05 January 2011

When I lived with "terrorists"

In 1997, as part of an effort by President Bill Clinton to reach out to Iran, the United States added the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI, also known as Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK), the largest Iranian exile organization, to the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.  This was purely a political move, as the PMOI haven't really engaged in any sort of terrorist actions in recent times and certainly haven't engaged in any action against the United States.

The French Committee for a Democratic Iran or the National Council of Resistance of Iran is the diplomatic front for the PMOI and is a sort of government-in-exile located in France.

The PMOI was in the news again last month:
A group of prominent U.S. Republicans associated with homeland security told a forum of cheering Iranian exiles here Wednesday that President Obama's policy toward Iran amounts to futile appeasement that will never persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear projects.
The Americans - former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge, former White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend and former attorney general Michael Mukasey - demanded that Obama instead take the controversial Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) opposition group off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations and incorporate it into efforts to overturn the mullah-led government in Tehran.
"Appeasement of dictators leads to war, destruction and the loss of human lives," Giuliani declared. "For your organization to be described as a terrorist organization is just really a disgrace."
The four GOP figures appeared at a rally organized by the French Committee for a Democratic Iran, a pressure group formed to support MEK.
Their crowd-pleasing appeals, they said, reflected growing bipartisan sentiment in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere that the 13-year-old terrorist designation of the Paris-based dissident group should be ended because it is unfounded and has not made the Iranian government easier to deal with or halt its nuclear program. In addition, they noted, a Washington federal appeals court in July ordered Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to review the listing, and cast doubt on some of the information brought forward to support it.
The article was brought to my attention by Rob McNealy, who tweeted earlier today that the "GOP leadership officially supporting terrorism when it suits their interests," and cited the article.

It struck a nerve with me because most of my nine months in Iraq were spent at Camp Ashraf, which happens to be the home of the aforementioned PMOI.  Yes, you read that correctly: U.S. troops including myself were living inside Camp Ashraf in close proximity to these supposedly-dangerous terrorists (albeit in separate areas of the camp).  Rob's comment struck me as naive because, while it is easy to read about an organization as a designated terrorist organization and feign indignation at the Republicans who spoke on their behalf, it is another to have lived beside them and understand them for who they are.

A quick history of the PMOI in one paragraph: they are an Iranian exile organization who were supported by Saddam Hussein and who laid down their arms in 2003 at the outset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The "prisoners" were held at Camp Ashraf and were later declared "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention.

In reality, very few of the PMOI were held in prison; most of them lived within their section of the Camp (which, in truth, is more like a small town).  When they did venture outside of Camp Ashraf, they were escorted by you-know-who: the U.S. soldiers who were stationed at Ashraf.  Yes, you read that correctly, too: U.S. soldiers were escorting these supposedly-dangerous terrorists on supply runs into Baghdad (after all, they were protected persons).  These were known colloquially as "PMOI runs" and ran from Ashraf down to Baghdad and back several times a week.  I went on quite a few of these runs back in 2006.  Whether you agree or disagree with what we were doing, you cannot deny that other than having their name on a list, we have not in any stretch of reality treated the PMOI as terrorists.

Over the course of my time at Ashraf, I had opportunities to speak with a number of people within the local PMOI leadership.  While I can't say that I necessarily agree with their philosophy, I am fairly certain of the fact that this organization does not being on an official list of terrorists (although after having watched some of their ceremonies, they definitely have a cultish feel to them).  The EU started the process to remove the PMOI from their terrorist list back in 2006, and finally removed them officially back in 2009. Last year a federal appeals court ordered Secretary Clinton to review the PMOI's status as a terrorist organization.  And while the Post article that Rob cited specifically mentioned the GOP leaders that traveled to Paris, the group of lawmakers that support removing the PMOI as a terrorist organization is decidedly bi-partisan.

I mentioned to Rob that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress was previously on the United States' list of terrorist organizations; were Nelson Mandela's supporters in the United States also officially supporting terrorism?  His response disappointed me: "I don't care about Africa, I care about American[sic]."  Although in truth I guess this is more-or-less what you would expect from a libertarian.

Among all this, there is no evidence of any terror activity from this supposed terrorist group.  That seems to defy explanation.

(In 2009, Ashraf was turned over to Iraq and U.S. forces eventually left; was apparently attacked by Iraqi security forces resulting in numerous deaths.)
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