The following piece has been written by somebody I know well. He does not want his real name to be used because that would jeopardize the sensitive nature of his current work in counter terrorism in Europe – Massoud Khodabandeh.
As a former member of the Mojahedin Khalq terrorist organization (MEK), I followed the news of terrorist attacks on Tehran with shame, guilt and anger.
My shame and guilt stem from having been involved in such attacks in the past as a member of the MEK. My anger springs from what I see as the MEK’s ongoing influence in these current attacks. Based on my inside knowledge of the MEK I believe this organization has now helped the most notorious terror organization in the world to attack our country and our people.
As I followed news of the attacks I was forced to remember my own role in a similar mission and how my membership of the MEK had almost cost me my life. While analyzing the details of the ISIS attack as they emerged, it was easy to see that these operations in Tehran had been based on the expertise of MEK operations in several ways. I have identified some of these similarities which I have given in outline below.
The targets selected by ISIS were sites constantly targeted by the MEK. The Iranian Parliament and its members had always been primary targets for the MEK since the 1980s. The group had managed to assassinate several members of the Parliament and tried to plant a bomb there at one point. They were unsuccessful and some members were killed by security forces while other terrorist teams were arrested. Similarly, after Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine was created, Massoud Rajavi, the late MEK leader, announced that “Khomeini’s grave must be exploded”. It became a mantra among MEK members which they would chant in indoctrination sessions. The MEK tried unsuccessfully to send terrorist teams there in 1991 and 2002.
While ISIS and the MEK have the same interests in attacking Iran, ISIS could have caused much greater anti-government fear and hatred among the civilian population in line with its regime change agenda if they had bombed a civilian target like transport infrastructure or a shopping mall. They could have done more damage by targeting the Revolutionary Guards whose forces are in Syria. Instead, the ISIS targets matched those which had been constantly under attack by the MEK for thirty years.
ISIS used locally recruited Iranians for this attack. Their main challenge was to get their weaponry to Tehran without being detected by Iranian security forces. This had always been the main challenge for MEK terrorists. They used different methods to get their weapons to Tehran. For example, hiding the weapons in a small truck loaded with food or inside an empty computer case. The MEK experiences were helpful to the ISIS attackers. They paid a female acquaintance to join them to go to Tehran, pretending it is a family visit. This was to raise less suspicion. Between 2000-2003, the MEK used the same approach to get their terrorists from Iraq to Tehran. The first suicide bomber in Iran was a female MEK member. Since then, the MEK used women in suicide operations to ‘normalize’ their terrorist teams.
The suicide mission
An important similarity is the human factor. Just like the MEK, ISIS terrorists selected and trained for suicide missions are thoroughly brainwashed first. They undergo intensive indoctrination and psychological manipulation sessions and afterwards they are not allowed to think of anything else but their mission; terror. From the videos and reports, it is clear that the terrorists are numbed and fearful people who are prepared to use weapons as a first resort against innocent unprepared people. The ISIS terrorists exploded their vests in their first moments of contact with security forces. A couple of them even exploded their vests as soon as they just saw the security forces. This is similar to MKO terrorists who were brainwashed to assassinate unarmed civilians or perform a mortar attack in a large city like Tehran. They were also armed with cyanide pills and a hand grenade and ordered that rather than risk capture they must commit suicide and hurt as many of the people around them as possible.
It has been widely reported that, just like the MEK, ISIS also gets support from inside Saudi Arabia. After the Tehran terrorist attacks neither Saudi Arabia nor the MEK condemned the events. This echoes MEK behaviour under the Saddam regime. The MEK could not and would not condemn any action of Saddam or the Saudis because they were being paid and supported by them.
The MEK needed governmental level backing to move across national borders. Saddam arranged for MEK operatives to get inside Iran from Pakistan and Turkey rather than cross the Iraqi border which was under international scrutiny. ISIS has also been able to cross borders and move weapons and fund its activities in a way that indicates governmental level of support.
There is no indication that the MEK were directly involved in the Tehran attacks. But from my inside knowledge and based on having performed a similar style of suicide attack in Tehran myself some years ago, there is little doubt in my mind that ISIS have been able to use MEK expertise to pursue this modern terrorist attack.