Iranian hired Hells Angel to kill defector, US says

Naji Sharifi Zindashti
Naji Sharifi Zindashti is accused of running international assassination and drug smuggling operations

US authorities have charged three men with plotting to murder an Iranian defector living in Maryland.

Naji Sharifi Zindashti, 49, who lives in Iran, allegedly asked Canadian Damion Ryan to help with an assassination.

Mr Ryan, a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, then enlisted associate Adam Pearson, who is currently in prison.

They are also accused of targeting the defector's female companion.

Mr Zindashti - who US and UK officials say operates a criminal network targeting Iranian dissidents around the world on behalf of the Iranian government - agreed to pay Mr Ryan, 43, and Pearson, 29, a total of $350,000 (£275,000) plus $20,000 (£15,750) in travel expenses for the murder-for-hire, according to an indictment released Monday.

The group communicated on an encrypted chat app, SkyECC, which has been implicated in a number of organised crime cases. The company that produced the app, Sky Global, was seized by US authorities in 2021. It is not related to media conglomerate Sky Group Limited.

Mr Zindashti, who lives in Iran, messaged Mr Ryan about "jobs" and starting in January 2021 they began talking about a specific plot in the US, according to the indictment.

Mr Ryan talked about shooting the victim in the head and wrote that he would ensure his operatives would know that "we gotta erase his head from his torso".

He said he had assembled a team of four people including Pearson, a Canadian who was living illegally in Minnesota at the time.

The plot was apparently never carried out and alleged targets in Maryland were not named in the indictment.

The three men were charged with conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years if no death or injuries occur. In addition, Pearson faces firearms charges.

Adam Richard Pearson
Adam Richard Pearson in a mugshot released by Canadian police

Also on Monday, the US and UK governments announced sanctions on Mr Zindashti and his associates.

Reports say Mr Zindashti has been arrested several times in Iran and Turkey on drug charges. In 2014, his daughter was killed by rivals in a gang dispute.

He is believed to now live in Iran and US officials say he organizes assassinations of dissidents and drug-smuggling operations on behalf of the Iranian government. Turkish officials believe his network was behind the abduction of Habib Chaab, a Swedish-Iranian activist who was kidnapped during a visit to Turkey in 2020 and was later executed in Iran.

"The Iranian regime's continued efforts to target dissidents and activists demonstrate the regime's deep insecurity and attempt to expand Iran's domestic repression internationally," said Brian Nelson, US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The BBC contacted Iran's ministry of foreign affairs for comment.

Mr Ryan and Pearson are currently in prison in Canada on charges unrelated to the alleged murder-for-hire.

Mr Ryan is awaiting trial on drugs and weapons charges. Canadian authorities allege he was involved in an international drug-smuggling operation.

Pearson pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of a man in Alberta and was sentenced last year to eight years in prison.