September 29, 2005

Foreign Policy: With Friends Like These

I was recently interviewed for, and subsequently quoted in, an article written by Erik Sass for Foreign Policy journal.

Here is the text. If you wish to read it in its original format, see

With Friends Like These
By Erik Sass -
Posted September 2005

An Iranian group has killed American civilians, allied itself with Saddam Hussein, and holds a spot on the State Department’s terrorist watch list. So why might it become America’s newest friend in the Middle East? Hint: Tehran.

In August 2002, intelligence reports revealed secret nuclear facilities in the Iranian cities of Natanz and Arak. The revelation left officials in Tehran speechless, in large part because the evidence was not gathered by the United States or any of its allies. Rather, the courier of such sensitive intelligence was the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), a decades-old Iranian dissident group. In most cases, dissident groups who could work so effectively within rogue states would be natural friends with Washington. But in the case of the MEK, it’s more complicated: The U.S. State Department lists the MEK as a terrorist organization.

There is no doubt the group has a darkly violent past. The MEK opposed Iran’s Shah in the 1970s, and during its militant opposition, killed U.S. military and civilian personnel in Iran, and backed the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran. Though the MEK initially was supportive of the 1979 Islamic revolution, it eventually opposed the clerical regime that came to power. In two 1981 attacks, the MEK killed the Iranian president, premier, chief justice, and 70 other Iranian officials. And with the support of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the MEK launched attacks on Iran beginning in 1987, during the brutal endgame of the Iran-Iraq war, later claiming that they killed 40,000 of their countrymen during these campaigns.

Decades later, Iran is still a rogue state. But some say that it’s time to rethink the MEK. “I say the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says Raymond Tanter, a former Middle East analyst on Reagan’s National Security Council, now Washington’s leading MEK booster. “They have eyes and ears on the ground. And they can provide us with human intelligence that we just don’t have.”

That presence on the ground, and its clear opposition to Iran, is winning the MEK support in Washington. President Bush recently called the MEK a “dissident group,” a clear hat tip, and several U.S. legislators want the MEK removed from the terrorist list, which would allow it to raise money in the United States. MEK fundraisers have challenged the group’s terrorist status in court, so far without success. The Iran Freedom Support Act, a House bill clearly intended to help the group, was introduced in April by longtime MEK backer Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. It remains tied up in committee. MEK supporters on Capitol Hill are likely waiting on the State Department’s official revocation (or reaffirmation) of the group’s terrorist status, expected to take place in early

October.Retro Radicals

With a curious ideology somehow melding Marxism and Shiite Islamism, the MEK is a relic of a different time—a group of aging student activists who cling to their 1970’s radicalism. Comparable American and European groups like the Weather Underground and the Red Brigades faded away long ago, but the MEK has lived on in isolation. Despite its claims to be “democratic,” the group is actually a strict authoritarian commune, with frequent reports of beatings and torture of members who try to leave. Critics of the MEK don’t hesitate to call it a cult, and even some supporters concede that the group is rather unusual. The group’s leadership is a “gynocracy,” with women making up 30 percent of the fighting force and holding a disproportionately large share of military and political leadership positions. All members are subordinate to the “President-Elect,” Maryam Rajavi and her husband Massoud. Maryam’s face appears on t-shirts, signs, and pamphlets, and her slogans are repeated by followers with an eerie mantra-like insistence.

But the group’s bizarre nature isn’t the problem for gaining American backing. Rather, it’s a more important question: Has the MEK really given up terrorism? The group has foresworn violence, outwardly at least, as it desperately tries to scrub off the terrorist label. The centerpiece of the MEK’s new program is a peaceful “Third Way” to regime change, calling for a highly implausible referendum on a new Iranian government. Now that the group is angling for U.S. patronage, it has dropped the anti-American and overtly Marxist rhetoric from the group’s early days, and instead talks of free markets, liberty, freedom, and democracy. “The law says if they haven't engaged in terrorist activity for two years, and they don't have the means or intent to perform terrorist acts, they get off the list,” argues Tanter, “I say, follow the law.”

For now, the Bush administration seems to be trying to have it both ways. At a 2004 House International Relations subcommittee hearing, John Bolton, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that while the MEK is a terrorist organization, he didn’t think that it “prohibited us from getting information from them.”
During the MEK’s long cooperation with Saddam Hussein, it assisted in the brutal suppression of the Kurds and Shiites, earning the enmity of both groups. So it came as no surprise when Iraq's new Shiite-dominated interim Governing Council issued a decree in 2003 (never enforced, by dint of U.S. inaction) saying that the MEK would be expelled from the country. The group got a temporary reprieve from the Iraqis, but is under enormous pressure from official and unofficial groups, including the Shiite Badr Brigade, to leave Iraq as soon as possible, a large-scale relocation that will require American support and diplomatic muscle.

Meanwhile, the MEK’s transformation into a tool of U.S. intelligence is fast becoming a fait accompli. U.S. forces have disarmed its military wing in Iraq and news reports suggest demoralized fighters are deserting their base at Camp Ashraf. According to Massoud Khodabandeh, a former MEK security officer who left the group in 1996 and recently testified against its leadership on trial on charges of terrorism in France, “more than 300 members have fled…[and] 1,000 disaffected members approached the U.S. army and requested to be separated from the organization.” Both the mujahedin who have sought protection in U.S. custody and the hardline supporters still with the group clearly need something to do—and the Pentagon is holding all the cards.

