I considered posting on the MeK, but now Richard Sale beat me to it with his excellent article on what they do and what they did.
I’ll try to complement his piece by providing some additional background on what they are. The group has some quite outlandish characteristics that make it rather unique, and US support for it all the more surprising. It is, in a nutshell, Washington’s (and Israel’s) favourite terrorist cult.
A few days back they staged a protest at the White House, in order to plead for dear leader Maryam Rajavi being allowed to testify before congress on ISIS, and naturally, Iran’s evils. I invite readers to have a close look at the image, in particular the mug of their dear leader, Maryam Rajavi (iirc "the true president of Iran", in one of her unofficial titles), on placards.
After the US invasion or Iraq in 2003, the MeK were based in Camp Ashraf and ‘liberated’ by US troops. In fact, it was pretty soon that the US had to protect them from the Iraqis who held unfond memories of them, for aiding Saddam Hussein’s efforts to suppress Kurds and Shia. After Saddam’s demise, the MeK however quickly found a new sponsor in sympathetic neocons, who felt they could put the group to good use against Iran.
The RAND corporation wrote a rather thorough and damning report on the MeK in 2009 which can be found here:
It is absolutely worth to be read in full. It should be required reading for everyone dealing with the group.
I will quote at length from the chapter (p.37 f) introducing the MeK’s cult characteristics and especially from Appendix B (p.69 ff), which goes into greater detail.
♦ A Cult … – p. 37 f of the PDF
Coalition Forces Were Not Prepared to Deal with an Unfamiliar Culture or the MeK’s Atypical Characteristics
… JIATF’s commanders had few or no opportunities to discuss the difficulties inherent in dealing with the MeK, to share knowledge, or to compare strategies. This deficit had particularly profound consequences once it became apparent to JIATF [ed: Joint Inter-Agency Task Force] officers through their early interrogations of MeK members that the organization was not just an FTO [ed: Foreign Terrorist Organisation]; it was also a cult.
The MeK as a Cult
From its earliest days, the MeK had had tight social bonds, but these began to be transformed into something more sinister during the mid-1980s after the group’s leaders and many of its members had relocated to Paris. There, Masoud Rajavi began to undertake what he called an “ideological revolution,” requiring a new regimen of activities—at first demanding increased study and devotion to the cause but soon expanding into near-religious devotion to the Rajavis (Masoud and his wife, Maryam), public self-deprecation sessions, mandatory divorce, celibacy, enforced separation from family and friends, and gender segregation. Prior to establishing an alliance with Saddam, the MeK had been a popular organization. However, once it settled in Iraq and fought against Iranian forces in alliance with Saddam, the group incurred the ire of the Iranian people and, as a result, faced a shortfall in volunteers. Thus began a campaign of disingenuous recruiting. The MeK naturally sought out Iranian dissidents, but it also approached Iranian economic migrants in such countries as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates with false promises of employment, land, aid in applying for asylum in Western countries, and even marriage, to attract them to Iraq. Relatives of members were given free trips to visit the MeK’s camps. Most of these “recruits” were brought into Iraq illegally and then required to hand over their identity documents for “safekeeping.” Thus, they were effectively trapped.
Another recruiting tactic was arranged with the assistance of Saddam’s government. Iranian prisoners from the Iran-Iraq War were offered the choice of going to MeK camps and being repatriated or remaining in Iraqi prison camps. Hundreds of prisoners went to MeK camps, where they languished. No repatriation efforts were made. For coalition forces, the MeK’s cult behavior and questionable recruiting practices are significant insofar as they affect both the daily operations at the camp and the strategic disposition options available to the group. The leadership is unlikely to cooperate with policies that would undermine its ability to exert direct control over its members. Indeed, Human Rights Watch reports that the MeK long ago instituted a complicated process to retain members who expressed a desire to leave, which included a “trial,” forced confessions of disloyalty, and even torture. Although this process has been modified since the group was consolidated at Camp Ashraf, would-be walkaways are still “debriefed” for days or even weeks while held in some form of solitary confinement, during which they are encouraged to change their minds. Conversely, the long-term indoctrination and isolation experi- enced by MeK members are likely to have instilled an exaggerated sense of loyalty, causing them to reject offers to separate themselves from their leaders. This would apply in particular to repatriation to Iran, where the expectation of persecution has been dramatically instilled in their minds.
