Interviewer: Good morning, its eleven o’clock, we will be live on BBC Asian network for an hour. Did you know a forty-year computer programmer has been involved with a Kalashnikov and has a six year old son?
Ann Singleton has a past unlike most people working for the Iranian Mujahedin in Iraq attempting for the overthrow the Iranian government. Today I’m talking to her about her experiences and the lessons that she learned. I will ask her about the feeling of working with a terrorist organization, fighting in the desert and how did she get involved with them in the first place? She has a fascinating story. Ann Singleton, she lives in Leeds, she has got a six year old child and she is a computer programmer. What we hear, you say is that Ann has got a past unlike many others. She used to be part of the Iranian Mujahedin training in a camp in deserts of Iraq, preparing to overthrow the Iranian regime. So what happened and how did Ann get involved with a terrorist organization that was intending to invade Iran. What lessons did she learn? Now she joins me.
Good morning Ann!
Singleton: Good morning Rosina.
Interviewer: let’s start from the beginning. How did you get involved with the Mujahedin? For those who don’t know just explain who the Mujahedin are.
Singleton: Mujahedin are an Iranian opposition group. They formed in 1965 in opposition to the Shah’s regime and after the revolution in 1979, in Iran they tried to take a share of power in the country. When they confronted by the ayatollah Khomeini regime which was established at that time, they left Iran and took a base in Iraq which is where I was trained. Since that time they have been allies to Saddam Hussein’s regime in fighting against the Iranian Islamic Republic and trying to replace the Islamic Republic with a regime of their own. It is an armed guerilla outfit and always has been started as an armed group. I got involved with the group when I was at the University.
Interviewer: so what made an English lady got involved in this?
Ann: The reasons are two things: one is that the time of Iranian Revolution was a very political time in the world. Elsalvador and Chile had revolutions. There were a lot of political activities going on. The political scene in Britain was changing. It was interesting times for everyone, I think, to see how world events would turn out. It happened that I had Iranian friends at the university and I had an Iranian boy friend. He was religious and so he got involved with the Mujahedin which was an Islamic group.
Interviewer: did you convert to Islam?
Ann: I had already converted before I knew them. Yes I was not a very strongly religious person but, yes Islam makes sense to me. I converted. I was almost very interested in finding out more. I did not believe that interest was kind of hijack by the Mujahedin because they were more interested in the politics of Iran rather than increasing people’s religious belief.
Interviewer: so was there a gradual process of indoctrination going through Islam. I mean did you go to it very quickly or no was it quiet slowly?
Singleton: my story is quiet unique because in a scene I was recruited by this organization by default. I have to say that they were actually recruiting Iranian students and it just happened that their techniques also worked on me and then because they were actually targeting me, I think it took a long time to recruit me …It takes about three or four days to recruit some body and I have to note this point that this organization operated as a cult. It wasn’t just an ordinary political organization.
Interviewer: so what kind of methods did they use then?
Singleton: they start with a message. They started to say to me that there is a regime in Iran which is violating people’s basic human rights. And they are repressive and reactionary and their version of Islam is very very inhuman. They came to me with the message that our version of Islam, the Muajhedin’s Islam is progressive and liberal and freeing the people. That was the basic message.
Interviewer: and you have embraced Islam and you are coming down to that kind of thinking.
Singleton: yes. I was quiet intrigued by the events in Iran because there was a revolution enfolding before my very eyes. I know the people who were involved in that revolution with their family. It was a very exciting but also disorientating event. But what really recruited me to this organization were the people not the message. If they just left their message I would have been happy with them in small ways. But what they do, they get the people to come along and flatter you for example they sent the people that they would say to me that you understand more than ordinary people, you have a sensitivity to our issues and you are just not an ordinary person and that for you need to do more because you understand and so they would ask me to go to demonstrations down in London outside the Iranian Embassy or just holding big demonstrations and then eventually they would invite me to their safe houses in London and along side with this they did this to create an atmosphere in which you couldn’t ask questions, in which you never had enough sleep . You never had enough to eat. They kept you uncomfortable and they were bombarding you with the information. All this was disorientating and was imposed from outside and made you deliver yourself toward their demands.
