Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK (a.k.a. Iranian Mujahedin Khalq, or IMK, and Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization, or MKO) is an Islamic-Marxist sect that has been trying to topple Iran’s governing regime since 1981. (It is most commonly known by the acronym MEK.) MEK was classified as a terrorist organization by President Bill Clinton in 1997, and five years later the European Union followed suit.
MEK is led by the husband-and-wife team of Massoud Rajavi and Maryam Rajavi. Massoud Rajavi heads the organization’s military forces. Experts say that MEK has increasingly come to resemble a personality cult that is devoted to Mr. Rajavi’s secular interpretation of the Koran and is prone to sudden, dramatic ideological shifts. Mr. Rajavi was last known to be living in Iraq, but his current whereabouts are unknown. His wife Maryam, who hopes to become President of Iran someday, is MEK’s principal leader. Born in 1953 to an upper-middle-class Iranian family, she joined MEK as a student in Tehran in the early 1970s. After relocating with the group to Paris in 1981, she was elected its joint leader and later became deputy commander-in-chief of its armed wing.
MEK has a network of sympathizers in Europe, the United States, and Canada. The group’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, maintains offices in several capitals, including Washington, DC. MEK’s membership has dwindled since about 2001, and the organization is currently believed to have some 10,000 members in its ranks; one-third to one-half of these are fighters.
MEK, whose name means “People’s Combatants,” was established in 1965 after a split in a Marxist-Leninist movement that had waged a guerrilla action in northern Iran. Its founders were college-educated Iranian leftists opposed to the country’s pro-Western ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Its ideology emerged as a mix of Islam and Marxism, with influence as well from the Iranian religious sociologist Ali Shariati, who advocated an “Islam without a clergy.” With KGB help, MEK engaged in a campaign against the Shah and sent cadres to Cuba, East Germany, South Yemen, and Palestinian camps in Lebanon to train as guerrillas.
Vladimir Kuzishkin, a former KGB head in Tehran, reveals in his memoirs that MEK became a major source of information on Iran for Moscow. It also helped Moscow in its efforts to thwart U.S. influence in Iran. In 1970 and 1971, MEK murdered five American military technicians working with the Iranian army. An MEK team tried to kidnap U.S. Ambassador Douglas MacArthur III in Tehran. The attempt failed and the MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi, was given a death sentence, later commuted thanks to a plea to the Shah from Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny.
During Iran’s 1978-79 turmoil, MEK played an active role in helping Ayatollah Khomeini come to power. Its squads burned cinemas, restaurants, hotels and bookshops, and they murdered policemen. After Khomeini took control of the government, MEK worked to radicalize the regime, supporting the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Yet within a year, MEK — now led by Massoud Rajavi, who had been released from prison during the revolution — decided that the Khomeini regime was not revolutionary enough and had to be toppled; there ensued a terrorist operation against the regime, and it continues to this day. In 1981, MEK 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 camps in Iraq near the Iran border.
By 1988, MEK had created in Iraq a 10,000-strong fighting force that helped Saddam Hussein in his genocidal campaign against the Kurds, and would also help him crush the Iraqi Shiites in the south in 1991. MEK maintained a reciprocal relationship with Saddam, whose regime was the main source of MEK’s financial support. (Saddam also provided MEK with bases, weapons, and protection.) To raise additional funds, MEK used front organizations such as the Muslim Iranian Student’s Society to collect money from expatriate Iranians and others. MEK also organized an asylum seekers’ campaign – sending 40,000 Iranians to Europe in exchange for their “voluntary contributions” of up to $10,000 apiece.
New MEK recruits, many of whom are relatives of people once executed by the Khomeini regime, traditionally have been indoctrinated and prevented from developing normal relationships outside the organization. Their children are not permitted to attend school, but must be educated at home.
During the Iraq War in 2003, U.S. forces cracked down on MEK’s bases in Iraq, and in June of that year French authorities raided an MEK compound outside Paris and arrested 160 people, including Maryam Rajavi. These authorities accused MEK of conspiring to finance and carry out acts of terrorism from the organization’s French base. All the suspects, including Rajavi, were subsequently released.
Acts of violence linked to MEK over the years include:
The series of mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids during 2000 and 2001 against Iranian government buildings; one of these killed Iran’s chief of staff.
The 2000 mortar attack on President Mohammad Khatami’s palace in Tehran
The February 2000 “Operation Great Bahman,” during which MEK launched 12 attacks against Iran
The 1999 assassination of the deputy chief of Iran’s armed forces general staff, Ali Sayyad Shirazi
The 1998 assassination of the director of Iran’s prison system, Asadollah Lajevardi
The 1992 near-simultaneous attacks on Iranian embassies and institutions in 13 countries
Assistance to Saddam Hussein’s suppression of the 1991 Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish uprisings
The 1981 bombing of the offices of the Islamic Republic Party and of Premier Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, which killed some 70 high-ranking Iranian officials, including President Mohammad-Ali Rajaei and Bahonar
Support for the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries