Depending on whom you ask, the People’s Jihadists are Iran’s government-in-waiting or a duplicitous terrorist cult that forbids sexual thoughts. What are they doing in Albania?
MANEZ, Albania — In a valley in the Albanian countryside, a group of celibate Iranian dissidents have built a vast and tightly guarded barracks that few outsiders have ever entered.
Depending on whom you ask, the group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People’s Jihadists, are either Iran’s replacement government-in-waiting or a duplicitous terrorist cult. Journalists are rarely allowed inside the camp to judge for themselves, and are sometimes rebuffed by force.
But after President Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassim Suleimani, a powerful Iranian general, it seemed worth trying again. Would a group that claims to want a democratic, secular Iran allow a reporter inside their camp?
The group’s loudest allies include Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and John R. Bolton, his former National Security Adviser. Both have received tens of thousands of dollars for speaking at the group’s conferences, where these influential Americans describe the People’s Jihadists as Iran’s most legitimate opposition.
Initially, the group ignored several requests for access. So less in hope than desperation, I drove to its base and presented my credentials to a guard.
Three hours later, shortly before sunset, I got a call. To my surprise, I was being allowed inside. So began a series of interviews, propaganda sessions and tours that lasted until 1:30 a.m. A New York Times photographer was admitted several days later.
The group perhaps hoped to correct the impression left by previous journalistic encounters. A visit in 2003 by a Times reporter to the group’s former base in Iraq ended badly after her subjects spoke from a rehearsed script, and she was barred from talking to people in private.
This time around, most residents were off limits, but officials did allow private interviews with several members.
At my request, these included Somayeh Mohammadi, 39, whose family has argued for nearly two decades that she is being held against her will.
“This is my choice,” said Ms. Mohammedi, after her commanders left the room. “If I want to leave, I can leave.”
While the group may not have tried to hide Ms. Mohammedi, there were several odd and telling moments when secrets were tightly held.
In particular, senior officials stumbled when asked about the whereabouts of the group’s nominal leader, Massoud Rajavi, who vanished in 2003.
“Where is he?” said Ali Safavi, the group’s main representative in Washington. “Well, we can’t talk about that, that’s … ”
He trailed off, staring at his feet.
Is he still alive? Is he in Albania?
“We can’t talk about it,” Mr. Safavi replied, after several seconds of silence.
Founded in 1965 to oppose the Shah of Iran, the group later rejected the theocracy that replaced him.
Immediately following the revolution, the group attracted significant public support and emerged as a leading source of opposition to the new theocratic regime, according to Professor Ervand Abrahamian, a historian of the group.
The group claims it still attracts significant support, but Mr. Abrahamian said its popularity plummeted after becoming more violent in the early 1980s.
“When you talk to people who lived through the revolution, and you mention the name ‘Mujahedeen’, they shudder,” said Mr. Abrahamian.
By the 1980s, the group’s ideology had begun to center on Mr. Rajavi and his wife, Maryam.
To prove their devotion to the Rajavis, members were told to divorce their spouses and renounce romance.
At the time, the group was based in Iraq, under the protection of Saddam Hussein.
Its destiny changed after the American-led invasion of Iraq. After an initial standoff, the group, also known as the M.E.K., gave up its weapons. Despite having been listed by America as a terrorist organization in 1997, it was placed under American protection.
But in 2009, American troops ceded responsibility for the M.E.K. to the Iraqi government. Led by politicians sympathetic to Iran, the Iraqi authorities tacitly allowed Iran-allied militias to attack the group.
American and United Nations diplomats began searching for a safer country to house the group. After intensive lobbying by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the American government also removed them from a list of terrorist organizations in 2012.
A year later, they were finally welcomed by Albania. The Albanian government hoped its hospitality would curry favor with Washington, according to the foreign minister between 2013 and 2019, Ditmir Bushati.
