When is a terrorist, who is not a terrorist, still a terrorist?
The answer to this complicated riddle can be surprisingly simple: When they are forced to remain in a terrorist group because there is no safe way for them to escape.
|Image: Ehsan Bidi and Siavosh Rastar – who have no accommodation or money because this is supposed to be provided by Mojahedin Khalq terrorist group which they left|
There is an ongoing debate in Europe and North America about how defectors from terrorism should be treated as they try to return to their homes in the West. Some say that on security grounds they should be either banned from re-entry or prosecuted and where possible imprisoned as an example to others. Others, usually practitioners who understand that deceptive recruitment is a huge factor in people’s involvement in terrorism, advocate for a more humanitarian and redemptive approach: allow these people home, albeit with severe restrictions imposed on their lives and activities, and get them to undergo re-programming.
What this debate does not address, however, is just how possible it is to actually escape a terrorist group in the first place. If you are in Raqqa, how do you step outside the group and remain safe?
In this context the fate of a handful of Iranians, stranded in Albania without any financial support or accommodation and unable to access refugee services, shines a spotlight on this aspect of the West’s approach to terrorism.
It would be easy to dismiss former MEK members Ehsan Bidi and Siavosh Rastar’s case as a local, individual problem. But when we look in more detail, it has everything to do with whether America and the West are complicit in forcing people to remain in terrorist groups because we do not see the need to help them leave at all. Certainly this is not a solution to terrorism – Plan B: get them all to leave – but a more facilitating approach toward genuine defectors could be a major factor in undermining the hold such groups have on their members.
Three years ago, Ehsan Bidi was brought to Albania along with other members of the Mojahedin Khalq (MEK). But Bidi was already a separated member when he arrived; it had just not been possible for him to escape them while in Iraq. As soon as he arrived he left them. Since then, he had been living on a small financial contribution from the UNHCR along with basic accommodation which they had provided. Suddenly at the end of March this year all this support ended. He and others like him were left destitute.
What Bidi and another handful of defectors didn’t know was that under the 2013 deal struck between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the then Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, the MEK members transferred to Tirana from Camp Liberty in Iraq would not be given official UN refugee status and would be dependent on Maryam Rajavi’s MEK for all their accommodation and costs while in Albania. Amazingly, neither the government of Albania nor the UNHCR has any obligation to treat them as refugees. All of these people are being transferred not as refugees but as the active members of a terrorist entity. In fact, part of the deal struck by Clinton was that the MEK would be removed from the US terrorism list specifically to allow this deal even though every active member remains radicalised to the core and capable of committing acts of terrorism.
This means that when people like Bidi and Rastar choose to reject membership of this terrorist group, they not only face the wrath of the MEK – which has promised to kill Bidi in particular because he is so vocal about this predicament – but they are also left destitute because the state doesn’t recognise them except as members of that terrorist group. After the UNHCR pulled the plug on its support, Bidi and the others were told ‘you must ask Rajavi to allow you back in the MEK or ask the Iranian embassy to send you back to Iran’. Clearly an impossible choice. It is a conundrum which was created by America and must be resolved by America.
A similar situation arose in Iraq after 2003 when the MEK were captured, disarmed and kept in Camp Ashraf. Within weeks the American army was being approached by defectors begging them for help to escape the clutches of the cult. After trying to send them back or ignore them, the army was eventually obliged, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to establish a separate Temporary Internment and Protection Facility (TIPF) within their own compound to house the defectors. This allowed many others to escape and return to their families and to civilian life.
It is necessary now for the American administration to acknowledge that it has the same obligation toward the people it transferred to Albania under Clinton’s 2013 deal. It must give them the same opportunity to leave the MEK as was granted to people while in Iraq. Safe, alternative accommodation and social support must be given to those who, on principle, reject membership of a terrorist group. It’s almost unthinkable that this isn’t happening already.But while nobody imagines that in among the chaos of war in the Middle East and the massive refugee crisis that has engulfed Western countries, there can be a TIPF or something similar for ex-terrorists, we also know that Daesh kills defectors. They do this under the principle of ownership – we own our fighters and can dispose of them as we see fit.
In this case, if we stand by and allow Daesh, like the MEK, to dictate the conditions of how a defector is treated without making any effort to facilitate their safe exit, if we cannot offer a helping hand to those who wish to redeem themselves, then we are no better than the terrorists ourselves.
Khodabandeh: The article has been translated and published in Albania ; The issue is of course important for the Albanians too: