In 1992, Anne Singleton was in the Iraqi desert being trained to fire a Kalashnikov rifle by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. It was a year after the first Gulf War and Singleton was a member of an organisation intent on overthrowing the Iranian government by force.
“I was in the desert wearing a military uniform and I had no passport and no money,” she says.
“I had never felt so free in my life. But the irony was that I was in a state of modern slavery. I was mentally chained to the Mujahedin.” Sitting in her Leeds home 15 years later, the 48-year-old wants to make her past public in the hope it acts as a warning that recruitment to an organisation proscribed as a terrorist movement by the European Union, America and Canada is something that could happen to anyone. In the present climate, with radical terrorist cells and cults active in the UK, Singleton is campaigning to raise awareness of how extremist groups and cults manipulate people. Her life now, living in a three bedroom semi as a computer programmer and being a mother to a six-year-old-son, could not be further removed from a previous existence where she prepared for war and accepted the deaths of innocent people as a justifiable means to an end. “I thought I was a savior of the world and would have done anything for the Mujahedin.
I worshipped those people,” says Singleton, whose involvement with fanatical extremists began when she moved from Yorkshire to study English at Manchester University. Her boyfriend at that time, an Iranian called Ali, was interested in the Mujahedin, and Singleton became intrigued by the movement’s opposition to the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution. “Manchester Uni was very political and I went along to Mujahedin meetings,” she says. “In truth, I could not even understand what the leader was saying in the videos but I was utterly transfixed.”
The Mujahedin was formed in 1965 to free Iran from “capitalism, imperialism, reactionary Islamic forces and despotism” and by the early 1970s; it had embarked on an armed struggle and later sought refuge in Iraq, fighting with Saddam Hussein against the Iranian government. Singleton’s indoctrination, conversion and submission to the organization was something that happened gradually over a period of about 10 years, the subtle influence of her Mujahedin peers eventually leading her away from her job, friends and family.
She views the Mujahedin now as a cult and says their methods of psychological manipulation are tried and tested and used by many other groups around the world, even similar to some tactics employed by salesmen to sell timeshares. “It takes a long time and they are very clever and use peer pressure. They implement subliminal messages. They use mind control techniques.
“They got me to submit to a higher order, their leader. They got me to make financial commitments. I used to ask friends and family to donate money to causes that were blatant lies. They replace your family, your relationships and get you to reject all your old values.” In 1985, Massoud Rajavi became the Mujahedin leader, transforming the movement, Singleton says, from being a political group into a cult. He married a woman called Maryam, whose role was to encourage women to break away from male control, and Singleton began spending all of her spare time looking after members’ children, cooking, listening to their poetry and revolutionary music. “I thought they were people of a higher order,” says Singleton, who was utterly convinced she was part of a noble, armed struggle. She even had posters of martyrs, suicide bombers and women with guns adorning her walls.
In 1989, Singleton split with Ali, who wanted nothing more to do with the movement, and she moved to London to become more involved in Mujahedin activities. During this period, she got involved with activists at a safe house in Finchley and, when the Unite Nations human rights rapporteur visited Iran in l990, they all went on hunger strike to apply pressure on him to question the Iranian government about the nation’s Mujahedin prisoners.
“I was as high as a kite on hunger strike and I felt superhuman, as if I had transcended normal humanity. Shortly afterwards I walked out on my job and went full-time with the movement. “I didn’t question anything. I was shown a film of a female suicide bomber blowing up an ayatollah in Iran. It was horrific and very shocking at first but I was shown the film many times, and each time I was less distressed. Eventually, I didn’t bat an eyelid.” By this time Singleton barely saw her parents and she had ditched all her friends. She had even publicly burned the diaries she had kept since childhood, as a symbolic rejection of her past. “If the leader had said ‘kill yourself’, I would have killed myself.” In l992, Singleton was asked to go to Iraq for military training. As a member of an armed struggle, she knew this might be required and did not resist, even relinquishing her passport to the Mujahedin when she arrived in the desert.
“You have no human rights, no nationality, you are simply a Mujahed. I loved the camp and it felt liberating to obey orders, because you lose all responsibility for yourself. I felt like a child and thought if I put all my trust in their hands, I would be OK.”
But in 1993 Singleton started to have doubts about the movement after all members were told that marriage was banned and all couples must get divorced. At this time she met her current husband, Massoud, another disillusioned member, and in 1996 they made the decision to leave. With the Mujahedin in constant contact, initially it was extremely difficult for them to adapt back into society and it took three years to make a complete break and fully recover from their ordeal. “We are both Muslims, and we were like little kids doing things like going to the supermarket and choosing our own food.” In 1999, Singleton and Massoud discovered literature from the Cult Information Centre and discovered that the psychological coercion techniques used by the Mujahedin were methods all recognised and listed, and together they now campaign to warn others that anyone is vulnerable to these groups.
“Look at the young men in West Yorkshire who are being targeted by the terrorist organisations. People across the UK must be asking what is wrong with the people in West Yorkshire. There is nothing wrong with the people here, it is just that the extremists are out there recruiting in the locality, using the same tried and tested methods used by the Mujahedin and the many other disparate cults and movements active around the world. “Psychological manipulation can happen to anyone, any time. If you’re lucky, you end up with a timeshare. If you’re unlucky you end up blowing yourself and innocent people up on the Tube.” An interview by Billy Briggs – Big Issue Magazine (UK), May 2007