Michael Knights, Foreign Affairs, (The Council On Foreign Relations), March 17 2015:… Eastern Iraq has also been a literal and figurative battlefield between Iranian-backed Iraqi militants and the Iraqi state. Ravaged by the Iran-Iraq War, the borderlands soon after the cease-fire became sites of tit-for-tat border raids. Baghdad sent in the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MeK) …
What to Do With Iraq’s Shia Popular Mobilization Units
Shia fighters launch a rocket during clashes with ISIS militants on the outskirts of al-Alam, March 8, 2015. (Thaier al-Sudani / Courtesy Reuters)
A battle is unfolding in Saddam Hussein’s old tribal capital of Tikrit. Unthinkable just a decade ago, the main government forces leading the battle are Shiite fighters—the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) that are under the control of militia leaders. These forces’ main partners are Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has called the situation “the most overt conduct of Iranian support” since the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) began. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, he hinted, as long as such forces refrain from inflaming sectarian tensions.
His comments get to the heart of the debate over Iran’s role in Iraq and the appropriate division of labor between the U.S.-led international coalition and Tehran in the fight against ISIS. The White House seems to view growing Iranian involvement in the war as a reality that cannot be wished away, which is probably true, but also as a step forward in U.S.-Iranian relations, which is arguably naive.
Events on the ground in eastern Iraq suggest a different way of looking at the issue. If anything, the battle for Tikrit has shown that there is a whole side of the war from which the international community has been deliberately excluded. Iran and its Iraqi proxies have been carving out a zone of influence in eastern Iraq for well over a decade. And this zone, as Dempsey noted, is expanding.
Iraq, in short, could be experiencing what Lebanon did decades ago as Hezbollah fighters took the Bekaa Valley. In this case, the land in question is Mesopotamia and the forces are PMUs, but the result will be the same: a swath of land in which the government is gradually ceding ground to powerful paramilitary factions with strong terrorist connections.
There is a natural blending of Iraq and Iran in their shared border provinces. Large Shiite populations extend northwest from Baghdad to Iran along the Diyala River Valley. To the southeast are the largely Shiite border provinces of Wasit and Maysan, where the border with Iran dissolves into ungovernable marshes. Trade, smuggling, and religious pilgrimages along age-old crossing points and rivers permanently link these places. But, since 2003 Iran has gone beyond these traditional ties by enmeshing the border provinces through subsidizing shared electricity grids, medical services, and refined oil products.
Eastern Iraq has also been a literal and figurative battlefield between Iranian-backed Iraqi militants and the Iraqi state. Ravaged by the Iran-Iraq War, the borderlands soon after the cease-fire became sites of tit-for-tat border raids. Baghdad sent in the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MeK), Shiite opponents of the Iranian theocracy classified as a terrorist organization by the United States. Tehran sent in the Badr Corps, an Iraqi Shiite force recruited by Iran. In the 1990s, Iran also periodically sent its air force into Iraq to hit the MeK. It even fired salvos of Scud-like missiles into Diyala as late as 2001.
Indeed, one of the least recognized facts about the fall of the Saddam government in 2003 was that two invasions took place: one from the south by the U.S.-led coalition and another from Iran, down the Diyala River Valley, by Iranian-backed Badr columns. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Badr Corps had fought as a 10,000-strong division alongside the Iranian military against Saddam’s government; they did it again in 2003.
Cross-sectarian Diyala holds a special place in the hearts of the Iranian-backed militia leaders in Iraq. The leader of the Badr Corps, Hadi al-Amiri, is a native of Diyala, born in Khalis, where the Diyala River Valley and the Baghdad–Kirkuk road converge in the south of the province. Working with the U.S.-led occupation forces after Saddam’s regime fell, Amiri ensured that the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, headquartered and recruited in Diyala, was packed with Badr officers.
The Badr Corps also made sure to pay back their bitter adversaries, the MeK. Camp Ashraf, the MeK cantonment, was just 25 miles north of Khalis on the Baghdad–Kirkuk road. After the area was handed over from the United States to the Fifth Division in 2009, Camp Ashraf began to suffer repeated deadly attacks. Shiite militia gunmen periodically overran the camp; in one attack in April 2011, militants killed 36 and wounded 320. Eventually, the MeK and their families were removed to Baghdad. Amiri now operates Camp Ashraf as his security headquarters.
As Iraq descended into fighting last summer, the Badr Corps expanded their control, spreading north to Kirkuk, east to the Lake Hamrin area, and west to Tikrit. The PMUs in Diyala have a strong connection to the group, either because Badr members directly answered the government’s calls in early summer 2014 for popular mobilization or because PMU subgroups such as Kataib Hezbollah are led by Badr commanders such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
In June 2014, Iran and the Badr Corps opened a direct line of supply between Iran’s arms depots and the Badr bases, using the Parwezkhan border crossing in northern Diyala. Even now, the bases get daily shipments of Iranian rocket ammunition for PMU artillery units. Iranian drones and other air support have become a regular sight over Diyala. And PMU headquarters have special intelligence and air support cells manned by Iranian Revolutionary Guard or Lebanese Hezbollah operators—exactly the roles Americans played before 2011.
The PMUs in Diyala have also been associated with some of the most significant atrocities committed by pro-government forces: the August 22, 2014, massacre of 34 Sunni civilians at the Musab bin Omair Mosque in Imam Wais and the January 26, 2015, killing of at least 72 Sunni men and boys in Barwana. In the Shiite Turkmen areas along the Baghdad–Kirkuk road, the PMUs have actively prevented the return of Sunni civilians into formerly mixed areas.