The MeK as Skilled Manipulators of Public Opinion
During the more than four decades since its founding, the MeK has become increasingly adept at crafting and promoting its image as a democratic organization that seeks to bring down Iranian tyrants, both secular and religious. This profile has been especially effective in the United States and Europe, where, until recently, the MeK’s extensive fundraising activities have been very successful. But despite the MeK’s ongoing attempts to build political support from the West through a multifaceted public-relations campaign, it was not enough to prevent the group from being designated an FTO by the United States as well as by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the European Union. According to U.S. law, providing any type of support—political, financial, or otherwise—for an FTO is a federal crime. Moreover, many of the MeK’s fundraising activities have been proven to be fraudulent (for example, claiming to be soliciting funds on behalf of Iranian refugees, child welfare, or medical services for children). The MeK has also been linked with a range of money-laundering activities. If coalition forces, and particularly those involved in any type of negotiations with the MeK, had been apprised of the group’s long history of deception, they would have been far less likely to have made the kinds of concessions that proved so troublesome later on. However, they found MeK representatives to be friendly, appealing, and knowledgeable about the United States. Thus, they were susceptible to the MeK’s assertions of neutrality; its apparent willingness to help further coalition goals; its professions of support for democratic ideals, both within and outside its own organization; and its insistence that it had broad political support in the international community. Had the U.S. military, in particular, been more wary, it is unlikely that the MeK would have been able to avoid the surrender demanded by USCENTCOM, and even less probable that it could have elicited a request for review of its FTO status from General Odierno.
♦ Appendix B – p.69 ff of the PDF:
Appendix B: Cultic Characteristics of the MeK
The MeK is frequently described as a “cultish” group, but to date, there has been no examination of how its practices relate to cult characteristics defined by experts in the field. This appendix places credible reports about MeK practices into the context of cult theory
The MeK’s Transition from Popular Organization to Exiled Cult
Application of Cult Theory to the MeK
MeK leaders and supporters vigorously deny that the MeK is a cult. They allege that former MeK members and critics of the MeK are either Iranian agents or their dupes. However, interviews with U.S. military and civilian officials, information voluntarily furnished by former MeK members at the ARC, and visits to Camp Ashraf suggest that these denials are not credible.The cult characteristics described in this appendix have been widely reported by former MeK members and by Human Rights Watch. They have also been substantiated, at least in part, by interviews with JIATF-Ashraf officers and by information volunteered by former MeK members at the ARC.
Authoritarian, Charismatic Leadership
"Masoud Rajavi appointed himself and Maryam leader and co-leader of the MeK (and, by extension, of Iran) for life, though the NCRI asserts that it would quickly mount elections upon taking control of Iran. This concept of perpetual leadership is reflected in the MeK chant “Iran-Rajavi, Rajavi-Iran” that has been used since the MeK began its transformation into a cult. Equally reflective of the absolute authority wielded by Rajavi is his informal title Imam-e Hal (the present Imam) used by MeK membership. The egocentric character of Masoud Rajavi’s leadership is also illustrated by his willingness to compare his own marriage to that of the Prophet Muhammad. In addition, the MeK membership ceremony involves swearing an oath of devotion to the Rajavis on the Koran. Pictures of the Rajavis adorn all MeK buildings; banners with their portraits hang in the streets of Camp Ashraf. Criticism of the Rajavi leadership is not allowed. …
Intense Ideological Exploitation and Isolation
The MeK leadership requires members to study MeK ideology and to participate in indoctrination sessions that are characterized by a mix of propaganda and fear tactics. Group members are required to watch films of the Rajavis’ speeches and footage of various street demonstrations throughout Europe. The MeK broadcasts from its own radio and television stations. MeK leaders permit group members to listen only to these stations and to read only internal reports and bulletins, such as the MeK-produced Mojahed newspaper and other approved texts. Violators are punished. To reduce the appearance of brainwashing, MeK leaders describe these restricted activities as opposition to the IRI or as exercises in military theory. …
