On a recent business trip to Albania, I was invited to visit the new camp of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), still being built about 45 minutes outside of Tirana, on the way to the Albanian coast. I accepted the invitation, although I must admit, I had no idea what to expect upon reaching the sprawling facility which is the new home for approximately 3,200 of the Iranian resistance movement’s personnel, after being forced out of Iraq by violence from the Iranian-backed government.
I want to write more about the group and its agenda in the near future, but today I just want to explore what I found at ‘Ashraf 3’, which is the name the MEK has given the new camp, after the first Ashraf on the Iraqi border, where the group launched raids into Iran almost two decades ago.
With the Trump administration pulling out of the so-called Iran deal, the MEK has been given new hope in its push for regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran. With the new sanctions biting, in combination with the consequences of the corrupt regime’s incompetent management, civil unrest is rampant across the country. The MEK sees a real chance to force regime change from inside Iran, without needing the use of expensive and already overextended American military force.
With the eventual fall of the mullahs, the MEK wants to finally install a democracy. It was against this backdrop that I visited Ashraf 3 in Albania.
The camp has been quite controversial, primarily due to the regime’s view of the MEK as an existential threat. This has caused the mullahs to act out in reckless ways to counter what it sees as its real opposition, even if it is all the way in Albania. This has resulted in a foiled bomb attempt at the Free Iran Gathering 2018 in Paris last June, where an Iranian diplomat was arrested, and the recent arrest and indictment of two Iranian spies in Washington, D.C., looking to target resistance officials in the United States.
Iranian intelligence agents have been active in Albania, recruiting former MEK members for propaganda purposes and attempting to stain the reputation of the group within the eyes of Albania’s people.
The car picked me up at the hotel in Tirana and we made the 45-minute drive out to the camp. The conversation was pleasant enough and we even stopped for some local fruit along the way. But security was very tight. I noticed that there were two cars always together whenever we left the camp over the two-day visit.
A local security firm was guarding the location, with perimeter defense and car inspections as you entered the gates, where the two MEK lion mascots guard the entrance.
The camp is very large, and in various phases of construction. The group has done remarkably well in such a short period of time to recreate what they had left in Iraq. There is everything you would expect in a small city — lodging, food service, assembly halls, administrative buildings.
In a short amount of time I was introduced to the leadership of the group in Albania and we sat around a table in one of the new buildings to get acquainted. What struck me initially was the openness that I encountered. Multiple attempts at journalistic hit pieces had culminated in a recent drone flyover by an adversarial news group from the UK, most likely funded by someone who doesn’t want the MEK to be successful in its quest.
As the members of the camp knew that I had promised to keep an open mind, I was met most graciously. I asked many questions during my two-day visit. All of the questions were answered in-depth, sometimes with other members being brought in to give a more detailed and complete answer. I was not prevented from seeing or requesting anything. I asked about life at the camp, those who had left the movement, even about the MEK’s alleged involvement in the Iranian Hostage Crisis decades before. All questions were met with complete answers.
In fact, I was given a tour of the camp. The facilities are very functional, if not somewhat barren. With the MEK children having been brought out of Iraq to Europe and America in the last decade, the remaining adult members are all mostly older, although I did meet scores of a new generation of MEK, male and female, some of whom were in the group of children who were evacuated from Iraq in 2009, only to join the MEK later in life. Many signed up in their relatives’ footsteps, to keep alive their struggle against the regime.
With the tour I was exposed to the robust cooking capabilities that have been built. I toured the medical facility which has a good amount of equipment and staff, trying to their best with limited resources. Many patients were in various phases of medical treatment as I walked from room to room.
In addition to being exposed to many of the day-to-day locations members would frequent, I also had the chance to talk and interview probably 50 members from all walks of life within the movement. Some of the older, original members were provided, as well as the youngest. They all had their own unique story of what led them to join. Many had violence perpetrated on their loved ones by the regime. Many had family members executed. Many had simply given up hope of a decent life in Iran and now had committed themselves to bringing regime change for future generations.
Many pundits have described the MEK as a cult. I would describe it as a fanatically committed group of individuals who have given their lives for an idea: a free Iran. Each and every one of them spoke about their people, and how they wanted a better life for the Iranian population. This was especially prevalent among the young men and women I met, many who had scars and wounds from the violence at Ashraf, or even within Iran itself. Many had a deep sense of loss and pain from their dealings with the regime-murder, assault, deceit, torture. Their overriding principle was to prevent future generations of Iran from having to go through the same horrific experiences.
The ideal of freedom is a powerful one and permeated throughout Ashraf 3. It is utmost on everyone’s mind. It is something bigger than themselves. Most of the people I met were highly intellectual and successful in their previous lives. They could have been living anywhere in the West, but they chose, at a personal sacrifice, to join this movement. The younger members know nothing but the regime and are hellbent on destroying it. I saw a remarkable level of focus and determination. All of the members of the group had a job to do and were singularly focused on its completion.
Each person I spoke with knew exactly why and for what he or she was fighting for and why they had given up so much of their own lives to fight the regime.
Albania has nothing to fear from this group. I did not see any weapons or military training. They want to become good citizens of Albania and to build a life in the former communist country. In fact, it is the MEK who has to be worried about violence. The regime has shown it will stop at nothing to destroy them. Iranian Ministry of Intelligence agents are active in Albania. They are the ones the Albanian public has to fear, not the people in the camp.
There has been much disinformation purposefully spread about the PMOI/MEK. I hope to confront most of it by writing from personal experience from my interactions with the Iranian resistance. This is the first of many reports on the subject.