Iranian Rial currency
Image: Ashkan Forouzani via Unsplash

Iranian intelligence used narco trafficker to recruit Hells Angel for planned assassination

An alleged Iranian drug trafficker with ties to Tehran’s intelligence services has been charged in the United States with recruiting a member of the Hells Angels in a plot to murder an Iranian defector who had previously fled to Maryland.

A Grand Jury Indictment against Naji Sharifi Zindashti, 49, was unsealed on Monday, at the same time as U.S. and U.K. authorities announced sanctions against his network which they said operated “at the behest of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).”

Zindashti, who remains at large in Iran, operated a network that “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,” stated the Treasury.

Alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the MOIS has targeted a “wide range of dissidents, journalists, activists, and former Iranian officials … for assassination, kidnapping, and hacking operations across numerous countries in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.”

MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence agency said it had foiled at least 15 plots by Iran to “kidnap or even kill” people based in the United Kingdom who were perceived as enemies of the regime — with several journalists being warned of “imminent, credible” threats to their lives.

Such people have also been targeted by hackers working on Iran’s behalf, with the National Cyber Security Centre issuing an alert last year about an Iran-based espionage group tracked as Charming Kitten or APT42, which is believed to be state-sponsored by numerous cybersecurity companies.

According to the U.S. Treasury, the Iranian regime “increasingly relies on organized criminal groups in furtherance of these plots in an attempt to obscure links to the Government of Iran and maintain plausible deniability,” citing the kidnapping of Jamshid Sharmahd, the assassination of Ahmad Molla Nissi, and the kidnaping and execution of Ruhollah Zam, among many others.

According to the British sanctions announcement, other individuals also designated include members of the IRGC Unit 840 who — as uncovered in an investigation by news channel ITV — had offered a criminal $200,000 to assassinate two journalists.

The journalists worked at Iran International, a television station that was perceived to be critical of the regime. The station has since moved to the United States, claiming it was no longer safe to operate on British soil.

Monday’s indictment alleges that suspected drugs trafficker and MOIS cut-out Zindashti communicated with Damion Ryan, 43, a Canadian “full-patch member of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club” using the end-to-end encrypted communications service SkyECC to arrange the assassination between December 2020 and January 2021.

Sky Global, a Canada-based company that operated the SkyECC platform, was shut down in March 2021 after the U.S. unsealed an indictment for racketeering against the company’s founder and CEO, Jean-Francois Eap.

Days earlier, Belgian and Dutch police had raided more than 250 premises and arrested over 70 people allegedly using the platform for drug trafficking. It is still not clear how law enforcement managed to access the encrypted messaging platform.

The indictment against Zindashti and Ryan, as well as a third defendant Adam Pearson, 29, quotes several messages shared between the defendants arranging the assassination and an unnamed co-conspirator based in Iran who assisted Zindashti with planning the murder.

According to the intercepted SkyECC messages, Zindashti and Ryan agreed on a $350,000 payment for the assassination in addition to $20,000 expenses.

Ryan and Pearson were arrested before the plot could be carried out and are currently imprisoned on unrelated offenses.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.