Interviewer: what was the reaction of other members of the group? Were they all Iranians or were there many foreigners like you among them?
Singleton: when in the early 1980’s I got involved with this group, of course they mostly targeted Iranian students or refugees. So most of the members were Iranians but there were non-Iranians who were often the ones who had married an Iranian. These people also, like the others had given up to the organization and had left their studies, job and life and dedicated all their feelings to the organization.
Interviewer: How was your relationship with your boyfriend? His name was Ali? Wasn’t it?
Singleton: Yes. That’s right.
Interviewer: How was it? Now that you were working with the group was your relationship better and closer?
Singleton: in fact, he suffered a lot because they wanted to recruit him and he resisted.
Interviewer: that’s very interesting. You mean you joined the group but he didn’t?
Singleton: it’s exactly so and because of that we broke up. In the late 1980’s, I was so influenced by the indoctrinations of the organization that I compared everything in my life with them and then I evaluated. I have created a black and white aspect in my life. At that time I really believed that somehow they are the only possible hope for the whole world. So I said to my boyfriend that I will go to London to help them in more measures. He opposed, he said that he wanted to live his own life and didn’t want to live that way. So I left him and went to London where I served for Mujahedin full time.
Interviewer: did he ever tell you that you would be brainwashed or did you yourself ever think that you might be brainwashed?
Singleton: no. I didn’t think so and nobody didn’t either because the organization operates in a way so that you believe that anything you’re doing is done with your own will. And you are completely satisfied with what you are doing. In fact as a full time member what suffered me was lack of sleep, affection grieves and psychological manipulations, but I was satisfied and felt that I myself had chosen this life.
Interviewer: what did your friends and family think about it?
Singleton: they didn’t have an idea about the organization. Of course they saw the people I communicated with, were very kind, very sincere, very self sacrificing and very educated people. They couldn’t understand why a white British woman can actually get involved with Iran at all. They couldn’t understand the obsession that I had. My parents told me: if you want to show your concern about human rights, why don’t you help the Amnesty International for example. But I was totally taken over by the group. I was taken over to the point where I believed that my parents had no idea about anything and that I have the answer to everything.
Interviewer: Ann, you mentioned that you were putting you around their way of thinking about how the world was. What was their thinking way about how the world was?
Singleton: well, on the surface of their thinking, the Mujahedin present themselves as quiet pro-Western, pro-democratic, pro-feminist, they have presented a woman leader. They promoted women to the leadership roles but the organization which I joined was in fact their Western aspect. I mean the aspect they show to the world. But actually they have been always anti-imperialist and they basically want to set the Rajavis in power in Iran. The organization is a totalitarian organization inside itself and their absolute objective is to settle pro-democratic Islamic republic of their own but from inside the organization I don’t think anyone can believe that because they are so profoundly undemocratic, profoundly exploitative of the people
Interviewer: then you describe them as a cult and the way they operated is very much like a cult. Just describe how it was. Were you of a big family?
Singleton: absolutely yes. That’s how they would like to see themselves. A cult you can characterize it by several means. It has a self-appointed and non-accountable leader who is usually charismatic person that would be Masud Rajavi in this case, who when you listen to his speech is a very charismatic speaker, you can get quiet carried away and your emotions would be aroused. A cult forms very elitist in a totalitarian society among itself. When I was with the Mujahedin, I believed that we were above normal humanity; we were somehow the avant-garde of the civilization and evolution. The leaders used to speak of spiritual evolution that we had reached the stage now that we had reached the end of physical evolution and we believed that they were leading us to this kind of spiritual evolution. So they were separating us from normal society that included separating us from our families and friends and the outside world in general.
Interviewer: you mentioned it but I try to ask this question which is difficult for me to find out why a middle class English woman would become so heavily involved with the Mujahedin and you mentioned that they tried cutting you off from your friends and family. What was in your life at the time? Was there a hole you were trying to fill? What was there to attract you in the first place?
