Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 21, 2012

Who are the Mujahideen e-Khalq?

Filed under: International HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on February 21, 2012

What do Tom Ridge, Andrew Card, Howard Dean, Alan Dershowitz, Louis J. Freeh, Rudolph Giuliani, Porter Goss, Michael B. Mukasey, Edward Rendell, and Hugh Shelton have in common?

In January 2012, they were among 21 senior US leaders who signed a letter to Secretary Clinton asking the State Department to rule that the Mujahideen e-Khalq (also known as MEK)

is not a terrorist organization and there is no rational factual or legal basis to maintain it on the FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organization list] —where it was placed in 1997 as a political accommodation to the regime in Iran, NOT because it ever engaged in any terrorist activity or had an intent to do so against the US.

A friend brought my attention to the Mujahideen e-Khalq’s situation, to a place in Iraq called Camp Ashraf where they are being held, and to another location in Iraq called Camp Liberty where they are supposed to be moved.

I had never heard of MEK or their plight. But I do know my friend is not prone to hyperbole.  He chooses his words and his political positions carefully.  I paid attention when he wrote me:

For more than a year, I [had some responsibilities associated with] this group [MEK]; a potential tragedy unfolding at the hands of the US.

So, what’s the story? Who are the Mujahideen e-Khalq, and is there any reason why the homeland security community should care about them?


Global Security describes the MEK this way:

Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) is the largest and most militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Also known as the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, MEK is led by husband and wife Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. MEK was added to the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups in 1997.

MEK was founded in the 1960s by a group of college-educated Iranian leftists opposed to the country’s pro-Western ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although the group took part in the 1979 Islamic revolution that replaced the shah with a Shiite Islamist regime, MEK’s ideology, a blend of Marxism and Islamism, put it at odds with the post-revolutionary government. In 1981, the group was driven from its bases on the Iran-Iraq border and resettled in Paris, where it began supporting Iraq in its eight-year war against Khomeini’s Iran. In 1986, MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq where it received its primary support to attack the regime in Iran. During the 2003 Iraq war, U.S. forces cracked down on MEK’s bases in Iraq, and in June 2003 French authorities raided an MEK compound outside Paris and arrested 160 people, including Maryam Rajavi.

Several years ago, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote this about MEK:

During the Iraq war, U.S. forces cracked down on the MEK. About 3,400 people were disarmed at Camp Ashraf, surrendering two thousand tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery pieces, according to the 2006 report. Those living at Camp Ashraf are designated as “protected persons” under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prevents extradition or forced repatriation to Iran as long as the United States maintains a presence in Iraq. [emphasis added] The Unites States has no plans to charge and prosecute people living in this camp. The “protected persons” designation applies solely to those living at Camp Ashraf, not other members of the group, nor does it affect the MEK’s listing on the State Department terrorist list.


Not everyone is buying the idea that the MEK are the oppressed and forgotten little guys.  Last August, Christina Wilkie of the Huffington Post, wrote a detailed description of MEK and the lobbying effort of its supporters under the less-than-flattering headline: “Former U.S. Officials Make Millions Advocating For Terrorist Organization.”

One minor part of the article describes how former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell considered declining an invitation to speak at an MEK conference because “I don’t know hardly anything about this subject …[and] I don’t think I’m qualified to come.” He eventually decided to participate in the conference attended by other national leaders.  The outcome?

“It’s been a great learning experience for me,” he told the crowd [at the conference]. “As a result of what I’ve learned [from the MEK supporters], on Monday I will send a letter to President Obama and to Secretary Clinton telling them [first], that the United States is morally bound to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the residents of Camp Ashraf. And two, if Director Freeh and General Shelton and General Conway and Governor Dean and the rest of these great panelists say that MEK is a force for good and the best hope we have for a third option in Iran, then, good Lord, take them off the terrorist list! Take them off the terrorist list!”

As Rendell’s applause died down, he added that he had never heard of Camp Ashraf until the group invited him to speak.

A few days after Christina Wilkie’s article appeared, Allen Gerson criticized her analysis.

What is an organization deemed by the US State Department to be dedicated to terrorism… supposed to do when it believes the charge is spurious? Clearly, the consequences of such a determination are enormous …. So naturally, such an organization will try to do whatever it can to exercise its legitimate rights to correct the record, refute erroneous charges and seek de-listing.

This burden to act is especially acute if an organization placed on the FTO list happens to have thousands of its members situated in a foreign country where they stand to be forcibly removed to a truly terrorist regime where the fate of those “repatriated” will likely be death by firing squad or the hangman’s noose. And, where the US State Department FTO listing is manipulated as justification for random acts of violence against members of that particular organization coupled with continued threats of forced deportation, the compulsion to use all legitimate means to remove the unwarranted terrorist label is overwhelming.

This is precisely the situation the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) finds itself in today. The surprise is that it would be vilified for its efforts in a recent article in the Huffington Post by Christina Wilkie

Mr Gersen is described as “the Chairman of AG International Law in Washington D.C. He is presently involved with other attorneys in representing the PMOI/MEK in its efforts to be removed from the State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.”

It would be odious to describe this as a “she said, he said” argument, particulary with lives at stake.  How is one to decide what to think about this issue?


In January of this year, former Pennsylvania governor and DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, published an impassioned plea in favor of the MEK: (Although I have to say the writing style was very different from the way Governor Ridge sounded in his 2009 memoir, The Test of Our Times.)

The Obama administration should support the democratic aspirations of the people of Iran and their most effective opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK).

Regrettably, and without justification, the State Department continues to maintain that MEK … on its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” even though it meets none of the criteria.

Secretary Ridge then reviews the history of the MEK’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997, concluding

The unjust designation was maintained by subsequent administrations in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon their nuclear program.

Sadly, we now see the results of that failed policy: Iran is no closer to moderation, having recently plotted to assassinate, in full view of the world, the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil; The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] warns that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are actually closer to fulfillment, and the failure to de-list MEK, absent any legal or factual basis, continues to stymie prospects for democratic change in Iran.

This folly has given Iran and its proxies a license to kill thousands of MEK members, including a massacre on April 8 of last year that killed or wounded hundreds of unarmed members of the MEK living in Camp Ashraf, Iraq—each and every one of whom was given written guarantees of protection by the U.S. government.

Now that U.S. troops have left Iraq, Iran is determined to extend its influence in the region and has justified its brutality by categorizing them as “terrorists.”

Whatever way Tehran’s propagandists characterize MEK’s political prospects, culture, or history, it is clear to me that the defenseless Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf are committed to non-violent regime change and a democratic, nuclear-free Iranian future.

[On the other hand, on February 9, 2012, NBC News reported

Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

The report claims the Iranian dissident group is the Mujahideen e-Khalq — aka MEK]

Back to Governor Ridge’s essay:

Courts throughout the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States have concluded that there is no legal justification [to] maintain MEK on the foreign terrorist list.

Every one of the residents of Camp Ashraf was interviewed by the FBI and by U.S. military services and there has never been a scintilla of evidence anyone in that camp was motivated by, interested in, or capable of conducting acts of terrorism against this country. Remember, they surrendered all means of self-defense in exchange for America’s promise to provide their safety and security.

[For more on this part of the issue, see the December 2011 talk Brigadier General David Phillips gave in February in support of MEK.  My friend said :

BG Phillips is no goober or anyone’s fool.  General Petreaus … hand-picked him to be on his staff as part of the “Surge” campaign in Iraq and then called him back again to be on his staff in Afghanistan.]

Back to Governor Ridge’s essay:

Some 100 members of Congress, in a bipartisan initiative, have called for MEK to be de-listed. The unfounded MEK designation only serves as a license to kill for both the Iraqi forces and the kangaroo courts in Iran, who regularly arrest, torture, and kill people on the basis of MEK affiliation.

It shames the State Department designation process that has wrongly maintained the blacklist for misguided political reasons. Consider this: the MEK is on the list — the Taliban is not….

As an emboldened Iran moves ever-closer to nuclear breakout, MEK’s unfounded designation is a lynchpin in the critical test of wills between Iran and the West — a test the Obama administration can ill afford to fail….

Unshackling the MEK from an unjust blacklist and living up to U.S. guarantees to protect the Iranian opposition at Camp Ashraf will send the mullahs’ terrorist regime in Tehran exactly the message it needs to hear: The mullahs do not run foreign policy in the United States and America keeps its promises.

The former leaders of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Burea of Investigation, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency — among others — say a great injustice is being done to the Mujahideen e-Khalq.

In this issue I know nothing about I have to either decide these public servants are willing to rent their voices to a cause they do not believe in exchange for 20,000 dollar speaking fees, or they are correct about what is happening to the Mujahideen e-Khalq.

That is not a difficult decision for me to make.

I ask my friend whether he thinks this is a homeland security issue:

I think it does boil down to a HLS issue. They are most certainly a group of individuals that but for the FTO moniker, would already have been placed or accepted by countries anywhere around the world, i.e. the threat of harm for returning to their home Iran is so great they cannot be forced to go back. So presumably, the US is afraid to remove them from the FTO list or accept any of them b/c they pose a threat to our security.

Mix in the current situation with the Iranian regime and it really is a mess.

Add presidential politics to this.

Edward Luce predicts in Sunday’s Financial Times that during tomorrow’s Republican presidential candidates debate, there will be a commercial “calling on Mr. Obama to remove the MEK – the Mujahideen e-Khalq, the armed Iranian opposition group – from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.”


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Comment by Alan Wolfe

February 21, 2012 @ 8:12 am

This is not an HLS issue. It’s foreign policy.

This is the problem with the term “terrorist group” and the State Dept’s list – there is no question that MEK is a sub-state actor and that it was engaged in political-based violence against a nation-state. Technically, that qualifies them to be on the list. So on the one hand, US forces don’t really need the challenge of a seperatist group running rogue in Iraq when they are trying to stabilize the region, but they don’t want to send MEK into Iran where they’ll be captured/killed/imprisoned.

But a funny thing happened – when democracy was allowed to florish in Iraq, the govt changed to a Shi’ite-led, pro-Iran advocacy. So what to do? Now neither nation wants them, but at least Iraq won’t kill them as long as they don’t have heavy weapons and are not under state control.

Are they a direct threat to the United States? No, but a lot of the terrorist groups on the State Dept list are not direct threats. The list is more of a guide to ensure US govt or our allies don’t deal with these groups in terms of fiscal or popular support. The USG could take MEK off the list, but that might upset Iraq and Iran, and really, is it worth the extra hassle? Unclear.

The real question is who is paying off the US advocates whom you list at the top. Bitter Iranian expats in the US? I somehow doubt that these big VIP names are doing this advocacy out of the goodness of their hearts.

Comment by Habib T

February 21, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

“The real question is who is paying off the US advocates whom you list at the top. Bitter Iranian expats in the US?”

We do! I do! Iranians around the world! Iranians are not poor people in the middle of the desert you know?! We have always been an independent movement!

What is ridicilous is that once in a while they say that WE get payed by the US and Israel or Sadam! Now they say that WE pay the US officials! They can’t make up their mind. It’s very simple! We do it all ourselves!

I had my family being killed (bombed) by the US, UK troops during the attack in 2003, on Ashraf, while they declared neutrality! My friend got shot and killed by US guns in the attack on April 2011, while Robert Gates was there the day before!

That is why I have decided to give up all my resources for this cause, now I’m supporting a proscribed organisation in the US and I can be arrested for it? LET IT BE! IF fighting for Freedom against the Mullahs regime in Iran is called terrorism then I’m proud of it!

US must not come begging us to help like we did before when militias in Iraq were killing them, when the mullahs hit their bases and troops around the world or in Homeland!

I hope they wake up before it is too late, if any of the residents of Ashraf get killed in Camp Liberty or Ashraf, we will hold the US responsible!

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 21, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

Choosing to disarm the MEK was an immediate example of how the US was way over its depth in its Iraq invasion and almost immediately started to pick winners and losers. Now we live with those choices. And only fools choose to lobby for inclusion of groups on the terrorism list or to add them. Why? Those lists are maintained largely to try and educate government employees not restrict any private actions despite the claim. In other words, the simple minded bureaucrats need to be told who is the good guys or bad guys. Phil revealed in an answer to my question the other day that only 9 STATE Dept. employees are full capability in Arabic. This demonstrates that how the USA picks sides is often just hunches not understanding or in depth analysis.
One of the best false flag ops in the world is now being undertaken by V. Putin of the Russian Federation which has 82 entities. His criticism of the USA are largely because his real worries other than protecting his personal wealth as the world’s richest man is to make sure no one understand his real opponents. The tribulations of the MEK and the KURDS are locked in the mystery of how STATE and DoD operate when they are flying blind which is most of the time.
What few understand is that the world understands this ignorance and incompetence of the USA in foreign affairs and military affairs. Why do you think foreign nations, and dual citizens are often employed as Congressional staffs and most wealthy entities, even those that are below the level of the nation-state [although those also] hire the K st. crowd to keep a watch on US policy. How many understand what AIPEC does and how much it expends each year in lobbying and working the HILL and Administration. It is not just corporations that think [know?] Congress and the administration is for sale, but the world knows it.
This post is helpful but does not come close to giving a full picture of MEK and its history. Think of the game of CHESS not Game of Thrones. A pawn but potentially a powerful one when combined with other pawns.

Comment by Carmen D. 3/3ACR

April 27, 2013 @ 8:52 pm

Interesting how people jump on bandwagons. Gov Rendell says he never heard of Camp Ashraf and I believe him. However, while he was Governor of Pennsylvania I think a little research will show that Army National Guard Soldiers from Pennsylvania were deployed to that area and had missions related to Camp Ashraf. So much for keeping on top of certain things when you are in charge or supposed to be in charge.

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