Badr Corps–aligned PMUs and the Badr-led Fifth Iraqi Army Division are now the dominant armed forces throughout the Diyala River Valley and all the way from the southern outskirts of Kirkuk down to northern Baghdad, an area of nearly 5,000 square miles. This canton includes most of the lands that have been recaptured from ISIS, and it is quickly expanding westward to the Tigris River.
The PMUs will probably eventually seek to play a role in all of Iraq’s major battlefields, including Mosul. It remains to be seen whether they will be willing to work alongside the U.S.-led coalition or seek to supplant Western assistance in future operations, as occurred in Tikrit.
In addition to displacing the United States, Badr-linked PMUs are taking the place of regular Iraqi security forces in central Iraq. Iran has always sought to dominate cross-border trade and profit from the multibillion-dollar pilgrim business: in November 2014, the PMUs went further by taking a leading role in the protection of the Ashura pilgrimage. PMUs fought their way into the town of Jurf al-Sakr, an ISIS stronghold on the route between Baghdad and the shrine city of Karbala.
The PMUs have also been pushing into the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, resulting in numerous armed clashes, and have become the dominant security force in the capital as the battle against ISIS drew Iraqi Army units north and west into Anbar. And in critical economic hubs such as Basra, there has been an almost complete absence of Iraqi Army forces for nearly a year. Replacement units face resistance from powerful Shiite militias that have prowled Basra’s Sunni areas, doling out payback for Islamic State attacks farther north.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Significant controversy will continue to surround the issue of the PMUs in Iraq. To the Shiite population, the popular mobilization is inspiring—a counter to the humiliating collapse of the Iraqi military and a sign that Iraqis are individually more willing and able to defend themselves than their government was.
Iraqi leaders will continue to argue that the PMUs are essential to the counteroffensive against ISIS and that it is too early in the conflict to try to restrain them. Iraqis will also contend that criticism of PMU leadership for their involvement in terrorist attacks on U.S. and British troops and civilians is hypocritical. After all, the Western powers seem perpetually eager to work with the Sunni tribes that also attacked them from 2003 onward.
Shiite Iraqis will further argue that finger-pointing at Iran is off base. Iran stepped up while the United States dithered, they claim with some justification, although it might be added that Iran did not deliver the removal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, nor does its help come free of charge, the costs are just hard to see right now.
Iraqi leaders privately admit that although the PMUs represent an unsettling expansion of the power of Iranian-backed militia leaders, they can be contained. In recent weeks, the Shiite religious leadership has begun to clarify the need to fold the PMUs into the national defense structure and end their sectarian atrocities. We can handle them, Iraqi leaders say, but for now the PMUs are needed.
This final claim is the most open to question. After Tikrit, the PMUs might have run out of road, and any attempt to play them into the Sunni redoubts of Mosul or Anbar could prove counterproductive. Further, the PMUs might very well not be controllable, much as Lebanese Hezbollah did not simply disarm after Israel withdrew from Lebanon. Hezbollah came to dominate the country, and now its soldiers are fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Neither the United States nor Iraqi leaders should harbor any delusions about the potential danger posed by the PMUs. These groups embody the classic civil-military security dilemma: the armed force that is best able to protect a country from external enemies is also the greatest potential risk to the civilian leadership.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the risks of Hezbollah rule in Lebanon and PMU rule in Iraq is scale. Lebanon has 4.5 million citizens and no major resources to speak of. Iraq has a population of 36 million and likely boasts hydrocarbon reserves comparable to those of Saudi Arabia. The world cannot afford to lose Iraq to a similar fate as Lebanon’s.
Camp Ashraf Iraq January 13 2014
Iran Interlink Fourth Report from Baghdad
Iran Interlink, October 26 2014: … Massoud Khodabandeh from Iran Interlink visited Baghdad over ten days during October 2014 to gather the latest information pertaining to the Mojahedin Khalq presence in Iraq. Events in Iraq have been changing rapidly with the Iraqi army and militia mounting an effective offensive campaign against Daesh*. This report …
Fourth Report from Baghdad
Camp Liberty and the Mojahedin Khalq
1. Situation of the MEK in Iraq
2. MEK activities in relation to ISIS
3. Methodology behind MEK terrorism
Aerial map of Camp Hurrieyh – Camp Liberty occupies a small section
in the north of this camp
Massoud Khodabandeh from Iran Interlink visited Baghdad over ten days during October 2014 to gather the latest information pertaining to the Mojahedin Khalq presence in Iraq. Events in Iraq have been changing rapidly with the Iraqi army and militia mounting an effective offensive campaign against Daesh*. This report is therefore something of a snapshot of conditions on the ground at that time. No doubt the situation will have changed as the report is published. However the intention of the report is to provide significant information about the situation of the MEK and any influence it has on these events regardless of how they unfold.
It is hoped that an understanding of the role of the Mojahedin Khalq (MEK) and its relation with Saddamists* and Daesh will inform efforts to confront the violence.
Although some observers may think the MEK is irrelevant, finished, or too small to make a difference, the fact it still features in the narrative of those who seek to influence American foreign policy and the fact it has had enough Western support to remain in Iraq, are strong signs that this group is far from irrelevant. This report seeks to explain why.
My thanks to Othman H. al-Bustan, Ebrahim Khodabandeh, Maryam Sanjabi and others in Baghdad. Without their help the investigations, meetings and the reporting of them could not have taken place.
