his home in France to Iraq, taken into Iran, and hanged the following year.

    In a separate case, Jamshid Sharmahd, a California resident and dual German-Iranian national, was kidnapped during a layover in Dubai and taken into Iran. He was accused of leading a “terrorist” group and sentenced to death following what the Treasury called a “sham trial” in April 2023.

    On U.S. soil, the Iranian government has been accused of planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington in 2011, as well as a plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an exiled journalist and outspoken critic of the Iranian government who lives in Brooklyn.

    Iranian agents once plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador in D.C. The case reads like a spy thriller.

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