The group purchased several fields in a valley 15 miles west of Tirana, the capital, and built a camp there.
When I visited, the base seemed oddly empty. The group claims it houses about 2,500 members. But across the two days, we saw no more than 200.
The others seemed to have been sequestered away — or to have left the group altogether.
Dozens of former members now live independently in Albania. I met 10 of them, who each described being brainwashed into a life of celibacy.
Inside the group, they said romantic relationships and sexual thoughts were banned, contact with family highly restricted, and friendships discouraged.
All recounted being forced to participate in self-criticism rituals, whereby members would confess to their commanders any sexual or disloyal thoughts they had.
“Little by little, you are broken,” said Abdulrahman Mohammadian, 60, who joined the group in 1988 and left in 2016. “You forget yourself and you change your personality. You only obey rules. You are not yourself. You are just a machine.”
The group strongly denied the accusations and portrays many of its critics, including Mr. Mohammadian, as Iranian spies.
I was taken on a three-hour tour of a museum about the M.E.K.’s history, where the exhibits did not mention Saddam Hussein or forced celibacy. Instead, they focused on the group’s persecution.
Some rooms had been turned into replica torture chambers, to explain how Iranian jailers punished and interrogated supporters during the 1980s.
In each room, members waited in silence for me. These turned out to be survivors of the torture — ready to personally explain each method of repression.
One survivor, Raheem Moussavi, stood beside a bloodied mannequin and slowly detailed the four different techniques the Iranian torturers used to beat him. The process culminated in being whipped by a metallic cat-o’-nine tails.
Searching for influence, the group has turned increasingly to the internet.
I was shown a recording studio, where two musicians compose anti-regime songs and music videos for release on Iranian social media.
I wasn’t shown the computer suites, which defectors had portrayed as a kind of troll farm: junior members using multiple accounts on Facebook and Twitter, typing messages that criticize the Iranian government, lionize the M.E.K. leadership and promote its paid lobbyists.
When Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bolton made public speeches in recent years, members were ordered “to take a particular line and tweet it 10 times from different accounts,” said Mr. Mohammadian, the former member.
I was taken to an empty gym, and then to a small cafeteria. It was already close to midnight, but a small group of women had been told to wait up for me.
They scoffed at the idea of the troll farm. As for the limits on their private lives, they said such discipline was necessary when battling as cruel an adversary as the government of Iran.
“You can’t have a personal life,” said Shiva Zahedi, “when you’re struggling for a cause.”
After I left, the group put me in touch with three former American military officers who had helped guard an M.E.K. camp in Iraq after the American invasion.
Each spoke glowingly about the M.E.K., and said its members had been free to leave since the American military began protecting it in 2003.
American officers had access to every area of the Iraqi base, and found no prison cells or torture facilities, said Brig. Gen. David Phillips, who commanded the military policemen guarding the camp in 2003 and 2004.
“I wanted to find weapons, I wanted to find people tied to beds,” General Phillips said. “We never found it.”
But other records and witnesses gave a more complex account.
Capt. Matthew Woodside, a former naval reservist who oversaw American policy at the Iraqi camp between 2004 and 2005, was not one of those whom the M.E.K. suggested I contact.
He said that in reality American troops did not have regular access to camp buildings or to group members whose relatives said they were held by force.
The M.E.K. leadership tended to let members meet American officials and relatives only after a delay of several days, Captain Woodside said.
“They fight for every single one of them,” he said.
It became so hard for some members, particularly women, to flee that two of them ended up trying to escape in a delivery truck, he recalled.
“I find that organization absolutely repulsive,” Captain Woodside said. “I am astounded that they’re in Albania.”
Besar Likmeta contributed reporting.
By Patrick Kingsley, Feb. 16, 2020
Patrick Kingsley is an international correspondent, focusing on long-term reporting projects. He has reported from more than 40 countries, written two books, and previously covered migration and the Middle East for The Guardian. @PatrickKingsley