The battle between the United States and authoritarian regimes is moving beyond the confines of cyberspace and increasingly is playing out on U.S. soil as countries like China and Iran target dissidents and minority groups in ever more brazen operations.
FBI senior counterintelligence officials Wednesday warned of new tactics and of “lines that are being crossed” by a growing number of countries, saying the U.S. is now facing an “inflection point” in trying to fend off transnational repression.
“The change that we're trying to highlight is sort of an increase in the level of threats, and threats of violence, threats of intimidation that cross lines we have not previously seen,” a senior FBI counterintelligence official told reporters, briefing them on the condition of anonymity under guidelines set by the bureau.
“China, Iran and other countries see this as a priority for them to stabilize their regimes and make sure that they continue to exist,” a second senior official said. “They're increasing the priority of this ... they're more willing to go on U.S. soil to go after dissidents.”
Wednesday’s warning from the FBI comes just days after the FBI arrested two New York City residents, charging them with operating a secret and illegal police station on behalf of China’s Ministry of Public Security.
“We cannot and will not tolerate the Chinese government's persecution of pro-democracy activists who have sought refuge in this country," U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said while announcing the charges on Monday.
“We remain resolved and steadfast to fight against any efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to oppress and intimidate our residents,” he added.
FBI officials declined Wednesday to share details on just how many countries are engaged in transnational repression, which includes tactics like stalking, intimidation, or assault, against people residing in the U.S.
“We try not to rack and stack threats,” the first FBI official said, noting China and Iran “have been significant offenders.”
Other U.S. officials have pointed to indictments against suspects linked to Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And concerns about Russia are ever present.
But regardless of which government is behind the acts of repression, human rights organizations agree the threat is growing.
A database maintained by the U.S.-based Freedom House has tracked 854 physical incidents of transnational repression committed in 91 countries by 38 governments since 2014, including 79 incidents in 2022 alone.
China was the most prolific, according to the Freedom House data, engaging in 253 incidents of what the organization described as “direct, physical transnational repression” over the past nine years.
Turkey was second, followed by Tajikistan, Russia, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Iran and Rwanda.
FBI and other law enforcement officials also warn that many of these countries are becoming more sophisticated and more brazen in their efforts to silence critics in the U.S.
In its Worldwide Threat Assessment earlier this year, U.S. intelligence agencies said the Chinese government is actively monitoring Chinese students abroad, mobilizing Chinese student associations to help stifle dissent.
And when that is not enough, Beijing is willing “to enlist the aid of China-based commercial enterprises to help surveil and censor PRC critics,” the report said.
As for Iran, the report cautioned that Tehran “remains committed to developing surrogate networks inside the United States, an objective it has pursued for more than a decade.”
Some of Iran’s attempts have made headlines in the U.S., including multiple plots targeting Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American human rights activist and VOA Persian TV host.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department charged three members of an Eastern European criminal gang in connection with a plot to kill Alinejad outside her New York City home.
In a separate plot last year, U.S. prosecutors charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a murder-for-hire plot targeting former U.S. national security adviser Ambassador John Bolton.
In another case, last year, an official with China’s MPS was charged with trying to interfere with the congressional campaign of a U.S. military veteran who had been involved with the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square.
China’s embassy in Washington, late Wednesday, rejected the FBI’s allegations.
“China’s police do not engage in ‘transnational repression and coercion’ against the so-called ‘dissidents’ and ‘dissenters,’” embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email.
“The Chinese government strictly abides by international law, and fully respects the law enforcement sovereignty of other countries,” he said, accusing the U.S. of seeking “to smear China’s image.”
Other countries named by U.S. officials as engaging in transnational repression, including Iran, Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have yet to respond to requests for a response to the U.S. allegations.
U.S. officials, however, have repeatedly dismissed denials like those from China.
“As alleged, these brazen acts of transnational repression violate U.S. law; they infringe on our sovereignty; and perhaps most critically, they are an attack on our most fundamental values,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said during a speech last month in Washington.
“We will use every tool to expose the repressive tactics of autocratic regimes and force their agents to answer for their unlawful behavior,” she said. “And we will support our allies and partners in doing the same.”
Over the past two years, the FBI has ramped up training, both for its analysts and for its field officers, including those who work closely with airports and other transportation hubs, to help them better recognize activities that may point to transnational repression plots.
But the governments engaging in transnational repression are finding more sophisticated ways to silence those they do not like, including the growing use by China and Iran of private investigators, who are not always aware of what is going on.
“We’ve seen where the private investigators are not witting to what's going on and where, in fact, the subjects are using some kind of cut-out company to mask who is behind,” an FBI official told VOA separately, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In other cases, the official said China has even tried to co-opt local police.
“When you're dealing with local law enforcement, they tend to trust other law enforcement,” the official told VOA. “So, when they get a request from, let's say, Chinese law enforcement they’re going to accept it at face value.”
“One of the things we're trying to do is to conduct outreach to private investigator associations, just to apprise them of the threat and explain if you get this type of request, it may be transnational oppression,” the official said.
“Same thing with local police departments,” the official added. “Part of the outreach is explaining hey, some of these countries use things like red notices for political reasons, where they're going after someone who disagrees with them, and the charges are made up.”
The FBI has also invested in outreach to immigrant communities that have been targeted in the past or that are likely to be targeted in the future.
Already, the FBI’s threat intimidation guide has been translated into more than 60 languages. And efforts to make sure those communities are comfortable dealing with the FBI are ongoing.
Still, it can be tricky.
Officials say authoritarian regimes often make good use of cyberspace to intimidate and silence those they do not like.
“It's certainly an enabler,” a second FBI official told VOA. “Any country with even limited resources can certainly engage in at least online harassment with very little investment or expertise.”
And some authoritarian regimes, like China and to a lesser extent Iran, have even managed to use threats and money to coerce those they are targeting to help silence others.
“This is almost an area of potential double victimization,” the second FBI official told VOA. “A person could be threatened with impacts to their loved ones back in the autocratic country if they don't report on others here in the United States.”
“It's really challenging,” the official added.
Masood Farivar contributed to this report.