By Ty Joplin
It is widely rumored that Saudi Arabia has been a loyal supporter of the Mujahideen al-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group which began as a collective of radical students and is now more accurately described as a cult.
There has been no concrete account of Saudi’s support for the MEK, until now. In an interview with Al Bawaba, a former top-ranking member of the MEK has provided details of specific transfers of valuables good from Saudi Arabia to the MEK, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The details are difficult to verify, but nonetheless represent the first comprehensive account of the MEK’s partnership with Saudi Arabia.
According to the former MEK member who personally oversaw the transfers, Saudi officials operating within the security apparatus of Turki bin Faisal al Saud, the head of Saudi intelligence at the time, and the late king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, gave the MEK three tons of solid gold, at least four suitcases of custom Rolex watches and fabric covering the Kaaba, the most holy site in Islam. The transfers were worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Massoud Khodabandeh, who used to head security for MEK’s top leaders and was one of its most-senior members, described to Al Bawaba a network of smuggling and black market sales that Saudi used to fund the MEK covertly.
Gold and other valuable commodities were be shipped from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad. Then, they would be sold in black markets in Amman, Jordan via Saudi-linked businessmen; the money would go to offshore accounts linked to the MEK, funding their operations.
In 1989, a year before Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, Khodabandeh and the MEK’s leader at the time, Massoud Rajavi, went to Saudi with an escort by Iraq’s secret police. “Rajavi was to perform pilgrimage as well as other things. At the time for our return to Iraq, we were presented with two suitcases each, presents from King Abdullah, then crown prince. They included gold, [and] Rolex watches,” Khodabandeh said. These watches were custom-made and had the king’s head designed into them.
The MEK, having disavowed personal possessions, removed the king’s head from the watches and sold them to black market businessmen in Amman, Jordan.
They were also presented with a piece of a priceless kiswa, a large drape that is adorned over the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Kiswas are embroidered with gold and are manufactured at a cost of around $5 million, but the religious and symbolic importance of the fabric makes them much more valuable.
“I was also assigned to bring gold in special lorries,” Khodabandeh said.
Aided by two Iraqi and two Saudi representatives, Khodabandeh smuggled three trucks filled with gold bars from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad. He estimated that each truck held about a ton of gold, making the shipment’s contemporary worth almost $200 million.
“After a few days I arranged for it to go to Amman to be sold,” added Khodabandeh. “We knew a few businessmen who could do this for us and move the money to offshore accounts.”
That top Saudi officials, including the late king Abdullah who was crown prince at the time, was funding a Shia militant group complicates the narrative that Saudi was exclusively exporting a hyper-conservative brand of Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism, around the world to combat Shi’ism. In looking to destabilize the Iranian regime, Saudi appeared more than willing to funnel millions of dollars worth of goods to the Shia MEK.
Khodabandeh noted that some of the money received from its dealings with Saudi was for military vehicles.
Through the Saudi-linked businessmen in Amman, “we bought large fleets of Toyota semi-military vehicles and many other logistical needs.”
Other Sources of MEK Funding: Saddam and the U.S.
During much of the 1980s and 1990s, the MEK was sheltered and supported by Saddam Hussein, who co-opted the group and used it as a paramilitary force for his own geopolitical agenda, which included a war against Kurds and Iran. Under the orders of Saddam, the MEK killed thousands of Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war, cementing their reputations as traitors to the Iranian people.
Khodabandeh told Al Bawaba that, in addition to receiving regular payment from Saddam, the MEK was funneled money from Iraqi oil that was exported to the U.K.
The MEK also garnered a significant amount of money from fraud and money laundering activities around the world.
A massive FBI investigation into the group’s finances in 2004 revealed a complex web of front organizations disguised as charities that were MEK revenue generators. Fraud and laundering schemes were found all over Europe and the U.S.,
From Washington D.C., to Tampa, Dallas, Los Angeles and even London, Stockholm and Paris, the MEK operated “cells” that took part in fraud schemes and fake charities.
One such fake charity was called the Committee for Human Rights. MEK members posed as representatives of the so-called Committee for Human Rights, seeking donations for the medical treatment of starving Iranian refugee children. The donations received were then laundred via Turkey back to the main base in Iraq, where they were used “to fund MEK’s terrorist operation” according to the report.
To smuggle in MEK members to the United States, which listed the group as a foreign terrorist organization at the time, the organization forged identity and immigration documents.
In 2012, it was delisted as a terror group and recruited by the U.S. for use in destabilizing the Iranian regime. The U.S. paid $20 million to the U.N. refugee agency to transfer thousands of MEK members from Iraq to Tirana, Albania. The U.S. also gave Albania funds to build a military-style facility for the MEK, in which it is currently holed up.
The U.S. also “allocated a budget of 10 million dollars for the purpose of a ‘de-radicalization’ program to dismantle MEK as an organisation and sort out the members,” according to Khodabandeh. But the Trump administration halted the program.
The contemporary MEK is almost unrecognizable from its founding principles.
What began as a radical, anti-Shah student movement in Tehran, the MEK morphed into an anti-Ayatollah guerrilla group when it was forced from the Iranian political scene, then it became a pro-Saddam militia operating in Iraq killing Iranians and Kurds. Now, it is an asset by the U.S. President Donald Trump, whose advisors think it can be wielded against the current Iranian regime.
“There is a viable opposition to the rule of the Ayatollahs,” Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton proudly announced to a conference hall full of MEK members bussed in to the annual gathering from their compound. “And that opposition is centered in this room today.”
The group’s shifting alliances closely align with its sources of funding, making the group a kind of quasi-mercenary force, although the group has not engaged in combat in years.
Turki bin Faisal al Saud, who was directing Saudi’s intelligence at the time Khodabandeh was assigned to smuggle Saudi goods into Iraq for the MEK’s benefit, has since become an outspoken advocate for the MEK.
“Your efforts to confront this regime are legitimate, and your struggle to rescue all sectors of the Iranian society… from the oppression of the Velayat-e Faqih rule, as was said by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, is legitimate and an imperative,” bin Faisal told thousands of MEK members at an annual conference for the group in Paris in 2017.
“Therefore, advance with God’s blessings.”
Khodabandeh said that bin Faisal replaced Saddam as the main backer of the group. “I would say that after the fall of Saddam, the MEK which was then being run by Massoud under the patronage of Saddam, changed to the organisation run by Maryam under the patronage of Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud.”
“It changed from a terrorist military organisation to an intelligence-based propaganda machine.”