Singleton: I think on a personal level I found them very friendly. Yes they were extremely affectionate toward me and very inclusive.
Interviewer: hadn’t that happened to you in your life outside the university?
Singleton: for most people life is a bit of struggle. You have friends, these people judge you. Life is not straight forward. What this organization did was to present the most lovely people, the friendliest people, the most compassionate and understanding and caring people. They were almost too good to be true. They weren’t true. This was all deception. They used these deceptive methods to recruit people and maintain them in group. The way cults work, is just based on deception. They use a kind of physical techniques as well as mental techniques in order to control your environment.
Interviewer: so you got deeper and deeper and you got more involved and then in the end you went to a terrorist training camp in the Iraqi desert. What was that like?
Singleton: as briefly to explain, when I joined the Mujahedin at that time after a hunger strike which we held in 1990 as a part of the demonstration about human rights situation in Iran. Hunger and sleep deprivation are classic recruitment techniques which at first I didn’t know about it. By the day three or four of this hunger strike we were almost in state of heightened awareness, in a different state of mind to the point that I gave up everything that I had partly truly my house, my car, my friends, my family. I gave up everything in order to be a full time member, I was completely in their house, and I believe it was a voluntarily thinking, but of course I’ve been manipulated in to this state of mind and from that point I was given various tasks to perform. I was working something like 16 to 20 hours a day. I didn’t get paid, didn’t choose where to live, what to wear, what to eat, every aspect of my life was controlled by the organization and I had no concept that I was so totally under their control. I really did believe and I think every one around me believed that we were doing this after our own free will. We believed in causes so strongly that we were prepared to sacrifice everything. Now I got to the point where I was asked to undertake military training and of course this organization’s main goal was to overthrow the regime in Iran. So I had no reason to imagine that I should not do the military training. And of course I agreed and we went with a group of about 50 people to a place called Camp Ashraf in North of Bagdad and we were separated men and women and we were given a military training.
Interviewer: what did that consist of?
Singleton: well at that
time, it was basic military training which was gotten in any army, consisted of marching, learning how to dissolve, collective training, how to fire a Kalashnikov, how to load it, how to clean it. We learned how to drive heavy vehicle and that was a basic thing. What the organization was doing and we were totally unaware of, they were watching our performance, our commitment, our submission, how far we will be willing to submit to the demands and from the group that I was with, they selected about five or six women for further training and that is how these organizations work, they may train a 100, from that hundred people they will take a few of them to the further step and the further step and the further step and of course the end game is suicide machines.
Interviewer: well, we will come to that again in a moment. You eventually did succeed to get out of the organization and we will find out how. You explained that how you got involved in those camps in Iraq and how you got that stage. Just describe to me a typical day at the camp. What was it like?
Singleton: we had a military uniform. We woke up in the morning. We had breakfast, it was much disciplined. We had particular tasks besides. One day we would do marching and another day we would do the assault collective training. We had classes in which we learned about basic military activities. Through out my whole experience of being with the Mujahedin every moment of my life was programmed by them and you know now that I think about it, its hard to believe that I was so totally controlled.
Interviewer: did watching videos, not sleeping enough, not eating enough continue to control your behavior?
Singleton: inside the Mujahedin there is a constant bombardment of indoctrination that come through meetings and come through films. For example while dinnertime every time every evening they would show film. You are not allowed to see anything or hear anything or read anything that didn’t come from the inside of the Organization, a very very strict censorship in that respect and the films that were shown were films with glorified violence. A very simple example is of a film that was from the early 80’s was about a female suicide bomber inside Iran who blew up one of the ayatollahs. It was a quiet graphic film. To the extent that you could see body parts flying around after the explosion, they showed it several times. The first time I saw it, I was horrified, it was terrific, I looked away and then they showed it again and again and again. What is important here is that after several times they showed it, everyone in that room when this happened, would jump up and cheer and say:" Hurray! What a marvelous woman this was! How fantastic she was!" they praised her to the point that they believed that she did her job, she was a devoted member and maybe I should be like that, maybe I should take amount of that characteristics.
Interviewer: did you seriously investigate that you may also be one of these suicide bombers one day?
Singleton: I had no intention, killing anyone or being killed. What I didn’t understand was that it wouldn’t be in my hands. When I was in the training camp in Iraq, if the leader, Masud Rajavi, said:" we are now going to launch an attack on Iran." I would have gone. I like to believe that I wouldn’t have but deep in my heart I know that I wouldn’t have no will to resist… the indoctrination was so overwhelming and so as I said they had created an environment to the extent that I had no contact with my family if my mum sent me a letter I had to read it so that they would understand what was in it.
Interviewer: what was the punishment like if you did anything against what they wanted you to do?
Singleton: the punishment was very simple and at the same time very very strong. I mentioned peer pressure and it was one of the main stays of the cults. For example I’ve always enjoyed walking and one day I went out and I took a walk and I didn’t tell anybody that I was going when I just spent an hour outside walking for that they didn’t speak to me for days and I had no idea what I have done wrong that for days I was basically sent to coventry and that was quiet horrible punishment because this group was all I knew as a family. I trusted them, I loved them and that was my world but of course as a Western English woman they were very soft with me. Other people who were in the organization who were for example based in Iraq had much harsher punishment. When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 they opened up Abu Qoraib prison the Iraqi political prison, there were members of the Mujahedin in that prison, around fifty who had been there because of their dissent. Punishment could be extremely harsh. People would have been killed, people have lost their sanity in the organization. There is a catalog of very very harsh human rights abuses.
Interviewer: what was the turning point when you thought "no this is wrong, no it,s not correct, I don’t want to go on any more"?
Singleton: it wasn’t simple. I did not reject the organization as such. What happened was that the organization had called for forced marriages and that people were expected to get married to somebody and they performed it as a duty. Now in 1990 they reversed this to the point where they had forced divorces and everybody in the organization was required to divorce. If you were married you were expected to divorce your spouse. If you were not married, then you would be expected to mentally and emotionally divorce the understanding that you would ever marry and have children. And that was in order to get you to devote yourself one hundred percent to the leadership, with no distraction, no emotional ties. You are married to the Mujahedin’s leadership. You divorce your sexuality which is impossible. I have never imagined when I joined them, that I would never get married and never have children and I couldn’t submit this commandment so I struggled and struggled and I felt that I was failing and I constantly asked myself this question that this was right or wrong. It was incredible to me but I just couldn’t question the legality of their demands. And I left the Organization because I felt I had failed. And that’s what they wanted me to believe "that I was a failure." And then only when I walked out I began to think more clearly about what they asked me to do and even then it took me three years to separate myself because all the time they were putting place their recruitment techniques again, the ones that worked in the early eighties to recruit and maintain me; their friendliness, their flattery, feelings of guilt, the peer pressures , all these kind of techniques which they used to get me in ,in the first place they continued to use to get me back, now in 1996 I cut off completely from them, I couldn’t accept them anymore and it was only at that point that I started to research what had happened to me and I got a label which was " Cult" and I began to see that what MKO was doing was the same as other cults and there are other organizations that today are acting the same way. I was horrified.
Interviewer: it is fascinating to hear that this fear of not being able to have children was like a switch in your head that made you realize that you can’t continue like this. The desperation of not being able to be a mother in the future. Was it as simple as that?
Singleton: I don’t think it was as simple as that. Yes that was very illogical that why could any organization deny you from your basic human right which is to get married and to have children. On what basis they are making that demand. When I left them and I looked the universal decoration of human rights which is documented by the United Nations, I realized that I did not have one single one of those rights accorded to me as a member of that organization and that I was held in a state of modern slavery. At the time I didn’t question that they had a right to demand, that I didn’t get paid, that I had no time out of there, that I had no time out of there, that I had no family contact that I had no chance of marriage no chance of having children and that my only only purpose was to sacrifice my life for the organization.
