Is 10 years enough time for a historically violent group to change its ways and persuade the State Department to remove its name from their list of foreign terrorist organizations? The Federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit thinks so. So much so that a year ago this week, it ordered the State Department to review the designation for Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Supporters of MEK say the group ended terrorist attacks in 2001, but government documents and news reports suggest the group was still active in planning attacks as recently as 2010.
MEK is the largest and most active armed Iranian dissident group, according to the State Department. It was founded in the 1960s from a mix of Marxist and Islam ideologies. One thing is clear, MEK, in the past, was willing to launch attacks against Iran regardless of location. The group was responsible for numerous attacks in the 1960s and 1970s, but their activities peaked in the early 1990s, punctuated by attacks on 13 Iranian embassies in 1994. Two attacks in 1981 and 1992 focused on Iranian targets in the United States. For decades they took refuge under Saddam Hussein in Iraq until the U.S. invaded in 2002 and disarmed the group.
Friday, hundreds of protestors demonstrated outside of the State Department to mark a year since the court’s ruling and a missed 180-day deadline to examine the designation.
“The State Department has failed to provide any, either classified or declassified, information that states why the MEK should have been placed on the list in the first place,” general Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday at a symposium to address the issue. (See below for FBI information on why MEK should be on the list.) The symposium featured a number of former government officials calling for the removal of MEK from the list. Shelton suggested MEK’s worth as a U.S. ally against Iran, calling the group “the most formidable opposition to the current Iranian regime.”
The New York Times reported that MEK was added to the list in 1997 “as a goodwill gesture toward Iran’s newly elected reform-minded president, Mohammad Khatami.” Supporters argue that MEK gave up arms in 2001, but in April of 2001 the State Department said Iraq was still actively supporting MEK operations against Iran and at a press briefing last October, then current assistant secretary of state for public affairs P.J. Crowley said he didn’t know of any plans to remove MEK from the list.
The State Department “looks not only at the actual terrorist attacks that a group has carried out, but also at whether the group has engaged in planning and preparations for possible future acts of terrorism or retains the capability and intent to carry out such acts,” a statement on its Web site says.
And in 2004 MEK was still actively involved in planning and executing attacks according to FBI investigation documents released in May under the Freedom of Information Act. A joint investigation between Los Angeles-based agents and German police recorded phone calls where MEK members discussed operations. The report tells of a scheme by MEK where the group used children with multiple identities to collect social benefits in Germany, then used the money to purchase large quantities of night vision goggles and GPS systems to improve accuracy of mortar attacks in Tehran. The report said MEK has an extensive support network in both Europe and the United States. A year after the United States claimed to have disarmed MEK in Iraq the group was operational in Los Angeles, Washington, Paris, and Colonge, Germany.
The FBI report says the group’s political wing often uses demonstrations like Friday’s to gain support from government officials and members of Congress “under the pretext of human rights issues in Iran.” A major theme in Friday’s demonstration was the treatment of 3,400 MEK refugees at Camp Ashraf, a refugee camp in Iraq.
In a column on Monday, Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Bob Barr says by designating MEK a terrorist organization, the United States “expressly weakened the ability of opposition forces in Iran” to make positive changes. Barr argues MEK is not a terrorist organization, but a tool the United States could embrace to affect policy in Iran. “83 members of the House have co-sponsored a resolution encouraging the State Department to delist the organization,” he added.
However, just last June, Iran said it arrested members of MEK who were planning a bombing on the anniversary of Iran’s elections.
“They’re no more terrorists than the people here on the panel… We asked those people to disarm. They’re the only people in Iraq who are disarmed. And yet, these people complied willingly and have done what we asked them to do," former Commandant of the Marine Corps general James Conway said at the conference on Monday.
See a database of known MEK attacks since 1972 from the Global Terrorism Database.
By Carlton Purvis – Security Management