As a part of the “ideological revolution,” the Rajavis mandated divorce and celibacy. Compulsory divorce required couples to place their wedding rings in a bowl and renounce their affections for one another. (The rules did not apply to the Rajavi marriage, however, nor were MeK leaders required to be celibate.) The MeK denies that these acts were anything but spontaneous and voluntary, claiming, “The reality is that the Mujahideen is based in the territory of a country where . . . family life became impossible” and that every MeK member made the individual, noncompulsory decision to “forgo family life.” This denial is not credible, particularly when taking into account the MeK’s strict limitations on gender interaction, as described next. …
In addition to their geographic and ideological isolation, MeK members in Iraq are severely socially and emotionally isolated, even within their communal living arrangements. Relatives and former spouses are placed in different compounds and are not allowed to see each other. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991, children were sent to live with foster families in Europe, ostensibly to protect them from the impending invasion, though some returned to Iraq years later. Close friendships are considered “liberal relations” and are strictly forbidden. Members may freely communicate only with their unit commanders, and a commander’s permission is required for any other type of communication. Informants monitor conversations among members. In many cases, MeK members’ families in Iran have been told that their relatives had died or been killed. …
Extreme, Degrading Peer Pressure
The MeK holds daily, weekly, and monthly “sessions” that involve forced public confessions aimed at expelling deviant thoughts and behaviors that are believed to undermine group coherence. MeK members are required to keep daily records of their thoughts and nighttime dreams, particularly sexual thoughts and desires (which are, of course, forbidden), as well as observations about their fellow members. They must submit their journals to their supervisors. During large meetings, members often are forced to read their reports aloud and to make self-critical statements. MeK members are often required to admit to sexual thoughts. In a true Catch-22 situation, if they do not, they will be considered to have been caught in a lie because such thoughts are considered inevitable.
Prior to its exile, the MeK was the largest group to oppose the IRI. The organization enjoyed significant support among the young and educated middle class. At the peak of its popularity, it could call hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets of cities across Iran on minimal notice. Prospective members were attracted to the MeK’s mission, its Marxist-Islamic ideology, and the opportunity to live in coeducational housing and enjoy social debates. However, its ability to recruit was greatly reduced by the IRI’s brutal treatment of MeK members; the group’s departure from Iran, first to France and then to Iraq; and the MeK’s alliance with Saddam, the instigator of the devastating Iran-Iraq War. … These findings suggest that many MeK recruits since 1986 were not true volunteers and have been kept at MeK camps in Iraq under duress. As of June 2004, JIATF estimated that, of the MeK population at Camp Ashraf, only 5 percent had joined prior to the Iranian Revolution and 25 percent had joined at the time of the revolution. A full quarter (approximately 1,500 to 1,800) had been POWs, and 45 percent had arrived at Camp Ashraf after the 1988 move to Iraq. Thus, it is possible that nearly 70 percent of the MeK population may have been recruited through deception and kept at Camp Ashraf against their will.
Forced Labor and Sleep Deprivation
Cults often use long work hours and sleep deprivation as ways to wear down their members and prevent them from identifying with anything other than the group. MeK members often work 16- to 17-hour days and are limited to a few hours’ sleep per night, plus an hour-long nap. To maintain this pace, the MeK leadership mandates continual “make-work” construction and beautification projects and, until OIF, ongoing military training. The results are evident at Camp Ashraf. Built out of the desert, the camp has grand avenues lined with trees and is adorned with an exceptional number of parks, fountains, meeting halls, and monuments, many of which glorify MeK martyrs.
