Anne Singleton became involved with the Iranian Mojahedin when she was at University in the late 1970s. Initially offering practical and political support she eventually became so immersed in the group she went to a military training camp in Iraq for 3 months. Eventually she became disillusioned and struggled to leave. So how did a girl from Sheffield get involved in a radical group from Iran? Anne talks to Jenni about her experiences.
Jenni Murray: When we hear about young people who’ve become involved in terrorism we often wonder how did they get drawn into it and what makes them take part in violent acts that most people would find utterly repulsive. Well, Anne Singleton from Leeds became involved with the group which has been declared a terrorist organization in recent years, the Iranian Mujahideen. She was at University in Manchester in the late 1970s, then spent a time in their military training camp in Iraq and eventually struggled to leave. She now helps others who want to get away. I spoke to her earlier this morning, how did she get involved in the first place?
Anne Singleton: I was very much interested in changing the world. I was a very idealistic young person and very passionate about justice and injustice in the world and it happened that I came across this group who were very very serious about what they were doing and they held a lot of meetings and they held demonstrations and I went along and recruited.
Murray: So, how did it intensify? I mean you started on the periphery of it but then really became involved in it?
Singleton: They would use techniques such as being very very friendly towards you, making you feel that you perhaps are understanding a little bit more than other people, a bit of flattery and a bit of guilt and they will say well how can you sit around doing nothing when all these people are suffering. And then they will little by little take things from you, such as your money, they start with that, can you make a contribution? Would you mind helping out? We are desperately in short of funds can you please help us out and I would because I was working and I could give them sums of money which made me feel good about helping. I would give them quite large amounts of money. Then, it didn’t stop there and they would say well it’s ok but can you just please stay some time off working and come to a demonstration because we really really need the support, we really need the help. So I would give up my time and it gradually escalated from there.
Murray: And how were your family and friends involved this?
Singleton: I tried to get my friends involved because I thought it was such a good cause and I felt very strongly about it. They were practically a bit more cynical than I was…. involved emotionally. So, yes we were aware they didn’t try to stop me because I don’t think they felt there’s any problem with it.
Murray: How aware were you of things like attacks on US civilians in Tehran and that they’d supported the take over of the American embassy in 1979?
Singleton: I think those of things which I became aware of in passing, and I read the literature from the time before the revolution but of course the history of the organization had changed quite a lot in 20 years it’d been operating.
Murray: Why did you go to military training in Iraq?
Singleton: Because I underwent a process of psychological manipulation which didn’t allow me to think properly and really numbed my critical faculties to the point where I would have followed them to the ends of the earth if they’d asked me to.
Murray: You were young when you started. Were you naïve getting involved with them?
Singleton: Well these recruitment methods work on young people, will work on old people, will work on rich people poor people. Yes, it’s a simple answer. I don’t think you can say that because somebody is young they’re more vulnerable. I actually became fulltime in that organization when I was thirty. And I gave up my job and my home and my car and I get everything up and gave it to them when I was thirty. The reason I did that is because of the psychological techniques which they used on me and it wouldn’t have mattered of what age I was, they work on anybody at any stage.
Murray: So, what were you doing in military training?
Singleton: The military training, it was kind of inevitability I went to Iraq because everybody went. It was just a standard for that organization, for the Mujahideen-e Khalq that they take people to Iraq and give them basic military training; marching, information, you learn basic skills, handling a gun, crawling under the barbwire, assault courses, it’s really just quite basic military training.
Murray: would you’ve taken part in a violent attack if they asked you to?
Singleton: You know this is the point where I very recently decided I had to talk more about my experience because when I heard about the London bombings and I saw these three young men who were brought up in the same areas that I was and I thought about them going off , I can’t remember I heard they’d gone but I thought they must have gone off to training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and it suddenly hit me that that was me that was exactly what I did, what was the difference? What on earth was the difference between them and me? I had gone to Iraq. To a terrorist training camp and I hadn’t thought about it. I had not given it one thought about where that might have led at the end of the day. At that point I started to question myself this was just a few months ago, and I thought well surely surely surely I would not have ever ever got involved in violence because I personally deeply don’t believe in that, you know, I catch flies and put them out of the window rather than kill them. But being very honest with myself, I realized that I would have gone along with it because I would have not had the will to resist at that point I was so completely under their influence that I would have just gone along. If they said that well OK we’re going to start an armed operation into Iran I would have probably felt scared and doubtful but I’m sure I would have found myself swept along with it, I’m sure I would.
Murray: How difficult was it for you to actually …. yourself?
Singleton: Very very difficult, very difficult. Although I was failing in the organization the sense that I just could not bring myself to conform fully and I was struggling I was under so much stress I stopped eating for a long time and then because of this kind of inability to conform them, from Iraq, they sent me back to Paris and then from Paris they sent me back to England. And I think it was in England where because it was my homeland that I had possibility to make little escape routes. Fortunately my mother had never lost contact with me. She always kept in contact and that was a lifeline definitely knowing that they were there, knowing that they happen to give a … on me. But the other thing that was also being back home feeling that there’s a social security system I had somewhere to go, I could find a flat and get housing benefit. I knew these were escape routes but those are the physical escape routes. The natural ability to get out of the cult is much much harder because you are brainwashed. It is simple as that.
Murray: I was talking to Anne Singleton.
BBC Radio Four/Woman’s Hour