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Iran plotted to kidnap or kill at least 10 people in the U.K., British domestic spy chief says

"We have seen at least 10 such potential threats since January alone,” said Ken McMcCallum of MI5.

Iran has plotted to kidnap or kill at least 10 British nationals or U.K.-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime this year, Britain’s domestic spy chief said Wednesday.

As Iran has used violence to try to stifle a wave of protests at home, the regime has also sought to target political adversaries in the U.K., Ken McCallum, director general of the British security service known as MI5, said in a speech.

Iran’s “aggressive intelligence services” are prepared to take reckless action and pose a direct threat to Britain, McCallum said.

“At its sharpest this includes ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or U.K.-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime. We have seen at least 10 such potential threats since January alone,” McCallum said.

The MI5 chief did not provide more details of the alleged plots, but he called Iran “the state actor which most frequently crosses into terrorism.”

Iran’s U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

His comments came after the U.K.’s Foreign Office last week summoned Iran’s top diplomat in Britain over allegations that two London-based reporters with a Farsi-language news outlet had faced lethal threats from agents of the Iranian regime over their coverage of street protests in Iran.

Iran International TV in London said two of its journalists had been told by the Metropolitan Police that the threats against them pose “an imminent, credible and significant risk to their lives and those of their families.”

The television network’s extensive coverage of the protests has enraged Iranian authorities, who have accused it of fomenting the demonstrations and allege it is a tool of Saudi Arabia. The powerful commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami, has warned Saudi Arabia over the network without naming it, saying Riyadh should “be careful.”

McCallum said Britain’s foreign secretary has made clear to the Iranian regime “that the U.K. will not tolerate intimidation or threats to life towards journalists, or any individual, living in the U.K.”

Iran has been rocked by anti-regime protests since September, when a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody after she was arrested for allegedly failing to comply with Iran’s strict dress code that requires women to fully cover their hair.

Despite a violent crackdown with police using tear gas, pellets and bullets against protesters, there has been no let-up in the women-led protests that have included strike actions at factories.

In this Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a police motorcycle and a trash bin are burning during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by the nation's morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran. Spontaneous mass gatherings to persistent scattered demonstrations have unfolded elsewhere in Iran, as nationwide protests over the death of a young woman in the custody of the morality police enter their fourth week.
A police motorcycle and a trash bin burn Sept. 19 at a protest in downtown Tehran over the death of Mahsa Amini.AP file

U.S. and European governments have previously accused Iran of seeking to retaliate against its critics abroad via kidnapping and murder plots. Last year, U.S. authorities indicted four Iranians, including an alleged intelligence official, for allegedly trying to abduct Iranian American Masih Alinejad, a journalist and activist living in Brooklyn. 

The MI5 chief also outlined other threats to the U.K., citing Russia and China in particular.

McCallum said Russia’s global spying efforts had suffered a major setback since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February due to the expulsion of hundreds of Russian spies posing as diplomats.

“This year, a concerted campaign has seen a massive number of Russian officials expelled from countries around the world, including more than 600 from Europe — over 400 of whom we judge are spies,” he said. “This has struck the most significant strategic blow against the Russian intelligence services in recent European history. And together with coordinated waves of sanctions, the scale has taken Putin by surprise.”

Despite Russia’s espionage efforts, China poses the top strategic challenge to the U.K., said McCallum, who accused Beijing of trying to manipulate British politics over the long-term and of targeting Chinese expatriates.

“The Chinese authorities use all the means at their disposal to monitor — and where they deem necessary intimidate — the Chinese diaspora. This takes place all over the world, from coercing and forcibly repatriating Chinese nationals to harassment and assault,” he said.

China has denied seeking to intimidate Chinese expatriates.