In spite of American promises, no de-radicalisation programme is in place to deal with over 2500 members of the Mojahedin Khalq terrorist group who have relocated to Tirana from Iraq. The MEK has a long history of violent and criminal activity. This has not stopped now they are in Tirana. Unless the Albanian government introduces its own programme, it must accept responsibility for the consequences of allowing this terrorist group to continue unchecked.
What would de-radicalisation involve? Firstly, we need to understand how the person became radicalised in the first place. This knowledge will allow us to help them. A fundamental principle is that they were not radicalised by logic but by a manipulative process which is in part mental and part emotional. For this reason, they cannot simply be sat down and argued out of their beliefs with counter-narratives.
A brief overview of the process of radicalisation for any group – far-right extremists, Islamists and cults – starts with deceptive recruitment. The group uses a ‘recruiting script’ (which we recognise as the ideology) to first entice or ‘hook’ the recruit’s interest. Whether this is done in person or online, the recruiter will be an expert manipulative persuader – think hard sales.
Once drawn into the group’s sphere of influence by their engagement with the ‘ideology’, the person is covertly subjected to a range of psychologically manipulative mechanisms. These are intended initially to throw them off balance and trigger an infatuated, even altruistic response to the group and its beliefs. It is important to remember that as long as the recruit remains unaware of this psychological manipulation they will have complete faith in the ideology and the leader who proselytises it. They sincerely believe they are part of a righteous movement and their companions are worthwhile and trustworthy people.
As the recruit becomes more committed to the group, they are deliberately separated from external references and influences, such as work and studies, until they become dependent on the group for all their needs and opinions. A fundamental aim of radicalisation is to separate the recruit from their family and friends (even when they are also involved) since these are the people whose emotional ties can pull them away.
As dependency is being achieved, the recruit’s emotional responses begin to be trained, not by logic or argument but through fear. The outside world is depicted as dangerous, alien and worthless. This fear is described by experts as a ‘cultic phobia’. The recruit is afraid of what might happen if they leave the group and go back to normal life. Also to prevent this happening, the recruit and his group are made to feel they are superior to outsiders because they are the ‘true believers’.
Even though every group’s externally declared belief system or ideology is different, once the recruit has succumbed to the process of mind control, the ideology changes and becomes ‘whatever the leader wants’. All further indoctrination and manipulation is designed to make the recruit obedient to this one requirement.
When we talk about radicalisation, we tend to focus on how the process creates a violent extremist. Of course, violent extremist and terrorist groups de-sensitise their followers to horror. They will ensure they have no social, moral or religious barriers to committing any act, whether violent or criminal or self-harming.
But such groups also exert control over every other aspect of their members’ lives, including sex and relationships. Daesh, for example, uses both marriage and sex slaves to reward and motivate its fighters. It also kills with impunity anybody trying to exit the group.
Indoctrination therefore is often based on the idiosyncrasies of the leader.
Surprisingly, even though his group is committed to violent regime change, Massoud Rajavi’s primary concern was to have all his MEK followers love and worship him. Perhaps less surprisingly he also wanted all the women to be sexually available for him.
He achieved this by introducing obligatory celibacy starting with forced divorces and removal of all the children. He reinforced this regime through strict gender apartheid. He coerced elective hysterectomies among the leading women members as a demonstration of their ‘devotion to the cause’. The outward reasoning being that women who reject marriage and children will be more committed. The real reason was so that Rajavi could sleep with these women without fear of pregnancies.
To prevent people enjoying sexual responses and emotions, he introduced a compulsory confessional process. This requires every member to give a daily report about their sexual thoughts, reactions and even dreams. Anything confessed is denounced as a betrayal of the leader and is punished. But not confessing anything is also punished. Members often invent reports which they hope will lead to less harsh punishment.
The significance of this unnatural focus on sex and enforced celibacy is the effect on its victims. One MEK member has already been convicted in Tirana for the attempted rape of an 11-year-old boy. We should know if this is a one-off aberration or an indication of deeper problems among the members. An effective de-radicalisation programme would need to take these issues into account.
In essence, the key to successful de-radicalisation is to help individuals reconnect with their authentic self and emotions.
For the MEK, immediate short-term steps would include:
· Separate ordinary members from leaders and controllers – remove all forms of organisational supervision.
· Create small independent living groups responsible for their own domestic affairs – cooking, cleaning and shopping.
· Encourage families to get in contact.
· Introduce external sources of information in an informal way.
· Offer paid work opportunities which are age and ability appropriate.
· Introduce medical and psychological support workers.
One problem is the age of the MEK members. Many are too old to imagine starting independent life away from the group. In this respect, contact with their families would provide reassurance that an alternative lifestyle is possible.
In the longer term, the involvement of former members – who understand what it’s like inside the group and can talk to current members about their situation and how change is possible – has already proven to be helpful.
By Anne and Massoud Khodabandeh,