An Iranian agent tried to hire two Hells Angels motorcycle club members to assassinate two Maryland residents, federal officials alleged Monday.

The Iranian agent is in Iran, officials said, while the two Hells Angels are already in prison in Canada for unrelated crimes. The criminal indictment and a simultaneous set of sanctions announced by the U.S. Treasury Department marks the latest in a series of alleged attempted assassination by the Iranian government inside the United States.

A federal indictment and the sanctions Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and the United Kingdom target a network of assassins led by Naji Ibrahim Sharifi-Zindashti, an Iranian narcotics trafficker operating on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The sanctions alleged that the paid-for-hire assassins funded by Iran were sent after regime dissidents and opposition activists across the globe.

American officials say Zindashti’s network has carried out assassinations and kidnappings around the world since 2017 in an attempt to silence critics of the Iranian regime. His network has been linked to murders in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, and Türkiye.

Between December 2020 and March 2021, Zindashti, along with Canadians Damion Patrick John Ryan and Adam Richard Pearson conspired to murder two Maryland residents. The indictment said that one of their targets previously fled to the U.S. after defecting from Iran.

Zindashti used “SkyECC,” an encrypted messaging service to recruit assassins to travel into the U.S., carry out the killings, discuss the identities and locations of the would-be victims, plan logistics of the murders, and negotiate payment, according to the Department of Justice.

All three are charged with one count of conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire. Pearson, one of the hired assassins, is charged with one count of possession of a firearm by a fugitive and one count of possession of a firearm by an alien unlawfully in the U.S.

According to the DOJ indictment, between December 2020 and January 2021, Zindashti and Ryan communicated about “jobs,” “equipment,” “tools” and plans to “make some money.” 

In January 2021, they discussed a job in the U.S. which Ryan noted that the assignment would be challenging, but that he “might have someone to do it.” That day, he messaged Pearson about a “job” in Maryland. The indictment said the two discussed recruiting others to carry out the killings. Pearson said he would encourage recruits to “shoot [the victim] in the head a lot [to] make example.” 

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“We gotta erase his head from his torso,” Peterson wrote.

Zindashti and Ryan agreed that Zindashti would pay $350,000 for the murders and $20,000 to cover extra expenses. Zindashti introduced Ryan to a third unidentified man.

According to court documents, the third man sent Ryan information about the would-be victims along with their photographs and images of a map of the address where the murder would take place. In March 2021, the unnamed man paid Ryan $20,000 to cover his travel expenses.

The indictment’s narrative does not discuss any events beyond March 2021, nor specify why the plot was not carried out. Both Ryan and Pearson are currently in prison on unrelated charges, the DOJ said.

Last year, British Columbia officials charged Ryan, a full-patch member of the Hells Angels’ Attica chapter in Greece, with four firearms-related counts, a count of possession of a magazine for the purpose of trafficking and one of possession of ammunition for a dangerous purpose, according to reporting by the Vancouver Sun

CTV News Edmonton reported that Pearson was extradited to Canada in 2022 after he was charged with first-degree murder of a Grande Prairie, Alta., man in 2019. 

Iranian Operations Inside the U.S.

The announcement is one several actions that the Treasury Department has taken in recent years against Iranian transnational plots within the U.S. In October 2011, the U.S. sanctioned five senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force officials plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. Several others were sanctioned for similar assassination attempts in September 2021, June 2023 and December 2023.

“The 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,” the Treasury Department said in its release. 

U.S. officials allege that Iranian security forces protect Zindashti and his network of criminals, “enabling Zindashti to thrive in the country’s drug market and live a life of luxury while his network exports the regime’s repression, carrying out heinous operations on the government’s behalf,” according to the Treasury Department release.

Zindashti has been connected with a series of assassinations and kidnappings of Iranian dissidents dating to at least 2017.

In 2020, his men abducted Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz in Turkey. Chaab was smuggled into Iran, imprisoned, tortured, forced to confess, and ultimately convicted of “corruption on earth” in a trial. He was executed in May 2023.

In 2019, Iranian intelligence used Zindashti and his men to assassinate Mas’ud Vardanjani, a former Iranian cybersecurity official turned regime critic. Vardanjani was outspoken in condemning the Iranian regime and publicly disclosed documents on financial corruption and regime-led assassinations on his Telegram channel.

In 2017, Zindashti was behind the Istanbul killing of British-Iranian dissident Saeed Karimian, who owned GEM TV and used it to broadcast content critical of the Iranian regime. 

Under the sanctions, Zindashti and his associates are prohibited from engaging in any transaction in the U.S. or dealing with someone within the U.S.. The announcement falls under Executive Order 13553 which authorized sanctions against those committing serious human rights abuses by the Iranian government.

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