WASHINGTON, D.C.—While U.S. forces circle the globe in search of every last terrorist organization, a group with just that label sits quietly a few blocks from the White House, making friends on Capitol Hill and sharing an address with major media outlets. According to the State Department, the Iraqi-based National Council of Resistance of Iran—which keeps an office in the National Press Building on 14th Street—is one of several names used by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a large and well-armed corps of dissident Iranian terrorists backed by none other than Saddam Hussein.
The council has been waging a legal battle to throw off the terrorist designation. Its congressional liaison, Alireza Jafarzadeh, says the council is a “parliament in exile” comprising several independent groups, one of which just happens to be the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK. Jafarzadeh insists the MEK stands apart from Hussein, and says press attempts to portray matters otherwise stem from a smear campaign orchestrated by Iran’s violent fundamentalist regime. “Our members and supporters are being gunned down everywhere in the world,” he says. “This is a very serious issue.”
Much of the attention focused on the council has to do with the MEK, which until recently had been considered friendly to the U.S. because its venom was directed at Iran’s religious leadership. During the early 1970s, the MEK did kill Americans and later helped seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but some in Washington have come to see it as a surrogate force against Iran, along the lines of a Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban.
That characterization conveniently crops out the MEK’s ties to Hussein, who welcomed the members and let them set up camps. From bases in Iraq, the MEK sent hit-and-run assassination squads to Tehran. Hussein also availed himself of MEK fighters as a mercenary force against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Suspicion that Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks has renewed questions about the MEK. Al Qaeda leaders are reported to have met with Iraqi intelligence during the run-up to this year’s strikes. Defectors report Saddam has constructed an elaborate terrorist training camp where people are taught how to hijack planes, complete with a fuselage of a 707 for practice. And in 1998, Hussein blocked UN inspectors from a site controlled by the MEK, says Richard Butler, head of the inspection team.
Still, MEK has powerful friends here. New Jersey Democratic senator Robert Torricelli has questioned the government’s 1999 designation of MEK as a terrorist group, on grounds we are turning against what could be helpful opposition to Tehran. An aide to Senator Torricelli told the Voice last Friday, “He did support them in the past and his position hasn’t changed.”
In arguing the case, council lawyers say the State Department pegged the coalition as an alias for the MEK without holding hearings, conducting a public review, or providing a forum for the groups to defend themselves. The attorneys have gained some ground. A Washington federal appeals court ruled in June that the council and the MEK had been denied due process, overturning a federal district court decision that sided with the State Department. Last week, the department refiled the case at the appellate level. Ronald Precup, the mujahideen’s attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, says the department’s “unilaterally” compiled record “consists of hearsay and newspaper accounts. . . . A lot of the record is secret.” As a result, he says, his client’s hands have been tied.
While the court challenges are under way, the State Department continues to list the council and MEK as terrorist organizations on its Web site.
The MEK’s presence in Washington raises other problems. With thousands of adherents, it has organized anti-Iranian opposition in 13 different countries. So long as the U.S. strictly opposed Tehran, this wasn’t an issue for Americans. But Bush has now expressed an itch to sidle closer to Iran—a move the country’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, seems to welcome. That shift may mean the U.S. can no longer afford to shelter terrorists hell-bent on killing Iranian officials wherever they can get them.
After their welcome by Iraq, fighters of the MEK set up campsites and proceeded to build up a sizable armed force that Hussein brutally used to help wipe out the Kurds in the northern part of that country.
Jafarzadeh, the resistance council’s representative, says the MEK has exposed Iran’s plans for biochemical warfare, but when asked about Iraq’s similar programs—used with horrifying results on the Kurds—he says the MEK “passed the litmus test” of independence by remaining neutral in Iraq over the past decade. As for the gassing of Kurds, it appears the MEK had nothing to do with it.
In recent years, the mujahideen have carried out various assassinations and armed strikes within Iran, managing to kill a top military commander in 1999. The MEK boasts a force of several thousand—from 5000 to 10,000, say published reports—complete with artillery.
In the U.S., the MEK has been accused of raising money for arms under the guise of a charity drive. The FBI, acting on a tip from German police, arrested seven individuals in Los Angeles in February on charges of supporting a terrorist organization. The government claims these individuals had solicited travelers in airports, among other places, on behalf of orphans. According to the feds, over the last several years the charity operation had transferred $400,000 to a used auto parts store in the United Arab Emirates, with people connected to the MEK moving more than $1 million.
During a rare interview with a Western reporter in 1994, MEK leader Masud Rajavi said his group had collected $45 million from supporters that year.
That’s a lot of cash for what started out, in the 1970s, as an urban guerrilla organization mixing elements of Islamic fundamentalism with leftist radicalism. The MEK soon killed a number of American civilians and military personnel to draw attention to the old U.S.-Shah symbiosis. After the revolution, the group briefly supported the Khomeini government before falling out with it. Members then waged an armed uprising in the early 1980s, quickly suppressed by the capture and summary execution of thousands of its soldiers.
From its current base in Iraq, the MEK conducts acts of assassination and sabotage against the Islamic regime. Periodically, the Iranian government responds with air attacks against their base deep inside Iraqi territory.
Life in the MEK camps is no picnic, reported Wall Street Journal writer Peter Waldman, who visited the group’s Baghdad headquarters in 1994. MEK fighters “write detailed reports to their superiors,” Waldman relayed. “Bunkmates inform on bunkmates, siblings tell on siblings, and spouses spy on spouses. The rare dissident is publicly humiliated, jailed, sometimes beaten until ‘wrong thinking’ is confessed. Those who ask to leave Iraq are often accused of betrayal and threatened with death.”
Even so, the MEK—also known as the People’s Mujahideen—has picked up supporters in the States. Reports that its activists gave nearly $200,000 to members of Congress in the mid 1990s have been slammed as untrue by the resistance council. Mainstream political support, however, is well documented. During a congressional hearing last June, Senator Torricelli questioned why the U.S. was singling out the MEK. “More than a hundred members of the House of Representatives, the majority of the United States Senate in previous years, have actually asked the State Department to engage in dialogue with the People’s Mujahideen,” Torricelli told the National Commission on Terrorism. “They have the objective of overthrowing the Iranian government.”
Others, like New York City Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman, agree with that kind of “enemy of my enemy” approach. “I don’t give a shit if they are undemocratic,” he told the Voice. “OK, so the [MEK] is a terrorist organization based in Iraq, which is a terrorist state. They are fighting Iran, which is another terrorist state. I say let’s help them fight each other as much as they want. Once they all are destroyed, I can celebrate twice over.”
Additional reporting: Ed Verani, Meritxell Mir, Sarah Park, and Ariston-Lisabeth Anderson