The following is an interview I conducted via email with Osli Jazexhi, an Albanian-based, Canadian-Albanian historian who specializes in the history of Islam, nationalism and religious reformation in Southeastern Europe. His interest covers nationalism, radicalism, religious and ethnic identities in the Balkans. The interview was conducted between December 17 and 19.
How popular is MEK in Albania?
MEK is a terrorist cult that resides in Albania, and which struggles to overthrow the government of a country that has done nothing wrong against Albania. As a result, the majority of the Albanians have no sympathy for this organization whose job is to wage war and terrorism against a foreign country. What MEK does is criminal and punishable according to the Albanian Penal Code and the Constitution of Albania.
MEK was brought to Albania by deception. Albanian politicians like Pandeli Majko, Fatmir Mediu, Sali Berisha etc., asked the Americans to host them in Albania without asking the Albanian people first. This is like as if German politicians were to take into Germany the ISIS army and command, and host them in their country without asking their citizens first.
The first members of MEK came to Albania in 2013. However, the bulk of them were brought in 2016, when the then US Secretary of State John Kerry announced their massive landing in Tirana. The coming of MEK created big fears in the country where many media, security analysts, journalists and the public opinion condemned the deception through which MEK was brought. From 2016 to 2018 the media in Albania has written and produced many debates against the MEK and ISIS fighters. Even the office responsible for fighting extremism classified them as an extremist organization in January 2018. The weird nature of MEK which operates as a messianic jihadi cult, whose members are mujahedeens, live isolated from the world, refuse civilian life and make continuous calls for jihad against Iran, and create fear among the peace-loving Albanians in the same way ISIS does for many people in the world. For this reason in the past years many journalists and activists have criticized the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama by blaming it for turning Albania into a safe heaven for terrorists.
In the past three years MEK has gained notoriety in Albania for its attacks against journalists, the media and any person who questions their activities. MEK defectors and their revelations have appalled the Albanians who hate the Stalinist past of their country, when they were indoctrinated and isolated like MEK does at present with its members.
When MEK first came to Albania they were housed in Tirana. Many of their members, who for many years had been kept in isolation in Iraq, started to defect en masse. Some were caught by the border police for trying to smuggle themselves into Western Europe. The stories that defectors presented to the Albanian public, which showed the brainwashing and radicalizing tactics of MEK against their members, shocked the Albanians. 2016 and 2018 have been critical for MEK, since it faced many defections and scandals from many family members of MEK jihadis who came to Albania trying to rescue their relatives from the organization. To stop this, the MEK leadership took the following steps:
1. They removed their members from Tirana and housed them in the paramilitary camp of Manza known as Ashraf 3, where they are kept locked in and not allowed to walk out of the camp.
2. They asked American and British politicians to intervene in Albania and ask the Albanian authorities to not allow any family member of MEK jihadis to come to Albania and meet their relatives. Their family members were branded as agents of Iran and the Albanian government was ordered to stop their entry in the country.
3. They spread fake news in Albania and Europe by claiming that Iran is sending terrorists to kill them and for this reason forced the Albanian government to keep them in total isolation from the outside world and discourage the media from investigating them.
4. They have asked from all the local media to never interview and investigate them, not to reveal their names and activities, by claiming that if interviewed the media will send out facts which will be used by Iran to kill them. While they succeeded in silencing the Albanian media, they failed with the Western media who have exposed them a lot.
5. They secured the shameful collaboration of the UNHCR office in Albania and Albanian government agencies through which any MEK member who escaped from the jihadi camp and wanted to de-radicalize himself was to be punished by the UNHCR and the Albanian authorities by having his / her social assistance cut, their political asylum rejected, and left without working and traveling documents. In few words, if the mojahedens abandon the jihadi organization, they were to be starved to death.
6. They co-opted some Albanian media like News 24 TV and Vizion + and paid their journalists to support their cause and propagate the fake MEK claims that Iran is a terrorist state which wants to kill them. The owners of News 24 and Vizion + did not allow any debate in their TV stations about what MEK does, how it spreads fake news and attacks their opponents without facts. Journalists like Sokol Balla who covered their events, even produced a documentary showing the jihadis as freedom fighters.
7. They demanded the Albanian authorities to close all Shia religious institutions of the country connected to Iran, block their bank accounts and expel all the Iranians from Albania. The Albanian authorities complied. A Quran foundation, a private High School and Rumi philosophical foundation that were cooperating with religious institutions and universities in Iran were all closed down. Hundreds of Albanians lost their jobs, students lost their education, many Iranians were deported back to Iran and many research projects and book publications were canceled. The Bektashi Community of Albania and other Sufi Tariqas who historically had very close relations with Iran have all been forced to severe their ties with Iran and not invite Shia religious scholars in the country anymore.
How much in the public are Maryam Rajavi and Massoud Rajavi? Do they have much support in Albania?
Massoud Rajavi, the founder of MEK is nowhere to be seen. People who study MEK believe that he is dead, probably because of an injury that the Americans inflicted on him in Iraq when MEK was on the side of Saddam Hussein and was considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
Maryam Rajavi the widow of Massoud, who leads the cult-organization, does not make public appearances. She never comes out in streets and few Albanians know where she hides. It is believed that most of the time she stays with her cult commanders who run the everyday life of the mojahedins and their subversive activities against Iran and probably Iraq.
Maryam Rajavi works mainly behind the curtains. Time after time she releases pictures of meetings with Albanian politicians, where she asks for favors and pushes them to stop the media from reporting on human rights violations that MEK does against her members. The story that MEK and Maryam Rajavi conveys to those Albanian media who have agreed to spread their fake stories is that MEK is ‘the democratic opposition of Iran’, that people in Iran live in a dictatorship and are being killed by the ‘regime’ and they are all waiting for Maryam Rajavi to go and save them from the Mullahs. MEK tries to play the victim in Albania and the West by spreading fake news against Iran and claiming that Iran is ready to conduct a major terrorist attack and kill the ‘democracy loving’ mojahedins. On the other hand, as the Albanian Deputy Minister of Interior Besfort Lamallari have accepted in a TV show, MEK, contrary to Albanian laws, runs its own secret service agency in Albania and serves as a major tool to direct Albanian policies towards Iran. In a few words, MEK has taken over Albanian foreign affairs in regard to Iran in the country, and apart from its foreign fight against Iran, conducts espionage activities inside Albania against Albanian and foreign citizens.
Even thought they spend a lot of money to counter their negative image, the Albanian public opinion and almost all the journalists and security analysts do consider MEK, at least privately, a violent terrorist organization which is hosted in Albania because the Americans have ordered it to be.
MEK has been trying hard to buy a number of Albanian politicians and NGO activists on their side by inviting them to their events in Albania and in France, and connecting them with American and European politicians. They spend a lot of money even with peasants who live in the vicinity of their village of Manza in order to recruit them on their side. There are reports that MEK is teaching its jihadi ideology to young children in the village of Manza; however, the Albanian government has done nothing to stop this dangerous indoctrination.
Nevertheless, the Albanian public opinion including the politicians do not take MEK seriously for what they do and say. MEK’s desire to do jihad and establish a utopian Rajavi cult-like regime in Iran does not make any sense for the Albanians who for 50 years lived under a MEK-like Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha. No Albanian would ever want to live even for a day in the paramilitary camp of MEK or under the totalitarian ‘Utopia’ of Maryam Rajavi. I do not believe that any Albanian will be cheated to join the jihad of MEK against Iran as many did when they joined DAESH in Syria.
The only use that Albanian politicians have with MEK is the connections that MEK has with high neo-con politicians in the United States. Since the US Embassy has the absolute say about many things that happen in our country, having good connections with MEK for the corrupt Albanian politicians means that they will have access to the Americans and probably save themselves from being sent to jail for their crimes. For this reason, many Albanian politicians, including our president, participate in MEK meetings.
One Albanian deputy who used to seat in Albania’s Security Council in 2018 told me that ‘We know that MEK is a terrorist organization. But the Americans brought them here, and they and our British friends told us to keep them, and we are keeping them because we are told so.’
Is MEK growing in numbers and influence, or diminishing? Why do you think that is?
When the Obama administration brought MEK to Albania, the idea was that they will build an asylum where MEK terrorists will retire and die by escaping justice for their past crimes against Iran and Iraq. MEK was brought to Albania, probably as part of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran and Iraq did not want them in their region and the Americans had to do something in order to save them from justice. As a result of their past terrorism, no country wanted to host them. Even the Americans did not want them in the United States.
The only country which accepted them was Albania. Albania was a good choice since our country is run by criminal groups and does not have a functioning legal system like the United Kingdom, Italy or many countries in the West have. By being a lawless country with very weak legal institutions, a corrupt leadership and where the US Embassy has the final say on everything, the Americans made the right decision to bring them to Albania. The other option for MEK would have been the Guantanamo Bay. Many American senators who have visited Albania during the past years have told Prime Minister Edi Rama to protect MEK at any cost and do not allow them to be charged for the murder and crimes they have committed in the past. If MEK was to be located in the United States, United Kingdom, France or Italy, many of its members would have gone to court by now.
After coming to Albania, many MEK members have changed their names and ID-s. Last year, when a Canadian family of Mostafa Mohammady wanted to save their daughter, Sommayeh Mohammady, who is being held in the MEK camp – Mostafa revealed to the media that many MEK commanders who appeared in the media parading his daughter in Iraq had other names. Mostafa and other defectors have revealed that some of the commanders who are today in Albania, in the past have committed crimes and even killed people. This fact has shocked the journalists and the public, but no investigation has been opened by the office of the general prosecutor. The only court case that is ongoing at present against MEK in Albania is the case of Gjergji Thanasi, an Albanian journalist who has been accused for being an Iranian spy by commander Behzad Safari. Thanasi has sued Behzad Safari for slander, libel and defamation and is asking compensation for the damage that MEK fake accusations have made against him.
While during the days of Obama administration MEK kept a low profile, their influence and profile has changed during the beginning of the Trump administration. John Bolton, the National Security Adviser to president Trump, has been instrumental on radicalizing and promoting them as ‘the democratic opposition of Iran’ and promoting them as the ISIS or Free Syrian Army version of a future war against Iran – which would bring regime change in Tehran. In the last three years MEK has transformed its profile in Albania – from an asylum seeking organization who begged Albania to host and ‘save them from Iran and Iraq’ into a militant organization which together with the US administration has pushed Albania to undertake hostile actions against Iran; like the expulsion of the Iranian Ambassador in December 2018. In the past two years MEK and Maryam Rajavi have aggressively demanded from the Albanian government to cut all ties with Iran, expel Iranian diplomats, and has been involved in a huge campaign of spreading fake news against Iran.
The Edi Rama government, who at first was surprised by their demands and was hesitant to please them, in the past year has been forced to give them support on the fake news that they spread and in their attacks against MEK defectors.
However, after the sacking of John Bolton and the investigations that have started against President Trump and Rudy Giuliani in the US, MEK seems to have gone mute. In the past months they have been less aggressive in the Albanian media, and have launched only sporadic attacks against some foreign media outlets like the BBC, Der Spiegel or Albanian journalists like me and Gjergji Thanasi who have reported on their weird activities and organization.
MEK is very vicious against the media. Unlike ISIS or the Taliban who kill the journalists, MEK who cannot do such killings; in Albania, the attacks against them are through character assassination by accusing them of being agents of Iran and working for the Mullahs. This is how they have attacked the BBC, Channel 4, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and many journalists who dare to speak and investigate them. When they attack the media, they do not use their names. They post their attacks in anonymous websites who cannot be traced where they are located. As a result, journalists like me have difficulty to sue them in courts. But the case is different with Gjergji Thanasi, who was attacked by Behzad Safari, a notorious commander of MEK who has to justify his lies in court.
The hate that MEK has against the media is partly because Maryam Rajavi and her commanders live in a totalitarian utopia. They brainwash their soldiers with fake hopes about the imminent victory of their utopian regime change in Iran. Albanian politicians like Pandeli Majko have also fallen pray to MEK radicalization. Two years ago, Majko believed that before 2019 he and Maryam Rajavi would eat ice cream in Tehran after overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Iran. However, while the people of Iran hate MEK and their regime change has never materialized, MEK hates the media and perceives them as its greatest enemy. MEK behaves like the Communist Party of China. Their camps are not much different from the Xinjiang Concentration Camps where Uyghur Muslims are brainwashed to believe that chairman Xi Jinping is the leader of the great Chinese revolution. Like the CCP, which hates the media and have placed Xinjiang in a total lockdown, MEK does the same. Journalists are not allowed to enter in their camps to investigate their members, and the only time when ‘friendly’ journalists and guests are invited they are allowed to film MEK jihadis singing and praising Maryam Rajavi. Exactly what CCP does with its imprisoned Uyghurs in the concentration camps, who when presented to the media are told to sing and dance.
However, after the sacking of John Bolton and Donald Trump’s declaration of retreat from Syria and his abandonment of the Kurds, the MEK leadership seems to be having a very hard psychological time in Albania. Some defectors have told me that MEK fears that Trump will abandoned them like he did the Kurds and this will mean the end of MEK. The Saudi money which is believed to be funding MEK’s existence will cease, and without money its members who now stay in the Manza camp or Ashraf 3 will escape and defect en mass towards Western Europe. Maryam Rajavi will be forced to close her 50-year old jihadi organization and Albania and Europe will have to deal with MEK at the same way as they are dealing with the returning ISIS fighters. Albania will be in the position of Turkey with its 3 million Syrian refugees, while the Americans will discharge the MEK problem to Europe as they are doing with ISIS returnees at present.
How strong is the international support for MEK in your estimation?
MEK had a lot of support when John McCain was alive and John Bolton was advising the White House. MEK was perceived as the Iranian version of ISIS and Free Syrian Army by American neo-cons. However, with the death of McCain and dismissal of Bolton and troubles for Rudy Giuliani, MEK seems to have lost some very important supporters in the United States. MEK is not a military asset for the United States against Iran. They are a bunch of old terrorists, many suffering severe illnesses, who no longer have tanks and cannons like they had under Saddam Hussein. From Albania they cannot easily conduct terrorist attacks against Iran like they were doing from Iraq. The best that they can do in the great regional war between Iran and the Axis of Resistance on one side and Israel and the United States on the other, is to spread lies and disinformation against Iran or to stage false flag attacks in Europe.
MEK has been quite successful on that. Many ‘terrorist’ attacks that the media attributed to Iran in 2018, have in fact been faked by MEK and its members. To date not a single Iranian or Iranian-linked individual or organization has been found guilty in Europe during the past years, even though MEK and Israeli media keep on repeating that Iran is about to mass-terrorize the Europeans.
MEK is being used by Israel and certain elements of the American deep state to serve as a poisoning tool in the relations between Iran and Europe.
Their organization, which is believed to have around 3000 members, needs a huge budget to run. Each MEK member used to take around 500 EURO / month to survive in Albania from UNHCR. The minimum budget that MEK takes to sustain its members and camp is around 1.5 million EURO per month. It is believed that this budget comes from Saudi Arabia. In a year they need at list 18 million Euros, without counting here the money that they spend for building their facilities and hosting periodic events where they invite retired and second-class politicians from the West who get free hotel, food, airplane tickets and some stipends for their attendance.
Coming back to your question how strong is MEK’s international support I could say that they have the support of some countries that are hostile to Iran, like the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But no European government loves them, and the European Union despises them since they perceive them as a security threat. The Italians, the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Turks, the Russians etc., all observe MEK with great concern.
MEK tries very hard to create the impression that it has mass international support. In its periodic conferences it invites retired Europeans and Americans, students, workers etc. who, in exchange for their free holiday trip to Albania, are required to go into their gatherings and spend a few hours in photographic meetings that Maryam Rajavi does with them. MEK stages shows in its camp like the CCP does in its concentration camps in Xinjiang with foreign journalists and diplomats. China invites foreigners who receive first-class treatment and in return are expected to lie about Xinjiang and not to investigate what is going on with the Muslim detainees. MEK’s invitees do the same. They do not interrogate MEK members who do not want to do jihad and want to escape from the camp. The invitees in most of the cases are happy to sell to the world a fake story by declaring that MEK is not a terrorist cult which wants to do jihad against Iran, but it is the ‘Iranian opposition’ who ‘wants to bring democracy to Iran’. However, some brave journalist like the brave Alice Taylor who have visited the MEK camp, have revealed to the world how MEK tries to fake its image and use the paid journalists for this fake make up.
Are there any actions in Albania to oppose the MEK? If so, do those actions come from the government, or from individuals?
When MEK came to Albania, their presence was rejected overwhelmingly by many civil society groups, the media and the public. There were many calls for their immediate expulsion from the country. However, in the past two years MEK, with the support of many American and Western politicians, has been able to buy many individuals and silence the media criticism on them. They do this by blackmailing the media who report on them, by character assassination of journalists, or when they cannot silence the media they try to buy them by offering money. Many journalists are paid when they go to MEK camp and produce fake stories on them. MEK never accepts open debates about what they do. They do not know how to act in an open society.
Since MEK is seen as an organization which the United States supports, no politician or religious personality in Albania dares to talk about them in public. Many journalists who have opposed them in the past have been told not to do so anymore. Many media have chosen to ignore them since they know that by speaking against MEK they put themselves into trouble, and as MEK commanders say to many journalists – they will ruin their career.
Do you think MEK is a well-organized group, or is it in disarray?
MEK has three types of members. Some who are fully indoctrinated and follow the ideology of Maryam Rajavi blindly and believe that she is some kind of Holy Person who will establish an utopian Marxist – Rajavist regime in Iran. Some who know that her totalitarian ideology is non-sense, but keep quiet because they know that if they leave the cult, now that they are too old they will not be able to survive and will die in poverty. The third type of their members, who are mainly youths, hate the organization and wait for their moment to escape and live in freedom. MEK does anything in its power to keep its members isolated and scared from the outside world. The majority of its members, especially the youth, are not allowed contact with their families, the media and the outside world since this will give them the connections to escape into freedom.
MEK runs as a paramilitary organization. It has a well-organized command structure, while the rest of its members are treated as simple jihadi soldiers. Some MEK defectors who live in Tirana have told me that there is an open mutiny among the soldiers and when foreign delegations visit the camp, many members are kept locked indoors and are not allowed to attend the mass events. They want to abandon the camp where they live isolated like in prison. MEK members undergo psychological brainwashing very much like the Uyghurs in China’s concentration camps. Camp members are forced to undergo indoctrination classes every day. They do not have access to telephones, the internet and are not allowed to communicate with their families. They are kept under constant supervision, radicalized with ideas of violent jihad and monitored by surveillance cameras. Defectors have told me that Maryam Rajavi rules over them with fear. She and her command scare the mojahedins by claiming that if they leave the camp they will die of hunger or Iran will kill them with its agents.
For as long as MEK receives a budget of millions of dollars and is protected and allowed to isolate its members and abuse their human rights, it will manage to survive for a few more years as an anti-Iran warmongering organization and center of espionage. If Washington or Tel Aviv would need, some of its still-able members will be also used to commit terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe. However, if the organization will be left without money, Maryam Rajavi will not be able to pay ‘international supporters’ like Bolton and Giuliani for her cause and its members who will be hungry will riot and abandon the cult like many of their comrades have done in the past.
If Iran reaches a new comprehensive and long-lasting deal with the United States, MEK will very likely lose its sponsors and the organization will either be sent back to Iran or it will dismantle by itself. But even if these things do not happen, in the coming 10 to 20 years the organization will cease to exist since many of its members will be dead by that time and Maryam Rajavi, if she is still alive, will not have the chance to abduct and brainwash new jihadis against Iran.
Originally published in Counterpunch.