P: We’re joined now by Anne Singleton she’s a married mum from Leeds. Who was actually brainwashed by extremists at one point but now campaigns to warn others. Good Morning Anne.
AS: Good morning.
P: Is brainwashed the right word to use? What actually happened to you Anne?
AS: It is a word which resonates with people. More familiarly I would call it ‘mind control techniques. These are well-known, well-documented. For years and years destructive cults have been using them. The way that they work in essence is that they will take a perfectly ordinary person and strip that person of their values using specific psychological manipulation.
P: What got you into this position in the first place?
AS: I was involved with Iranian students at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979. I was at Manchester University. I was young and innocent, looking for something to fulfill my ambition to ‘change the world’. I was very idealistic and I got involved with those people. They seemed to me very sincere, very genuine and committed to making change in their country. I hadn’t grasped that the path which they were leading me along led to extreme violence.
P: So this was happening in this country, it wasn’t happening in a foreign environment where you would maybe be more susceptible to someone else’s culture.
AS: I was recruited at Manchester University. Having said that, ten years down the line – I was just supporting the group from a distance, I had a job and ostensibly a normal life. But ten years down the line I took part in a hunger strike and that’s really what tipped the balance for me and sent me over the edge into total commitment to this group. After about five days of eating nothing I was on a complete high and I felt as though I was moving at a different speed to the rest of humanity.
P: What was it they encouraged you to support?
AS: The Mojahedin even today present themselves as an alternative to the islamic regime in Iran. They say that they want to overthrow the whole regime in its entirety and replace that regime with themselves. They frame this in the context of human rights. They say we will protect human rights by overthrowing the mullahs. What I came to realize was that they were committing just as much abuse of human rights inside their organization as Amnesty International was ‘clocking-up’ in other countries throughout the world.
P: Anne, what do you think of the stories today? The front page of the Yorkshire Post says ‘University Launches Review after Conviction of Student Terror Ring’. How do you feel when you feel when you hear about these students, about what they were doing – substituting their faces with the faces of the 9/11 highjackers – after what you have been through.
AS: What comes to mind first of all is that terrorism is such a complex issue. Yes, it sounds horrific on the surface when you hear of people having extremely radical views like this. And people are frightened because they know that such views can lead to violence. But what I have understood from my experience is that to tip somebody over the line between radical ideas and actually perpetrating violence needs psychological manipulation. Words don’t kill people, they never have. Words are how societies move forward, through discussion, debate and progress. There have been lots of radical ideas throughout history – the world is round was quite a radical thought at one point. So we must pull back a little bit and say that OK there are extremist views but if we remember a few years back – 1993 – the Admiral Duncan pub was bombed, a gay pub in Soho. If you start looking only at the so-called ideology of these people then you are going to miss a whole lot of clues that lead you to understand how a person goes from thinking extremely to acting extremely.
P: You mentioned the hunger strike thing and that really strikes a chord with me. When I was going through my divorce I literally couldn’t eat a thing. And it absolutely does your mind no good. If you are not eating properly you think in a totally irrational way. That’s my experience. So, when you say your hunger strike was the one that led you up to that kind of high, moving and thinking differently from everyone else, that must be part and parcel of it.
AS: This is a fundamental technique for psychological manipulation. These techniques are used by all destructive cults – whether they present themselves as religious, therapeutic, or like the Jonestown cult of the 1980s. They each present themselves differently but they all use the same techniques. These techniques are very effective, you can actually recruit and convert somebody into a cult member within three or four days. That’s how effective they are.
P: This was happening to you at Manchester University. Now we hear about these students at Bradford University. There are some interesting issues about how this radical thought, idealistic thought can tip over the edge into violent action, but in terms of the universities what is the best plan for them in your experience in combating this, I mean tipping over into violent action.
AS: I think that young people generally need to be educated in the danger of destructive cults. You should start at high school even. I am surprised that in schools you may be given sex education, you are educated about how to keep your PIN number safe and not get robbed, But where is the education to tell people how to look out for somebody who is going to come along, take you out of your normal environment and convert you into either a terrorist or at least a cult member.
P: But will that education be enough? I think one of the things Bradford University is looking at as well is the idea of surveillance and looking at what people are looking at on the Internet and monitoring the traffic that’s coming through.
AS: I am not a security expert so I couldn’t say how effective that would be.
P: Would education have stopped you?
AS: Certainly it would have opened my eyes a lot sooner to looking for signs that people were trying to influence me in ways that I wasn’t aware of actually happening. I think university students are quite vulnerable because they are away from home usually, they are in a vibrant atmosphere. They are intelligent, idealistic and are looking for new experience and new ideas.
P: You are a mum, Anne. How many kids have you got?
AS: I’ve just got the one.
P: And how old is your child?
AS: My child is seven.
P: Right, so a long way to go in terms of university. How do you feel about your life now and your fears for your child?
AS: I have to add here is that the reason I have one child is that we started rather late. I was involved with a terrorist cult, the Mojahedin Khalq, which denied its members marriage and children. Those are the levels of intrusion that these organisations have on ordinary members. So, they would not allow anyone to be married, they forced people to divorce and took their children away from them. It was only after I left and met my husband that I was able to have a family. And I realise now that being in one of these organisations deprives you of all your basic, fundamental human rights, even freedom of thought. Because a person who is brought around to thinking as terrorists do in order to give their own life to this other person – because it is someone else who will be persuading them to do that – your basic freedoms are taken away from you without you realising. Now, if you are aware, first of all, of your basic freedoms – what are the basic human rights that everyone is entitled to – that is a starting point from which you can say, I do have the right to have a family, to have children. These are certainly the things I will be teaching my child as he grows up and certainly I will be teaching him to think and to question and not to accept anything at face value, ever.
People can be very persuasive. I think we’ve all been sold something we didn’t really want by somebody who was very persuasive. The same techniques will persuade you to act in ways that you don’t mean to, let alone buy things.
P: Anne, thank you very much for coming in. She’s a wife and mum and she was involved with the Mojahedin in West Yorkshire.
BBC Yorkshire, Radio Leeds, July 26, 2007