Physical Abuse, Imprisonment, and Lack of Exit Options
Former MeK members claim that punishment was frequently meted out for such offenses as
•expressing or fomenting disagreement with the political/military strategy of the MeK
•listening to foreign radio stations
•sharing individual political views with other members
•failing to attend mandatory meetings
•making personal phone calls
•avoiding participation in military drills
•refusing to participate in the compulsory “ideological divorce”
•having sexual thoughts
•communicating with friends or family
•asking to leave the MeK
Recent accounts recall that punishment for disagreeing with MeK policies ranged from forced written confessions of disloyalty to incarceration in special facilities at Camp Ashraf. Former members report torture and long periods of solitary confinement as punishment for disloyalty. To prevent MeK members from departing the camps, almost all MeK recruits were obliged to turn over their identity documents to the MeK for “safekeeping.” The MeK now claims that these documents were securely held until they were destroyed by coalition bombs. Although the group was invited into Iraq and given the use of land by Saddam, the MeK never sought legal residence there. When recruits were brought into the country, Iraqi rules regarding alien visits or immigration were intentionally not observed. With Saddam’s complicity, the MeK leadership was then able to threaten recalcitrant members with prosecution for their illegal presence in Iraq, which would mean incarceration in an Iraqi prison for several years, followed by deportation to Iran, where, members were told, they would face certain persecution. By bringing its members into Iraq illegally and then confiscating their identity documents, the MeK was able to trap them.
Patterns of Suicide
The MeK extols suicide but, unlike jihadist groups, has not used it in attacks since 1981. Prior to their capture in 2003, all MeK members carried cyanide tablets in leather pouches tied around their necks. MeK assassins were instructed to swallow the cyanide if captured during a mission. Masoud Rajavi reputedly has called all MeK members “living martyrs,” and self-immolation is a popular form of MeK suicide. For example, in 2003, there were approximately 10 self-immolations (which killed two) in protest of Maryam Rajavi’s arrest in Paris. The MeK has also used the threat of immolation as a negotiating tool with the JIATF, with British investigators, and with France. Former members indicate that a small number of MeK members committed suicide because they were prevented from leaving the organization and that suicide was also claimed as the cause of death for recalcitrant members who were tortured to death.
Denial of Cultic Tendencies
The MeK and its apologists deny that the MeK is a cult, instead contending that it is a “deeply democratic organization whose guiding principle on all issues is referendum and discussion until a consensus is reached.” The MeK admits to certain practices—such as divorce and celibacy—but justifies them as necessary for effective military operations and claims that they are voluntarily adopted by the membership. However, the MeK denies many other practices attributed to it by it former members, such as intense indoctrination techniques like “thought reform” (commonly referred to as brainwashing) and limiting exit options. As with all criticism aimed at the group, the MeK blames IRI propaganda for characterizing it as a cult. Certainly, the IRI seeks to discredit the MeK, and this includes publicizing the MeK’s cultic characteristics. It is reasonable to assume that some of the IRI’s allegations are inaccurate. But the fact that the IRI seeks to discredit the MeK does notimply that all of its criticisms are inherently untrustworthy. The IRI’s campaign has contributed to weakened support for the MeK in Iran. Although it is not currently possible to conduct a scientific survey of Iranians to gauge their opinions about the MeK—and, in the absence of diplomatic or cultural ties, information regarding Iranian perceptions is extremely limited—anecdotal evidence suggests that the MeK’s cultic characteristics have contributed to its decline in popularity since 1981. An American journalist reports that Iranians whom she interviewed likened the MeK to the Khmer Rouge and the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, comparisons that have also been made by current and former U.S. officials. Of course, as noted earlier, the MeK’s decision to align itself with Saddam against the IRI and to kill Iranian conscripts during the brutal Iran-Iraq War greatly eroded its popular support in Iran. Although the MeK repeatedly claims to be the most influential opposition group in that country, in reality it appears that this once-prominent dissident group can now validly claim only to be highly organized and well (albeit illegally) funded. Indeed, many Iranians observe that, since the MeK’s move to Iraq, the group is the only entity less popular in Iran than the IRI itself.
There isn’t much to add. The MeK and the US are obviously a match made in heaven, a union based on shared values.
Given the choice between joining the MeK or the North Korean Army, to me it’d really be a toss up.
~ by confusedponderer
•The RAND study on the MeK:
•Human Rights Watch Report on the MeK "No Exit":
•HRW’s response to critics to the report: