At last the world, and in particular the citizens of Albania, have gained a window into the hidden world of the Iranian Mojahedin Khalq (MEK) camp in Manez, Durres. Back in August, the UK’s Channel 4 international editor, Lindsey Hilsum, was blocked from approaching the camp by armed security and MEK zealots. Her report talked about the secrecy which surrounds “the shadowy cult”. Since the group arrived in Albania it has aggressively evaded investigation by all outsiders.
The MEK’s standard response to requests from journalists for interviews is that they are in collusion with the Iranian regime to demonize and destroy the group and therefore pose a threat to their lives in the camp.
This of course is nonsense. As well as being an insult to their host government and the Albanian security services, this answer is in line with the MEK’s history of labelling all and every person who criticises them ‘agents of the Iranian regime’ to deflect enquiry, investigation and accountability.
Now a report by Al Jazeera has revealed some of what they are trying to hide behind the green curtains surrounding the camp. Al Jazeera said, “in spite of the accusations of disinformation and fake news from both sides”, it had “the facts, location and actual personnel explaining the modus operandi of an organized troll factory”; the MEK camp in Albania.
According to this report, MEK has established a Twitter troll factory which, for the past two years, has up to 1,500 MEK members tweeting in support of regime change against Iran.
In a political context, this is not surprising. The MEK has, according to Ty Joplin of Albawaba, “lobbied itself from terrorist to freedom fighter… Since the downfall of patron Saddam Hussein, the MEK has ‘changed from a terrorist military organisation to an intelligence-based propaganda machine’.”
In response to the revelation, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, made a political point, accusing Twitter of closing the genuine Twitter accounts of Iranians and challenging Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey to look at “actual bots” in Tirana. But while it is fair to bat the ball back to the other side – that’s part of his job – politicizing this issue risks diverting attention from the true scandal behind MEK’s activities.
“Looking at actual bots” is exactly what Al Jazeera managed to do when it interviewed two former MEK members in Tirana. One described how “several thousand accounts are managed by about 1,000-1,500 MEK members… It was all very well organised and there were clear instructions about what needed to be done.” Another said, “Our orders would tell us the hashtags to use in our tweets in order to make them more active.”
What is clear is that this kind of activity costs money. And there is no doubt that the MEK has access to a lot of money. The payments made to high profile speakers over many years and the millions of dollars spent on lavish gatherings to mark Nouruz and the armed struggle testify to deep pockets.
But, back in Albania if the Al Jazeera interviewer had asked ‘how much money does an MEK member make for spending all day, every day as an internet troll?’ The answer would be “nothing”. MEK does not pay its members anything. It never has and never will. This is because it operates as a cult to which members belong rather than are employed by. It is a peculiar relationship, but one worth investigating if we are to have a true picture of how a so-called political group can achieve influence at the highest levels of policy in the USA and deceive public opinion.
As scandals involving child labor and slavery in manufacturing, supply and retail have demonstrated, it is vital to look beyond the superficial profits and share prices when examining a company. So too, in the world of politics there must be proper scrutiny over those who seek to influence public opinion and lobby government policy.
To be absolutely clear, MEK members are not paid for their work. So, none of the one and a half thousand internet trolls that Al Jazeera says are working in the MEK click factory are being paid. In fact, no MEK member is paid.
The next time anyone encounters MEK enforcers Behzad Saffari, Farid Toutonchi or Jila Deyhim and in Albania, remember they are not being paid for what they do. When parliamentarians in Britain sit with Hossein Abedini and Dowlat Norouzi to condemn Iran, when MEPs and their assistants are harassed by MEK at the EUP, and when lawmakers and researchers meet with Ali Safavi (video at end) and Ali Reza Jafarzadeh in the US, they should be aware that none of them receive a wage for their work.
Of course, this means they do not have savings or a pension and do not pay tax in their host countries like regular workers. But being unpaid is not even the main issue here. MEK members all suffer the deeper problems associated with cultic abuse and the total control over every aspect of their lives, including their thoughts and beliefs.
Two examples: In the case of Somayeh Mohammadi, MEK cannot allow her to leave their camp and meet even for five minutes alone with her parents. She is not trusted to return to them. But they cannot allow her to leave because she knows sensitive information which MEK do not want to be made public. However, the publicity surrounding her case has almost certainly saved her life. Unfortunately, Malek Sharai who ‘drowned’ in an irrigation channel and whose body was buried without an autopsy was not so lucky. It turns out he was a survivor of the September 1st massacre in Camp Ashraf, Iraq in 2012. Sharai knew exactly what happened that day and who was responsible for the deaths of 53 people.
Albania already has serious problems with mafia gangs and criminals. But this newly imported problem cannot be ignored simply because they are a foreign group hidden away from public scrutiny. It cannot be ignored because the group is supported at the highest levels in the Trump administration. This is a human rights issue and continued exploitation of these victims should not be tolerated – which country condones, let alone legally sanctions the use of slaves? The US pledged money to Albania to de-radicalize and rehabilitate MEK members in Albania as ordinary citizens. It is time now for that to be actioned.