Justice Department charges 2 Iranians who pretended to be Proud Boys, sent Republican officials a fake ballot fraud video, and threatened tens of thousands of Democratic voters

Proud Boys march in support of former President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on December 12, 2020.
Proud Boys march in support of former President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on December 12, 2020. Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post/Getty Images
  • DOJ announced the indictments of two Iranian nationals on Thursday for foreign election interference.
  • The duo posed as Proud Boys, sending a fake video to Republican officials that showed ballot tampering.
  • They also sent emails threatening violence to tens of thousands of Democratic voters.

The Department of Justice announced on Thursday that it had indicted two Iranian nationals for interfering in the 2020 presidential election. The pair posed as Proud Boys — a far-right, all-male American militia group — as part of a “cyber-enabled” campaign to intimidate voters ahead of the 2020 election, according to the department.

A DOJ press release named Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian, two young men based in Iran, as the defendants in the case.

“As alleged, Kazemi and Kashian were part of a coordinated conspiracy in which Iranian hackers sought to undermine faith and confidence in the US presidential election,” said US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams in the press release.

The indictment alleges that the duo obtained confidential voter information from at least one state website, while attempting to access several others. As part of a broader voter intimidation effort, the department says, the pair posed as a “group of Proud Boys volunteers” and created a fabricated video depicting a person hacking state voter websites and using the information obtained to create fake absentee ballots.

The video was then distributed in October 2020 to Republican members of the House and Senate, White House officials, former President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, and members of the media. An accompanying message warned of Democratic efforts to exploit “serious security vulnerabilities,” capitalizing on Trump’s rhetoric against mail-in balloting during the 2020 campaign. 

That same month, hackers also allegedly sent intimidating emails to tens of thousands of registered Democrats, threatening them with violence if they didn’t switch parties and vote for Trump.

“This indictment details how two Iran-based actors waged a targeted, coordinated campaign to erode confidence in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system and to sow discord among Americans,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a press release.

The department also said the two Iranians tried to hack into a media company’s computer networks in order to disseminate more disinformation about the election, but were thwarted by the FBI.

“The United States will never tolerate any foreign actors’ attempts to undermine our free and democratic elections,” said Williams. “As a result of the charges unsealed today, and the concurrent efforts of our U.S. government partners, Kazemi and Kashian will forever look over their shoulders as we strive to bring them to justice.”

Given that the Kazemi and Kashian both live in Iran, which lacks any diplomatic relations with the United States, it is unlikely that the pair will ever be brought to justice. The Treasury Department placed the duo, along with the leadership of the Iranian government-linked company they work for, on a US sanctions list.

Additionally, the State Department is offering a $US10 ($AU14) million reward for further information about their activities.

According to Bloomberg, DOJ officials told reporters on Thursday that there’s no evidence that the campaign was successful in changing any votes. They also stopped short of blaming the Iranian government directly, though they noted that the company the hackers worked for had ties to the government.

That’s a departure from October 2020, when then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe first announced that the subversion was taking place. Ratcliffe blamed Iran directly, saying the Islamic Republic had “taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections” along with Russia.