The main base of the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin e-Khalq (MEK), an organization branded as terrorist by Iran and Iraq, is reported to be in Albania where it is building a training camp near Durres.
Previously the MEK had also been blacklisted by the European Union, Great Britain, USA and Canada, and then delisted between 2008 and 2012. The organization was born in 1963 in Iran with the aim of opposing foreign influences in the country and to fight the Shah’s regime. In 1979 the MEK participated in the Revolution led by Khomeini but its populist ideology – a crossroads of Marxism, feminism and Islamism – clashed with that of the Ayatollahs and was banned.
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In 1981, the MEK moved to Paris where it established its headquarters and five years later moved to Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, from where it supported Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran. The camp continued to play a leading role in the political and diplomatic activity against the regime in Tehran and also received support from various international political figures including former mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani, the American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton and Emma Bonino as vice-president of the Senate, in June 2012.
The leaders of the organization are spouses Massoud and Maryam Rajavi; Massoud has not appeared in public since 2003, since the protection given to him by Saddam Hussein was lost and he lives today in a secret location for fear of attacks by Tehran.
According to Tehran the MEK is a “terrorist organization” based on the “cult of personality of its leaders” as well as being “directors and perpetrators of attacks and acts of political violence”. For the United States it is “the main opposition force promoting democracy and secularism in Iran”. This is clearly expressed in a New York Times article of 21 September 2012 which explains how the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, decided to “clear” the MEK by removing it from the black list of terrorist organizations in the State Department.
The New York Times noted that several members of Congress had become staunch supporters of the movement that, although once Marxist-Islamist, had changed its mind by transforming its struggle and becoming the main organized movement against the Iranian theocracy.
According to the New York newspaper, among the MEK’s supporters are R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss, former directors of the CIA; Louis J. Freeh, former director of the FBI; Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush; Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and national security advisor, General James L. Jones, operating under the Obama administration.
The transfer of the MEK from Iraq to Albania
In 2003, the US Army took control of Camp Ashraf, disarming the MEK militia and transferring them to Camp Liberty, near Baghdad airport. The then Iraqi government, in mainly Shiite hands, maintained close ties with Tehran and the members of the MEK felt threatened following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was therefore essential to find a new location for the approximately 3,500 anti-Ayatollah militiamen.
The New York Times analysed Clinton’s decision as partially linked to the closure of Camp Ashraf: to transfer the Mojahedin, it was necessary to remove them from the terrorism blacklist. So, it was planned to relocate them far from the long reach of Iranian agents; it was only necessary to find a country willing to welcome them, obviously with all the related risks.
On 8 January, the online newspaper ‘BalkansPost’ published an article by Anne Khodabandeh, an expert in de-radicalization who has repeatedly criticized the MEK, having been part of it in the past. On the same day Khodabandeh also released an interview with Sputnik where she described the details of her negative experience in the MEK.
The article reported the transfer of the entire MEK to Albania: it is here therefore that the US administration decided to transfer its anti-Tehran allies, with the full support of the Rama government.
The transfer would take place at the end of 2016 – referred to as a “humanitarian intervention” – under the supervision of the UNHCR and with funding of at least twenty million dollars. In addition, it was announced that Albania would soon be home to widows and orphans of ISIS jihadists killed in battle. The agreement was formalised in 2013 between the Albanian executive and the Obama administration.
The MEK presence in Albania
Despite the relatively low profile maintained by the MEK in Albania, its presence has not passed unnoticed both inside the buildings of a former private university in Tirana and in an actual fort in Manez, a small municipality a few kilometers away from Durazzo, which is still under construction. This was discovered by the investigative journalist Gjergj Thanasi, who revealed his findings in the Eyes of War.
How did you notice the growing presence of the MEK in Durres, but especially the Manez fort?
Thanasi: “The Council for Territorial Regulations (Keshilli i Rregullimit te Territorit) is responsible for issuing permits for the construction of public works and private buildings (factories, hotels, schools, roads, etc.). The Council had published a list of permits issued for a series of works and among them there was one for an NGO called F.A.R.A. The permit was dated 16 October 2017 and indicated authorization for “a residential complex and services for the Iranian community in Albania”. At that point I investigated this F.A.R.A which, strangely and contrary to Albanian law, was not registered with the Tax Office and did not even have a VAT number, which is prohibited in Albania.
“I then continued the investigation at the town planning office of the town of Durres (which I know very well having lived here for 52 years). There they showed me a written request from F.A.R.A. in which permission was requested for the development of a construction site (fence, water connections, electricity, containers, etc.) and it emerged that the Council had not issued any permit. The letter of request did not have a header, there was no address or telephone number.
“At this point I went to Manez (in the first week of November 2017) to see what was happening and found myself in front of a finished fence, an already installed electricity grid, and some trenches already under construction for the water network. There was also a container with offices inside the fence. Around the site there were also three guards and officers in the uniform of the State Police.”
How long has the MEK been present in Albania and how has this presence developed?
“The first 14 Mojahedin arrived from Iraq to Tirana on May 14, 2013 and were part of a group of 210 people transferred here shortly thereafter. In March 2016, after a visit to Albania by former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Rama government informed the country that we were going to host 2000 Mojahedin. In theory, a part were supposed to have been hosted in Romania but they all came here to Albania – as many as 3500. Almost all of them were housed in a former university building in a district of Tirana, while the leaders were in neighboring houses”.
Why were they transferred to Albania?
“Albania was chosen because no other country would take them, not even the Nauru island or the Kiribati islands. The US made them transfer to Albania because the Shiite militias in Iraq were ready to massacre them on the orders of Tehran.”
The presence of the MEK in Albania does nothing but further aggravate the delicate situation in the Balkans where other jihadist and Islamist groups are already present in force. It seems that the western Balkans area is becoming a logistics and transit zone in support of war policies in the Middle East. Above all, it is essential to bear in mind that for at least a decade in countries like Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia, there has been a Sunni/Salafist Islamist infiltration that is influencing young and old, many of them in difficult socio-economic conditions. It is no coincidence that more than a thousand foreign fighters have left the Balkans to enlist in the ranks of the jihadists in Syria since 2011. This is the greatest mobilization of Balkan Muslims to go and fight an external war in the history of the region. Many of these jihadists are now returning to their countries of origin, with all the associated risks.
Then there is a significant flow of funding, from countries and NGOs of the Gulf, to cultural centers and mosques that spread the Wahhabi and Salafist ideology. Bosnia, in particular, is suffering heavily from this infiltration.
The spread of radical Islamist ideology is also influencing the Balkan diaspora in Europe, as has been demonstrated by the latest arrests and the latest expulsions from Italian territory.
The settlement of the MEK in Albania is interesting because the organization shares with the Wahhabi and Salafi groups the fight against Shiite enemies (primarily Iran) and against the Shia axis that crosses Iraq and Syria from Tehran to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon; the axis, supported by Moscow, that emerged victorious from the Syrian-Iraqi conflict. The MEK’s presence beyond the Adriatic risks, however, increasing destabilization in an area already characterized by strong ethnic-religious tensions, and difficult political and socio-economic conditions.
Giovanni Glacalone, Giornalem, Italy, Translated by Iran Interlink