The report was compiled, edited and published by myself and Anne Khodabandeh (Singleton) in the UK.
* Daesh is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, also known as ISIS, ISIL and IS. For the purposes of this report I will refer to them by the Arabic Daesh.
* Saddamists are people associated with and loyal to the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein and who are actively opposed to the current government and constitution of Iraq.
1. Situation of the MEK in Iraq
Rajavi’s combatants are nearing retirement age.
Who will pay for their healthcare and pensions?
Inside Camp Liberty
Residents of Camp Liberty who have chosen to escape the camp rather than wait for relocation by the UNHCR have been able to report on conditions inside Camp Liberty. Since early 2012 when most Camp Ashraf residents were relocated to the Temporary Transit Facility also known as Camp Hurriyeh, tens of individuals have managed to get themselves out of the camp and take refuge with the UN and Iraqi authorities. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has independent oversight of this. Reports by these individuals indicate that conditions inside Camp Liberty are worsening month on month, and that suppressive measures are increasing to try to keep a lid on the rising discontent. MEK commanders are instructed by Massoud Rajavi how to control the residents and how to behave toward them. This means an almost total gender separation, with only commanders able to meet with members of the other sex. Under the same conditions of gender separation, members of the same family, siblings and parents for example, are not given access to visit one another, and are obliged to treat one another as comrades rather than relatives if they do meet. Other, local curfews exist to separate and control people. Residents are accommodated in dormitories and are confined to their quarters for most of the day when they are not actively engaged in work or meetings. Association between residents is strictly controlled, and monitors are posted to listen to conversations between residents.
In addition to work, daily schedules include both confessional and indoctrination meetings. Residents are obliged to report their activities and thoughts and feelings in public, with ‘sins’ against Rajavi’s edicts being punished through humiliation and sometimes beatings by other attendees, who are also subjected to this treatment. According to the reports of escapees, most residents no longer accept such sessions willingly as part of their conditions for membership in the Mojahedin Khalq. This has resulted in widespread disaffection. Arguments and physical fights are now commonplace. This can be between residents and between the various ranks.
This is by far the most volatile aspect of the situation inside the camp. Residents who challenge orders and/or ask questions are automatically singled out and taken for questioning by commanders. However, spontaneous arguments often escalate and residents will now challenge the commanders directly. Questions include: where is Massoud Rajavi (who has not been seen since March 2003 and is only heard in audio messages broadcast in the indoctrination meetings); why is just about anyone who leaves the MEK labelled an agent of the Iranian regime, why were they not identified as agents while they were in the camp; what are we doing to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Residents who have left in the past few months are now reporting that even the commanders are beginning to accept that they have no answers to these questions, and as a result some of them are beginning to ask questions of their own.
Two actions have taken on highly controversial aspects for the residents.
One is the conduct of visitors who are brought inside the camp by the MEK. These are, for example, American or European advocates of the MEK who are paid to speak at various rallies and lobby in parliament. Visits are arranged to stage manage a demonstration of conditions in the camp. So, to back up MEK claims of mistreatment, food, water and medicine shortages are manufactured as are hygiene issues. However, residents are never allowed to even approach the visitors without prior arrangement, and any permitted conversations are monitored by both the commanders and the MEK’s Western facilitator, handler and English language translator, Ali Safavi. (UK resident Safavi escorts the visitors from North America and Europe via the MEK’s bases in Jordan.)
There is a great deal of grumbling among residents that they are not allowed to speak to such visitors who are among only a handful of people from outside the camp that many residents have actually seen for over a decade. Other visitors from outside are officials from agencies of the UN or various embassy staff. Again resident contact with these officials is almost non-existent and is always subject to MEK control. (The families of camp residents have, of course, been denied contact with their loved ones since 2003 opened the possibility of their travelling to Iraq to find them. The MEK describe families as ‘poison’.)
The other event which has caused controversy concerns the 42 survivors of the Camp Ashraf massacre of September 1, 2013. The survivors were transferred by the UN to Camp Liberty in November 2013 and handed over to MEK commanders at the camp. According to escapees, they were immediately taken to separate accommodation and were essentially held incommunicado, not only from the outside world, but from the rest of the camp’s residents also, including most commanders.
Under pressure from Iran-Interlink for the MEK to allow investigators into the massacre to have access to these survivors, the MEK finally brought them out to have lunch in the refectory with other residents. The 42 had visibly been instructed not to talk to anyone at all, not even one another. Photographs were taken of the survivors having their lunch in this public place. Not one single resident was fooled that this was anything except a PR exercise to demonstrate to the outside world and MEK advocates that they are free and accessible. However, no outside visitors such as UN or Red Cross officials were present during this stunt.
These actions have caused dissent to escalate almost to crisis point. Only the severity of existing controls has kept a lid on the atmosphere of discontent and rage. Loyal commanders are now extending their control to their peers. Massoud Rajavi’s latest instruction to the residents relayed via the commanders is encapsulated in the slogan that ‘from 1 to 100 percent of everybody’s time must be spent in saving the organisation’. Rajavi has said that although the situation in Iraq is tense because of the presence of Daesh, ‘the regime’ is attacking from the other side and making people want to run away. The task of every resident is to watch every other resident to prevent anyone from escaping. Rajavi says, and believes, that there is a psychological war being waged on the camp by the Iranian regime. He cannot, or will not, acknowledge that both the insupportable conditions of absolute control and the unanswered questions of the residents are fuelling internal dissent.
Iranian supporters of the MEK in the West, known as internal critics because they are loyal to the MEK but have many criticisms of the group’s aims and tactics and other behaviours, are filling the Farsi language blogosphere and social media with open letters and articles addressed to Rajavi simply asking him to acknowledge the validity of their questions and provide even the simplest or even impenetrable answers, rather than attacking all and any questioners as ‘agents of the Iranian regime.’ Thus the Camp Liberty residents’ questions are reportedly (by internal sources willing to speak) being echoed in MEK bases throughout the West, even at the highest levels in Auvers-sur-Oise.
(Interestingly, several MEK members have made internet contact with Ebrahim Khodabandeh – a former member – in Tehran, and divulge their misgivings and discontent openly to him as an old friend and colleague. Some of the MEK’s closest supporters regularly visit Iran, an act which is deemed a sin inside the organisation.)
Iraqi officials continue to work with UNAMI to facilitate the process of removing all MEK from Iraq which began in 2011 when the American army formally handed over responsibility for the MEK to the government of Iraq.
After the formation of the new government of Iraq, the MEK claimed that they had been instrumental in the ouster of al-Maliki. During the time of my visit, officials from the ministry of Human Rights, Defence and Interior Affairs that I spoke with said that contrary to MEK and Saddamist propaganda, and in spite of differences in other areas of policy, the new Prime Minister al-Abadi is totally on the same page as al-Maliki about the MEK and Saddamists. They emphasised that the officials dealing with this issue have not changed and the policy has not changed either.
A source from inside the al-Abadi faction related that during his meetings with Western government representatives in Paris and in Baghdad, al-Abadi made it clear for the Americans that Iraq will not curtail her relations with Iran, and that it is in Iraq’s interests to work even more closely with Iran. If Iraq is pushed to choose between Iran and America, it will be unfortunate but Iraq will choose Iran. This message was conveyed to American officials, who reportedly acknowledged it. The official said this shows where the MEK’s place is in Iraq; they have no hope of remaining.
Some MPs I spoke with have related that parliament has resumed passing laws which had been delayed due to the crisis caused by Daesh. This will mean that anyone involved in supporting the MEK and/or Saddamists can be impeached. A law has been drafted to ban parliamentarians from taking money for lobbying for the MEK or Saddamists. Parliament has evidence against several individuals who fit this category.
Dr Adnan al-Saraj, from al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party coalition and head of the Centre for Media Development, went into detail with us about how the policy of both al-Maliki and al-Abadi toward the MEK is the same. He identified the main problem for the government in expelling them humanely as the lack of cooperation from Western countries. He said, “They tell us one thing, but in reality they don’t cooperate and do what is needed”.
Adnan al-Shahmani, the MP in charge of the Parliamentary Committee overseeing the situation of the MEK, talked in detail about what the government is doing to resolve this situation in a positive way. He said three aspects are being pushed together and are slowly getting results. One is the humanitarian aspect, especially toward those who have been tricked into the group, and pushing for family access – upholding the human rights of the residents and their families. The second part is pursuit of the legal aspect of the situation; some MEK members have been accused of torture and murder and they need to be taken to court and tried. Iran has also asked for the extradition of around 100 individuals so that it too can pursue legal cases against them. The third aspect is that of security. This is an ongoing issue because the MEK are actively working with the Saddamists and Daesh. This trio represents a security threat to the whole country. However, al-Shahmani reported that Iraq’s security forces are now on top of this issue and are determined to resolve it.
In his visit to Iran, Prime Minister al-Abadi met with Iran’s top leaders. During his visit with the head of the Judiciary he described the MEK as a problem imposed [by America] on Iraq. Iran pledged to do everything possible to help resolve the situation, and in turn asked for the extradition of around 100 leading members accused of murder and terrorist acts.
UN Relocation Process
In March 2013, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha had announced that Tirana was ready to host 210 members of the MEK “for humanitarian reasons.” Since then, over 200 residents have already been transferred to Albania. In early October this year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Albania was able to announce it has provided the necessary measures for the transfer of a further 210 Camp Liberty residents to Albania. Local reports indicate that several apartments are ready to accommodate the newly arrived individuals.
Although it is now been made possible to transfer another 210 residents to a place of safety, the MEK initially refused to allow anyone to leave Camp Liberty. (This may be linked to news that over half of the MEK members who now reside in Tirana have renounced the group and have begun to speak out about human rights abuses inside Camp Liberty. The MEK leader Massoud Rajavi cannot afford to allow more of the camp’s residents the freedom to decide their own futures, and would prefer to keep them locked up in Iraq under his direct control.)
The MEK leadership has not permitted the UNHCR to select suitable individuals for transfer and has insisted on submitting its own list of people it is willing to let go. Half the list comprises residents who are either disabled or chronically ill – some even dying. The rest are commanders and suppressive agents of the MEK which it wishes to transfer in order to replicate the cult conditions in Tirana. Word from inside Camp Liberty is that this will not work because the commanders themselves will defect once they are free of the controls of Camp Liberty.
During my visit, UN and Red Cross (ICRC) personnel left Baghdad and went to Arbil and Jordan because of the security threat posed by Daesh. However, a few of these staff have now returned to Baghdad as the situation has become less volatile. UNHCR personnel have begun the interview process for 210 Camp Liberty residents prior to their transfer to Tirana, Albania.
As well as these transfers, American personnel are interviewing for up to 80 people in both Iraq and Albania who will be accepted by the US. According to participants, these interviews are aimed at finding the most harmless individuals, those willing to sign bunches of papers renouncing their past and agreeing to have no further involvement with the MEK. If they are not prepared to sign these documents they are not called for interview.
A third interview process takes place in the Mohajer Hotel in Baghdad which is provided by the UN for Camp Liberty residents who have escaped and who have asked the Iraqi authorities to give them refuge. The UNHCR does conduct interviews with these individuals with a view to transferring them out of Iraq. In these conditions they are able to contact their families and start the process of rehabilitation.
Escapees from Liberty
Over the fortnight leading up to my visit, six residents of Camp Liberty individually took the brave and extraordinarily difficult step of escaping from the camp. The lockdown imposed by Mojahedin-e Khalq commanders is so intense that residents are unable to leave their accommodation blocks without permission, are not allowed freedom of association, not even among relatives, and of course a strict gender applies which separates men and women. Every moment of their lives is scheduled and observed. Residents are obliged to attend daily confessional meetings in which ‘sinners’ are humiliated and sometimes beaten.
After two decades of these conditions (eleven of them spent unable to even pretend to be a military group after being disarmed by the US army), residents are finding it harder and harder to submit to the bizarre strictures of cult culture. But submit they must if they are to avoid severe punishments for transgressing these rules. The first rule being total, unquestioning obedience to every dictate under the totalitarian rule of Rajavi.
Since 2011, over two hundred and fifty residents have escaped from the MEK. Around twenty percent of these have returned home to their families in Iran. The others have found ways to travel to Europe or are still in Baghdad awaiting UNHCR transfers.
During my visit I met with several escaped Camp Liberty residents living in Hotel Mohajer. Six of these had requested repatriation to Iran and were eventually able to go. (Jane Holl Lute thanked Iran for accepting them.) Seven more had undergone UNHCR interviews and were waiting for places to go to. Three had already been accepted by Western countries because of prior connections there.
Of the six most recent escapees, one asked to be allowed immediately to join his family in Iran. The rest are being kept safe in accommodation.
Since announcing an amnesty for “repentant” MEK members in 2003, Iran has allowed escapees to return home to their families, in particular former POWs and those economic migrants who had clearly been deceived by the MEK in recent years. More contentious figures including long term members have been dissuaded from returning and have mostly found a way to reach Europe instead which circumvented the UN refugee transfer route. Following the Presidential elections in 2013, Iran called a moratorium on voluntary repatriations. For several months Iran did not accept any new transfers. Now, after undertaking a review of its policies and practices concerning the process of repatriating former members of a terrorist entity, the IRI has again begun to accept vetted individuals who wish to return to their families. Certainly Iran has been understandably cautious about allowing any MEK to enter Iran under any pretext. However, Sahar Family Foundation which works in Baghdad with the families of MEK members reports that Iranian embassy officials describe this as “an obligation toward their families”.
With a new government in place, Iraq is working with Iran to expedite the return of ‘pardoned’ MEK to Iran as quickly as possible. Iran has drafted new legislation to allow this. Iraq has also said it has formulated plans to speed up the process which it has handed to UNAMI for approval.
The IRI has compiled a list of around 100 MEK members which it says it will prosecute for crimes against humanity and war crimes if they return to Iran. Arrest warrants have been lodged with INTERPOL for several leading MEK members. The government of Iraq has also compiled a list of 150 MEK members which it says participated in illegal activities in Iraq, including the massacre of thousands of Kurdish civilians in March 1991. The Iraqi police and judiciary will pursue the arrest of all named persons.
Clearly for the past twenty years Iran has considered the MEK to be an irritant rather than an existential threat. As a pseudo-political force acting to publicise a regime change agenda and with a defunct terrorist force the MEK has no potency. However, the IRI does regard the MEK as a social problem. Along with Western agencies, including the US Department of State and the authors of the 2009 RAND report, Iran has identified the MEK as a dangerous, destructive mind control cult which engages in violence to achieve its political aims and which believes that the ends justify the means so that it is not bound by legal, moral or social laws. Former members have described these practices in detail and there is a huge body of evidence behind this assessment. The danger therefore is to its own members who have been effectively enslaved and abused by the leaders, and to any potential new recruits.
Western Support for the MEK
In September the MEK held what it called an ‘International Conference’ in Paris with the title: “First Anniversary of Ashraf massacre, Middle East in crisis, threats and solutions”. The MEK assembled around fifty of its paid lobbyists and advocates to address an audience also assembled from paid refugee and student populations in Europe. Among the issues to be denounced by the speakers was the “inhumane siege imposed on Camp Liberty”.
In Iraq, UNAMI has had to deal with constant complaints from the Mojahedin commanders about “siege conditions” at the camp. On 31 August, UNAMI reported that “the provision of life support systems such as water, electricity and food continue to be well in excess of basic humanitarian standards”. In addition, MEK advocates in Europe, such as MEPs Julie Ward and Judith Kirton-Darling, also insist that the MEK be protected from further attacks like the events at Camp Ashraf on September 1, 2013 and for them to be moved as soon as possible to third countries to prevent further violence. Yet when Jane Holl Lute, Ban Ki-Moon’s Special Representative, negotiated 210 refugee places in Albania, the MEK refused to allow any residents to leave the camp. It was only after grinding negotiations with the camp’s commanders that the MEK submitted its own list of people it was prepared to let go.
It is apparent that the MEK have no achievements to boast of in their gatherings, and can only celebrate the anniversary of some disastrous event or other in their history. The only ‘achievement’ has been that in 2012 then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton removed the MEK from the US terrorism list. This allowed the MEK to be paid to act as an adjunct to that branch of American foreign policy which is covertly working toward violent regime change, hardly something to endear the MEK to the Iranian people.
Reports from a variety of sources have revealed that the MEK has invited a number of its American lobbyists to visit Camp Liberty. Their route takes them via Jordan where they are also in contact with the Saddamists. The trace of their movements show that they have stayed in the compound of Saddam’s daughter, Raghad Hussein, with the knowledge of Jordanian intelligence. The handler for these trips is Ali Safavi who has an American travel document but who is mostly resident in an MEK base in London. From Jordan they travel to Baghdad and Camp Liberty. On the way they stop in Falujah where they are accommodated in a building belonging to some of Daesh’s top personnel. Entry into Camp Liberty is highly restricted and monitored by the Iraqi security forces who are tasked with guarding the camp. However, it is understood that the foreign visitors are taken in by MEK vehicles and by US embassy staff. While inside the camp, residents are made to stand back and not approach the visitors. Ali Safavi and other English speaking commanders act as translators who are able thereby to monitor and if needed to censor conversations.
These visits are designed to convince the lobbyists that all is well inside the camp and that rumours of discontent are untrue. However, they are also used to convince residents that Western powers support the MEK and their future is thereby assured and if they trust their leader Massoud Rajavi, all will be well. One of the difficulties for the MEK leader is that while advertising this American support he cannot afford to let the Camp Liberty residents near them even to say thank-you because of fears they will speak out of turn and reveal their desperation or even despair. On the other hand the carefully selected visitors have had their visit micro-managed by MEK handlers and are not in any frame of mind (or are not even interested) to engage with their environment sufficient to undertake an investigation into actual conditions – mental or physical – for the residents.
To attract sympathy among Western policy makers the MEK maintains the permanent pretence of victimhood. Yet for this sympathy to be converted into actual financial and political support the group must also still maintain the fiction that the Iranian regime is afraid of them.
It is true that the Islamic Republic is sensitive to the issue of the MEK. Western politicians who see this think they know why. But they don’t. The IRI recognises the majority of Camp Liberty residents and in the base in Paris as victims of a destructive cult. Iran’s government regards the MEK not as a threat to its existence, but as a danger to the health and welfare of all the citizens of Iran. As a pernicious cult, the MEK is a social not a political danger.
2. MEK activities in relation to ISIS
Screen shots of MEK websites showing support for Daesh
Since 2003 MEK has been active in helping what are known in Iraq as Saddamists. That is, people associated with and loyal to the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein and who are actively opposed to the current government and constitution of Iraq. Such Saddamists are currently led by his daughter, Raghad Hussein, and by Saddam’s former second-in-command Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, both of whom are based in Jordan. The MEK has also maintained its bases in Jordan. Jordanian intelligence and authorities are fully aware of these groups and their activities.
While still under American protection, the MEK used Camp Ashraf to gather Tribal leaders and Saddamists and crucially al-Qaida affiliates. There were various motivations behind this activity. With regard to the Tribal leaders the MEK were keen to bribe them to accept the MEK in the Diyala Province. The residents of Camp Ashraf (as then) were obliged to organise lavish dinner parties for these guests. During a time of war and privations, the guests were treated to some of the most sumptuous feasts possible in those conditions, while the MEK provided slave labour to run the events. This ploy was partially successful and Tribal leaders tolerated the American-backed presence of the MEK for most of the decade. The Saddamists were of course former employers of the MEK. They have been instrumental in facilitating payments and political support for the MEK in so far as the MEK furthered their cause against the new government. This was particularly the case when the Iran-leaning Nouri al-Maliki became Prime Minister. The Saddamists have also been allies of the Saudi backed al-Qaida. The insurgents attended Camp Ashraf for training in the bomb making and guerrilla warfare which the MEK had learned while pursuing their terrorist activities in Iran in the 1980s. Al-Qaida were also potential protectors should the insurrection prove successful.
The creation of Daesh in Iraq has been linked to the move by Bremmer and Rumsfeld who agreed to disband 400,000 Iraqis with military training, including the full officer corps, after 2003. Many of these unemployed soldiers went on to create an insurgency as some joined various resistance groups against the American military. Some have gone on to join Daesh at top levels of leadership. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is now helping coordinate Daesh attacks. The MEK seeks to provide training and logistical support in return for protection from Daesh.
Officials close to the security services in Iraq divulged that they are in possession of taped conversations, documents and films which show the MEK have on occasion carried money for Daesh and the Saddamists, including Ezat Ibrahim. The same sources say they have documents from inside Camp Liberty concerning what Massoud Rajavi announced to his commanders as Daesh approached Baghdad in July 2014. He told them then, ‘don’t worry, they will arm us when they reach the camp’.
During the duration of my stay in Baghdad, Daesh in Falujah were very close to the airport and it was uncertain how that assault would unfold. It is clear now that Daesh have been repulsed and forced to retreat. However, Rajavi was very hopeful. Camp Liberty is close to the airport and a Daesh victory there would have meant the camp coming under their control. A source inside Camp Liberty revealed that Massoud Rajavi sent a message to loyal commanders at the camp saying that he has been reassured (he didn’t say by whom), that ‘Daesh will not interfere with our camp when they overrun the area’. This was surprising because no one in Baghdad has any doubt that Rajavi’s endgame is to kill all the residents of Camp Liberty.
While these events unfolded, the MEK websites remained uncharacteristically silent. The sites stopped giving news and only talked about the nuclear issue between Iran and the Americans. It was as though Rajavi was waiting in anticipation of how events would unfold. Certainly he was hopeful of a Daesh victory since, according to his announcement above, this would mean the MEK remaining in Iraq. It cannot be emphasised enough that the MEK is not a militant force. It would be incapable of joining in any military action. Instead, Rajavi wants to maintain a ‘bank account’ of people to expend at his will and for some gain.
Information gleaned from various sources in the Iraqi government and agencies concerned with Camp Liberty and the MEK can be interpreted in this way. The MEK’s links with the Saddamists are financial and political. The MEK facilitate activities inside Iraq and traffic people and money between Daesh and the Saddamists. In return they have benefitted from political lobbying to prevent or delay the expulsion of MEK members from Iraq. The MEK’s links with Daesh sprang from their links with al-Qaida operatives. The MEK have provided training in terrorism, logistics including money handling, and most significantly consultation in public relations, manipulation of public image and in the recruitment and brainwashing of recruits.
3. Methodology behind MEK terrorism
Since the mid-1980s, disaffected members of the MEK who left have spoken about their experiences and revealed the secretive inner workings of the organisation. Human rights agencies collected hundreds of personal testimonies from former members at all levels who described gross violations of human rights including torture and murder. Until the 2005 report ‘No Exit’ by Human Rights Watch was published, these agencies also found hundreds of reasons not to expose or act to curtail the blatant human rights abuses carried on by the MEK against its own members. The silence was so deafening it was interpreted as clear bias in obeisance to a virulent Western anti-Iran agenda.
In Europe, as these testimonies accumulated and former members gained support and understanding from one another it became clear to them and anyone else who had an interest in really understanding the inner workings of the MEK, that the organisation was using cultic abuse to recruit, maintain and control its members. Once it became possible to identify, name and analyse the underlying behavioural and ideological factors which govern the MEK, it became possible to effectively challenge the organisation. As well as exposing the group’s deceptions to public scrutiny the former members sought to rescue the MEK still trapped in the group.
It became apparent that MEK who left and returned to a supportive family and/or community very quickly shed their cult personality and were able to re-integrate into normal society. An important, though not exclusive, factor in this recovery was the non-judgemental understanding and support of the family and the local community. This view was compounded when, in 2003 after the MEK were disarmed by the American army and corralled into Camp Ashraf, several of their families took the extraordinarily courageous – perhaps we can say desperate – step of travelling through a war zone to try to make contact with their loved ones.
When the MEK denied them this contact, they turned to the various Associations and Societies formed by former MEK in Europe for help and advice about how to proceed and how to talk to the MEK to get contact. When several MEK were released from prison in Iran after serving sentences for terrorist acts, they also joined with the families and former members to launch an international campaign to rescue loved ones from Camp Ashraf. As well as the European and Canadian groups, a non-governmental body called Anjoman Nejat (Rescue Society), was established in Iran with over 700 families from all over the country.
With expertise gained through knowledge and activism, these groups have, over the past decade, been successful in exposing the MEK in every possible way and in every forum. There is nobody now who can claim they have no knowledge of what the MEK is, and any support it has – political or otherwise – is given with this knowledge.
An examination of MEK behaviour over thirty years can be instructive in understanding how the methodology used to deceptively recruit and to brainwash the people in its ranks can be traced in newer terrorist groups like al-Qaida and Daesh. There will be people who reject the concept of brainwashing because they do not understand it and believe it to be a fiction. There are many others who have invested in their own interpretation of how and why young people are being recruited. Many of these believe they are radicalised by extreme interpretations of religious texts as preached by extremist clerics or that there is a romantic pull attraction for the Jihadi lifestyle as advertised on internet sites and social media. These interpretations however, lead us toward Islamophobia and increasing curtailment of civil freedoms and rights. They do nothing to stem the threat of terrorist recruitment and the fear of a backlash.
For experts, a fundamental precept in identifying cultic abuse is that people do not join such groups, they are recruited. That is, a relationship is deliberately sought and established through a deceptive message and behaviour which is then exploited using manipulative methodology designed to deliberately and cynically alter the mindset of the victim. The aim is to, as quickly as possible, switch off a person’s critical thinking and leave them susceptible to psychological manipulation. If a victim does not realise this is happening, the chances are this will be successful; though for many this process does not work. But groups like al-Qaida and Daesh are becoming ever more sophisticated in applying these techniques to the point that they are now able to initiate recruitment via the internet. Families of young people recruited by terrorist groups talk about the inexplicable change in their children’s behaviour and beliefs.
Once the recruit comes under the hegemony of the leaders they undergo further processes of manipulation and brainwashing. From there, individuals can be selected to perform different tasks. From hundreds of recruits only a handful will be able to be converted into the kind who will die or kill to order. The rest fulfil support roles. The brainwashing process works best if a person is isolated from normal society, from their previous life and family. The MEK used their camps in Iraq and bases in Western countries. But rather than attach the descriptor ‘organisation’ to the MEK it is useful to use the onion analogy to demonstrate how this works, how a person becomes increasingly isolated and unreachable even while operating in what appears to be normal society.
At the very heart of the onion are the leader, the lieutenants and recruiters and the most brainwashed members, the actual terrorist forces; these are the most inaccessible group. Just outside this is a layer of financial, logistical and political support which holds this inner part in place; ironically perhaps the most accessible group of people. The third layer will be a criminal class who perform vital but illegal functions such as people trafficking, passport forging and money laundry as well as sourcing and procuring supplies. These are then protected by and hidden behind layer after layer of support functions. These will typically include the initiators of recruitment, the people who deceive public and political opinion, people who divert attention through controversy or manufactured campaigns. There will also be groups of people who provide services for the inner layers, who provide accommodation, food and clothing, even aid workers who perform menial and other tasks which they may not even associate with terrorism.
This structure explains how terrorist entities operate beyond the strictures of a single organised body. The layers of this onion can exist anywhere in the real world, but they all function to push recruits through a series of brainwashing processes. The more processes they are susceptible to and submit to, the closer they get to the centre where their optimum function is found – to die or kill on command. (If anyone doubts that these are the real victims of deceptive recruitment, remember, they usually die.) A signifier which differentiates this type of structure from other similar military entities is that in the case of cultic groupings the recruits do not join voluntarily with full knowledge of what they are really getting involved in, and they are recruited for life; as the 2005 Human Rights Watch report on the MEK stated, there is No Exit. (On September 17, CNN broadcast an item which included a recorded telephone conversation between member of Daesh and an American Muslim convert. The Daesh recruiter was heard to invite the convert to ‘come, hang [out] with us’. As the anchor pointed out, “there was no explicit invitation to come and bomb something, or behead someone, no, just come hang with us.”)
It does not need stating that combatting the kind of structure described above requires a multi-faceted approach as each layer of the ‘onion’ demands a different approach. Using this understanding and analysis, the families and former members of the MEK have been able, over many years, to reduce and disable the MEK’s functions in all but the three innermost layers. Certainly the political, financial and media support enjoyed by the MEK comes from the West. Maryam Rajavi’s base in Auvers-sur-Oise is still there not because its secretive and abusive inner workings are unknown, but precisely because it is required to be there in order to fulfil the MEK’s lobbying function for these countries. That kind of support must be addressed at governmental level. The third layer of criminal activity is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies.
So, the last, central core of the MEK’s ‘onion’ is Camp Liberty in Iraq. It is here that the leader Massoud Rajavi has effectively imprisoned the majority of MEK members and it represents for him the existential bastion of the MEK. Without Camp Liberty the MEK will be severely reduced. And it is here that the struggle of the residents’ families to free their loved ones is being waged. This and the previous three reports make clear that the only people serious about rescuing the Camp Liberty residents are their families, former members, the government of Iraq and the government of Iran. All the other players are complicit in a game to keep the MEK locked up behind closed doors.
Massoud Rajavi will do anything in his power to hold on to the people in the camp. He is supported in this by the will of Western anti-Iran, regime change pundits. Now that Senator McCain, as a go-between for the anti-Shia terrorist forces in Iraq and Syria, has come out in defence of the MEK, it is clear that the MEK still play an active role in the regime change plot for Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Rajavi wants to keep them there because he has nothing else. His only claim is to have an anti-Iran force in Iraq. He keeps them hidden because they are old and sick and are not useful for anything. But in terms of numbers, he claims to have nearly three thousand people. He wants them there because in that way he can continue to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq on behalf of his paymasters. Rajavi’s paymasters want Camp Liberty to remain because this is their only excuse to continue their presence in Iraq so they can interfere in the internal affairs of the country.
UNAMI’s role in supporting this situation is lamentable. Although Jane Holl Lute is to be congratulated on finding places for 210 residents, and the American’s have managed to find places for 80 (some of whom may be from Albania anyway), a pattern has become clear over ten years. Removing a small number of residents acts to relieve pressure, not to solve the situation. Just as the Temporary Internment and Protection Facility (TIPF), which was run by the American army adjacent to Camp Ashraf, absorbed 800 of the more disaffected residents, this was done to remove them so they didn’t infect the others with their dissent. Now the MEK proposes sending around 100 of the disabled and sick and dying members to Albania. They serve no useful purpose for Rajavi or his masters and they can be removed to be a burden on another country. This is not a start to resolving the situation, it is done to placate public opinion and pretend something is being done.
As far as the government of Iraq is concerned there is no obstacle to allowing all the residents of Camp Liberty to be accommodated in separate, more comfortable buildings like Hotel Mohajer, and for their asylum cases to be processed from there. Ostensibly the UN also has no objections. The UN is trying to convince other countries to take them and is trying to convince the MEK to go. But because these efforts are being stymied, Camp Liberty has become a de facto retirement home cum hospice; but without comfort or medical support or the loving attendance of family. Condemned to suffer the daily strictures of cult culture and severe suppressive measures, the residents of Camp Liberty are deadened to their own fate. Hardly able to think beyond the moment, liable to explosive anger or morose depression, it is not a life worth living.
The people who have managed to escape Camp Liberty are not dead. They come to Europe and talk and are active in exposing the MEK. They get on with normal life, they return to their families, they get married, find work, and in this way break every taboo Rajavi created to scare them into submission. This is why the residents are not allowed out of Camp Liberty, not because the West cannot offer refugee places for them through the UNHCR.
It is time to open the gate and let these people leave. Serious people know this is the only way. The UN must surely acknowledge that ten years of negotiation with the leaders who have imprisoned the residents have achieved nothing. It is not possible to negotiate with people who refuse to accept any legal, moral or social obligations or considerations. Indeed, by negotiating only with a handful of MEK leaders there is a tacit acknowledgement that they ‘own’ the people inside, that they are effectively the slaves of the leader and have no voice or choice of their own. This cannot be the case.
The most effective solution to this problem is to unlock the gates of the camp. Allow the families to claim their loved ones. And enable each individual to make their own informed choice in a free atmosphere.