A little ways outside the center of Tirana, Albania lies a military-style base surrounded by high walls and tight security.
What makes the compound one of the most unique in the world, is that its walls may be keeping its inhabitants in, rather than keeping any intruders out. Inside are thousands of members of the Mujahideen al-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian organization that was deemed a terror group by much of the world, only to be quietly re-marketed as a peaceful, democratic organization.
Now, it is considered a vital strategic partner by U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team who hope that the MEK will one day storm Tehran, overthrow the Ayatollah’s regime and take the reigns of power.
“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.”
But who are the MEK? No one seems to know.
That question is nearly impossible to answer, not least because the MEK has shifted its own identity so many times that former members cannot recognize the group as a coherent body anymore. Tightly controlled by its leader, Maryam Rajavi, many who have studied the group call it a cult. Iranians call them hypocrites for becoming a pro-Saddam militia that killed thousands of Iranians in the 1980s. Trump’s White House call them the last viable hope of a Free Iran.
From Students to Guerrilla Fighters
Formed in 1965 by a group of students from Tehran University, the MEK was organized against the rule of the Shah, whose government was installed by the U.K. and U.S. to ensure Iranian oil flowed to the West. Its left-leaning members initially mixed a Marxist understanding of history with Islam, but were targeted by the Shah’s secret intelligence, the SAVAK.
Many of its members were jailed and executed, and the group underwent a series of internal rifts. Eventually, Massoud Rajavi rose to lead the group, and the MEK allied itself with the revolutionary cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was quickly positioning himself as the top contender for the Shah’s job as ruler of Iran.
Khomeini,a far-right Islamist, graciously accepted the help of the MEK, but had no plans to share power with them. When he did seize power in the 1979 Revolution, he disavowed the MEK and its leadership, driving them out of the political scene. They quickly transformed into guerrilla fighters battling the Ayatollah regime inside Iran.
In June 1981, the MEK killed 70 high-ranking members of the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republican Party. The bombing also reportedly injured Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is now the current ruler of Iran, permanently affecting his right arm.
Then two months later, they bombed the offices of Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, who was Prime Minister, and Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who was the president at the time, killing both.
Khomeini then set his sights on expelling the MEK from Iran; most of the members fled to Iraq while its leadership went to Paris.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein immediately found a use for the MEK, and took them under his wing. He allowed them to build a new base for themselves called Camp Ashraf just north of Baghdad in 1986, and began funding the group. Saddam was fighting a brutal war with Iran at the time, and deployed the MEK as a militia against Iran’s army and its Revolutionary Guards.
Under the command of Saddam and Massoud Rajavi, the MEK killed thousands of Iranians and then was used to violently suppress Iraqi Kurds, something Khodabandeh thought utterly contrary to the original ideals of the group, which he thought to be emancipatory.
“I had joined MEK with idealistic aims and revolutionary ideas,” Khodabandeh told Al Bawaba in an interview. “I was a teenager then.”
“After years, especially after seeing the situation in Iraq and the role of MEK in Saddam’s army, it was obvious that not only had that aim gone out of the window, but the force was now a force for suppression.”
As one of its senior members who helped create international branches in Europe and lead its security, Khodabandeh thought he could convince the rest of the leadership to stick to its founding principles.
“I tried for years to somehow influence the direction with no success whatsoever,” he said.
By the late 1980s, the group was universally reviled in Iran for its role in the Iran-Iraq war, and was firmly part of Saddam’s network of militias he controlled. Its goal of revolution in Tehran seemed distant and abstract compared to the funds and arms it was getting for killing Iranians and Kurds.
How the MEK Got Off the Terror List
For most organizations, to be deemed a terrorist group spells doom for its ability to network and function internationally. They are either treated as pariahs, or actively targeted by states to be eliminated.
The MEK stands as one of only groups who successfully lobbied itself off the list, paying out millions of dollars in a tri-pronged campaign that included donating to influential U.S. politicians, saturating U.S. magazines with pro-MEK advertisements and convincing the U.S. military and political establishment that it was an asset rather than a security threat.
Its removal from the terror list began in 2003, when the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, ousting Saddam Hussein and battling against his militias. The MEK was perceived as just another pro-Saddam militant organization, and were targeted as such by the U.S.
But then something strange happened.
After a brief period of conflict, the MEK called for a ceasefire and began discussions with U.S. officials about its status. According to a RAND report, the MEK’s negotiators convinced their U.S. counterparts that they had actually offered to help fight on the U.S.’ behalf before the invasion and that its members were U.S.-educated.
Both were false. They also told the U.S. officials that they hadn’t killed any U.S. forces, even though the MEK had killed at least one member of the special forces. With limited knowledge of the group, the U.S. officials were convinced and accepted the MEK’s terms of the ceasefire, which included the group keeping its weapons.
The MEK then quickly built trust with the U.S., and was treated less like a terror organization and more like a oppressed minority. For their part, the MEK quickly ditched its friendship with Saddam and replaced him with the U.S., who was busy fighting an insurgency and struggling to establish a new government in Iraq.
Despite being listed still as a terror group, then-Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld moved to grant the MEK the status of ‘“protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention in June 2004, effectively placing it under the protective custody of the U.S. The U.N., International Red Cross and Rumsfeld’s own department disagreed with the decision, but it was final. Rather than prisoners of war to be prosecuted, the MEK had been granted special privileges.
The U.S. also provided the MEK with its own office space in a forward operating base near Camp Ashraf; a move that further signaled the U.S.’ comfort with the MEK. They also openly prosthelytized to U.S. troops and formal requests to stop them were denied.
The MEK then set about the task of convincing U.S. policy makers that they could be a valuable asset in the ongoing geopolitical struggle against Iran, who was considered one of the key players in the so-called ‘Axis of Evil.’
A Remarkable Lobbying Effort
In Washington D.C., the MEK went about becoming a permanent fixture in the social and political spheres. According to Trita Parsi, the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council, the MEK gained the favor of many policy makers.
“Even when the MEK was on the terrorist list, the group operated freely in Washington. Its office was in the National Press Club building, its Norooz receptions on Capitol Hill were well attended by lawmakers and Hill staff alike, and plenty of congressmen and women from both parties spoke up regularly in the MEK’s favor. In the early 2000s, in a move that defied both logic and irony, Fox News even hired a senior MEK lobbyist as an on-air terrorism commentator,” Parsi writes.
The MEK also wanted to win over the hearts and minds of everyday Americans, who likely had not heard of the small, nascent group but may have been concerned about peace and democracy, which the MEK now claimed were their guiding principles.
The group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2005-2012 taking out ads in major newspapers, including The New York Times and the Washington Post. Their ads were designed to look more like petitions or news stories, and they blended into everyday reading.
“35,000 Iranians Rally in Brussels,” one advertisement headline read, seeking to show that the group had popular support. “250 Parliamentarians, 50 Jurists Condemn . . . Conspiracies against Iranian Mojahedin in Iraq, Call for Removal of Terror Tag from PMOI,” read another.
One full-page ad in The New York Times called for the group to be returned to Camp Ashraf after many had been forcibly transferred to the less-secure Camp Liberty.
To be sure, the group was under attack by Iraqi forces during the mid-2000s; tens of them died and hundreds were wounded in a series of strikes against Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty.
The MEK paid for a vast array of U.S. bipartisan support. Among its public allies, even when it was a terror group, was R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss, both former CIA heads, former president George W. Bush’s homeland security chief Tom Ridge, Obama’s first national security advisor, James Jones, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, popular Vermont Democrat Howard Dean. Its other allies included Democrat Congressman John Lewis, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Representative Patrick Kennedy and retired General Wesley Clark among others.
The ad campaigns and tireless lobbying efforts worked.
In Sept 2012, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the group was coming off the terror list. A Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher praised the decision, saying “The lives of hundreds of the M.E.K. misplaced persons could well be saved as result.” He also insisted that the group seeks “a secular, peaceful, and democratic government,” in Iran.
The MEK had convinced enough powerful people that they were a genuinely potent opposition force that could offset the power of the Ayatollah’s regime in Iran.
The de-listing also open the way for them to expand their lobbying efforts in the U.S., which they have done. Rudy Giuliani regularly attends their annual gatherings, getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to do so, as does current National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was reportedly paid at least $180,000 by the group in 2017. Other politicians donated to include Barack Obama and John McCain.
With U.S. help, the MEK were lifted out of Iraq and into a new base in Tirana, Albania where they reside now.
Now that the average age of the MEK’s members is around 55 or 60, “it is fair to say the members have nowhere to go but to stay,” and watch the organization slowly fade away, Khodabandeh said.
“The only alternative for them is suicide. Especially the ones who have joined following an idea.”