The secret police carrying out daylight abductions in Iran

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Baseball cap, COVID mask, trainers and a polo shirt. It’s an unremarkable outfit, but it’s the uniform of choice for the Iranian secret police.

In footage released last week, a group of men were seen abducting a young female activist. All were dressed to blend into the crowd.

A Sky News investigation has analysed several video clips from this event to identify the men as members of the Iranian security forces.

The investigation sheds light on how plain-clothes officers are being used to infiltrate protests and abduct activists in Iran.

It is one of several ruthless tactics the regime is using to repress a population that has risen up in the six weeks since the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was detained for allegedly violating the conservative country’s strict hijab laws.

A daylight abduction

On 15 October, a group of protesters started chanting anti-regime slogans on a busy shopping street in the city of Karaj, 20 miles from Tehran, the Iranian capital.

Image:
The incident took place in the Gohardasht district of Karaj, at the exclamation point above

There had been protests at the intersection, a short walk from the city’s university, a few days before. But on this Saturday afternoon, members of the Iranian intelligence services were waiting.

The clip below captures the moment plain-clothes officers dragged a woman, believed to be a protester, into their car.

The abduction appears to be relatively chaotic.

At least five officers are involved, as well as a bystander who intervenes. He is chased away at gunpoint by an officer in a green shirt, who draws a concealed pistol. Although it is unclear if the gun is fired, a gunshot-like sound is heard on the audio in the melee.

A plain-clothed police officer points a gun at a bystander who tried to help the woman.
Image:
A plain-clothes officer points a gun at a bystander who tried to help the woman

A second video was taken from another angle moments later. It appears the police have fired tear gas – or something similar – to disperse the crowd. The person shooting the video is heard saying the date, a technique protesters have adopted to help authenticate videos.

A still from the beginning of this clip shows it is filmed in the same place as the previous video. Both the van in the road and the shopfronts match.

The same van and shopfront can be seen in both videos.
Image:
The same van and shopfront can be seen in both videos

In the background of the second video, protesters are heard, out of shot, chanting in reference to the supreme leader of Iran: “Death to Khamenei, death to the dictator!”

The grey car the woman was bundled into is then seen reversing up the road. It is believed the abducted woman was still inside.

It is unclear what happened to the woman. Most international journalists are banned from reporting on the ground and the threat to local reporters is high. It means brief video clips that filter through a heavily restricted internet connection are often the only glimpses we see of what is going on.

Dr Saeid Golkar, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and author of a book on the Iranian security state, painted a grim picture of the woman’s fate.

“It’s really difficult to say what will happen to this lady, but without any doubt she’s going to be tortured,” he said.

“They usually do it in secret houses they have throughout the country.”

Who were the men taking her away?

A third video, from what appears to be shortly before the kidnapping, shows a group of men gathered on a street corner a few metres away from where the incident took place.

Analysis of the shadows on the ground from this video, and the footage of the abduction, confirm they were both taken in the early afternoon.

The men are difficult to identify – most are wearing COVID masks and baseball caps. But two can be confirmed as involved in the abduction by their clothes.

One man in a check shirt and another wearing a dark green polo shirt – who drew a pistol on the onlooker helping the woman – appear in both clips.

Plain-clothed officers before the abduction (left) and during it (right).
Image:
Plain-clothes officers before the abduction (left) and during it (right)

The car used to abduct the woman can also be seen in the footage from before the incident. It is being driven by a man in a red shirt, as it is during the abduction.

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The same grey Peugeot and red-shirted driver are seen in different videos.
Image:
The same grey Peugeot and driver in a red shirt are seen in different videos

Dr Golkar thinks the type of car used gives a clue about who these men work for. Two of the numerous security bodies that form the Iranian regime typically use this type of car.

“I think they are either from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security or the IRGC Intelligence Organisation – they are both known to use the Peugeot 405 and often with a silver or grey colour,” he said.

A final clue hints at what was happening that afternoon.

One of the men can be seen holding a radio. These plain-clothes officers did not stumble across a protest – no raised voices or commotion can be seen or heard when the men were on the street corner. They were waiting for it.

A man is seen using a radio prior to the abduction.
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A man is seen using a radio before the abduction

Dr Golkar thinks the fact that they took the woman in broad daylight, and the chaotic nature of the abduction, is revealing.

“The approach is usually to raid someone’s home at midnight… or a more subtle method, to call at their home and introduce themselves as a plumber or somebody from the municipality, and then when the door opens they will immediately put them under arrest,” he said.

“In this case, I think they couldn’t find her or her address. They realise this is a place that she’s coming and that she’s starting the protests, so they’re waiting for her. But for other cases, for many, many cases that we know they prefer to do it at midnight when nothing can be recorded.”

Covert tactics

This incident is not isolated. Several other clips have emerged of plain-clothes officers infiltrating protests across Iran.

Ways to identify them have been circulating on Iranian social media accounts. Some have suggested an over-the-shoulder bag is often worn by the officers as a means for them to keep track of each other in crowds. Other reports suggest they may wear similar colour shirts or caps, though there seems to be no sure way of telling which officers are undercover.

Seven men in this video, who helped put a protestor in a van, were wearing shoulder bags.
Image:
In this image posted on scoial media in September, seven men, most of whom help bundle a protester into a van, were wearing shoulder bags

Infiltrating the protests is an effective tactic. Activists no longer know who to trust and it is why security forces across the world have employed undercover officers when the state is threatened.

Yet it is also a police tactic that is difficult to govern. In Iran, the fear is the secret police have free licence to conduct their terror.

“That’s the problem of the plain-clothes system in Iran, they’re using it to deny responsibility,” Dr Golkar said.

“You cannot find who these people are.”


Graphics: Phoebe Rowe, Bria Anderson

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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