Interviewer: how easy was it, to get back to ordinary life again after what you were going through?
Singleton: it was extremely hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had to learn humanity once again. It may seem strange but as a member of MKO you believe that you are superior to the humanity and that is what they want you to believe. That’s how they get you to perform this self-sacrificing. You accept that you are better than ordinary people because you have to come down. As a computer programmer I had to work among ordinary people who I had to contact with. So I had to learn to make contacts with people as an ordinary person.
Interviewer: how did they react? Did they view you as traitor? Did they ever call you that?
Singleton: they’re still swearing at me, and cursing and trying to discredit me in any way they can accuse me.
Interviewer: it is still difficult to do your everyday works? Are you still influenced by your previous experiences? Are you still haunted by the videos that you were forced to watch?
Singleton: it’s ten years on now since I finally left them and I have worked very very hard with my husband who is also an ex-member to come to terms before it happened to us and I think the birth of my son changed things for me when I realized that he is the future generation and I have to put this behind and put my face to the future and grow his up as a good person.
Interviewer: do you think that it’s easier to recruit somebody if they’re younger or if they’re male or female because you said earlier that some women were selected for further training?
Singleton: I think that people believe that it could never happen to them. They think that the only people who get recruited to their organization are somehow inadequate or they’re stupid or not well-educated. What I have learned is that cults can recruit just about anybody. There is qualification to that. May be it doesn’t happen to you never but younger people because they’re idealistic people they are more vulnerable. You don’t have that kind of experience but what organization like the Mujahedin will do is that they target the people who are intelligent, educated who are skilled and can bring something to the organization. Now it’s become a trend to recruit the women. They may not have generalization but now many of the organizations concluded that the women are more valuable to maintain their organization. They are more easily to manipulate. I’m sorry but as a woman I say this. Emotionally they are more prepared to be manipulated. So I think there is a greater danger to women.
Interviewer: how do you think a society can prevent the recruitment of for example young Muslims to suicide group?
Singleton: I think we have to draw distraction between radical ideas and radical actions. It’s wrong to say people: "you can’t or shouldn’t have radical ideas". Of course you can but you must not do is terrorism. Terrorism is a tool, a method of creating conflict in the society. Islam is also not exclusive to terror in essence. It is exploited by terrorist groups that terrorism is in itself a tool of waging war in society. For young people they have to make that distinction say yes I can have strong and radical believes and I have to test them out in society. Once an organization comes to you and says we have the answer to the world’s problems that should be an alarm in your mind. In history no one organization had the answer to everything. If you are approached by people who do try to separate you from society or separate you from your family they try to take you to their environment where you are not given answer, where you are not allowed to think or question what they’re telling you, you need to think that it is an ordinary organization and walk away.
Interviewer: some people would say only weak people get recruited in these organizations. What would you say to them?
Singleton: I would say No, don’t think that. When I was in the Mujahedin, the people in the organization were probably among the most educated and intelligent of their society. They had come to Britain as students mostly and they were highly educated level people. Recruitment techniques in cults will work on just about everybody. If it doesn’t work on you, you may have some sort of mental problems. In this case being stupid and mad may save you. You are recruited by people telling you great ideas. You are recruited by methods. When you are going to a meeting for example, it is a dark room with an unnatural atmosphere and chanting. So the techniques are recruiting you not the ideas. The ideas are important but what I was told in the Mujahedin were lies but the way I was recruited was their methods.
Interviewer: it was fascinating talking to you Ann. Before I let you go I have to ask you what’s your political stand for the situation between Iran and Britain at the moment? How can the British government get the sailors back? Is Iran a threat?
Singleton: I say from my own position, talk, talk and talk .Go and talk to each other please.
Interviewer: a lot of talks are going on.
Singleton: there is a danger of people standing on their high horses say they are right. In fact what is needed is more diplomacy, more contact, and more involvement between different countries.
Interviewer: Ann Singleton thank you very much for joining me this morning. It’s been a pleasure time as well as your fascinating story.