“I'm not saying I always approve of the tactics that the group used in the past,” cautioned Shirin Nariman, a longtime MEK member and fundraiser who joined the group in the late 1970’s. “The whole world has changed, so of course it requires different strategies. And they don't require an army.” (Though a member of the MEK, Nariman often refers to the group in the third person). Former member Khodabandeh is blunter: “They have this dilemma. On one hand they have [used] violence for 30 years. On the other hand they have to get some support from someone (in America or other places) to survive after Saddam.” He dismissed the “peaceful” rhetoric as tactical posturing by the group, masking its terrorist character.

Friends in Need

When the Iran-Iraq war ended, an MEK commander asked about the future of the group said, “We have always adjusted tactics in our fighting. The form of fighting is secondary.” Predictably, the group is retooling itself again, and according to some sources, moving its operations to a new frontier.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has granted permission for the MEK to operate from the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, which borders Iran. This decison suggests to some that there is a possibility that the CIA may be deploying the MEK in western Afghanistan as well, to the provinces of Herat and Farah, thus doubling the length of Iranian border open to infiltration. As with Pakistan, the MEK is familiar with that terrain, having infiltrated western Afghanistan in the early 1980s.

Asked what the MEK might be doing, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Rick Francona, a former Air Force intelligence specialist with experience in the Middle East, says: “The primary focus will be the collection of intelligence, possibly even setting up infiltration and exfiltration routes and identifying agents in place inside Iran.” Francona explains that MEK teams could work in conjunction with any of these activities: “While U.S. technical intelligence sensors—electronic and visual—are useful, it is always better to have a human source that can penetrate the facility, tell us what is going on inside the buildings, who is doing what, intentions, progress, and so on. A good spy is hard to beat.”

But is MEK intelligence any good? Current and former U.S. officials have told Newsweek magazine that they knew of the major revelations about Iran’s nuclear program before the MEK made them public, and the group has a record of exaggerating intelligence or sometimes simply making things up. U.S. officials have learned to take MEK claims with very large grains of salt. David Kay, the former intelligence official who spent years investigating Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, expressed a balanced view: “They're often wrong, but occasionally they give you something.”

More alarming, however, is Khodabandeh’s warning that the MEK has been heavily infiltrated by Iranian intelligence, and is of limited utility. However, he concedes, “Having said that, I think it is the job of CIA officers to use the available forces on the ground.” Khodabandeh also notes that the CIA might be able to “clean” the organization of Iranian infiltrators, restoring some of its usefulness as a covert ops force. An alternative method, suggests Francona, would involve culling small operating groups of trustworthy individuals from the MEK’s ranks, employing them in isolated “cells” to limit the damage if any one of them is discovered. “There is precedent for this,” he says, although he refuses to elaborate.

Meanwhile, the latest U.S. intelligence assessment released recently now projects that Iran is a decade away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb. But MEK supporters say the assessment is both na├»ve and out of date, because of the subsequent election of ultra-conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president in June. Tanter warns, “What the elections did was consolidate power under supreme leader Khamenei in such a fashion that there’s now very little need to conciliate the moderates in the Iranian government. I anticipate that Iran will take a tougher line on negotiations on Europe.” Iran’s recent rejection of a seemingly generous European “grand bargain” as “insulting” would appear to confirm Tanter’s prediction.

Despite the political changes on the ground, it is still hard to imagine the MEK playing a large role in any future regime change in Iran. With no more than 3,800 aging members, the group could hardly destabilize the Iranian government itself, but it may prove useful as an intelligence asset. With its allies currently frustrating U.S. efforts to refer the Iran nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council, Washington may be in need of friends and any help may be appreciated. The question is whether the MEK are the kind of friends you can count on.

Erik Sass is a freelance journalist.

September 27, 2005

The Saudis: Why They are Not Liking Us?

I was asked by a friend who recently returned from a trip to Egypt. He was told by some Egyptians that they were not enamored of the Saudis and asked if I had ever heard that. My reply:

The Saudis are not universally liked for several reasons.

They have alienated much of the Muslim world for their embrace andcontinued support of Wahhabi Islam, a fundamentalist adherence that drives people like Usamah Bin Ladin and Abu Mus'ib Az-Zarqawi, in addition to the Saudi royal family. They came to power in the peninsula by subduing or co-opting the other tribes. One tribe/family that they ejected from the Hijaz was the Bani Hashim - direct descendants of the prophet - or as we know them today, the Hashemites. They were the initial ruling family ofIraq, and are still on the throne in Jordan.

The oil wealth has transformed the House of Sa'ud from desert warriors to a bunch of wealthy, hypocritical spoiled brats. They run the country like it is their private property, despite machinations to wrap themselves in the mantle of Islam - changing the title of the monarch from King to Custodian of the Two Holy Places, things like that.

There is real resentment and unrest in the Magic Kingdom. If the royal family does not address the political aspirations of the newly emerging technocrats that have been schooled at some of the best universities in the world, we may be looking at Iran in about 1975, when the first cracks started to appear. Add to this the fundamentalist backlash to the relationship between the royal family and the United States - fueling organizations like Al-Qa'idah.

On a more direct level, Saudis are arrogant travelers and tourists. They demand all the things they cannot have in Saudi Arabia - wine,women and song, and they have the money to buy all three. When I was stationed in Damascus, I used to frequent the bars and night clubs looking for contacts (tough job, but somebody had to do it). In the summer, the place was overrun with Saudis, since Damascus sits at a little over 2000 feet elevation and the weather was pleasant year 'round. The Saudis would show up with major money and start offering young Syrian girls (who are quite pretty, much more so than the Egyptians) more than the equivalent of three months pay for one night with them. Can you blame some of the girls for giving in? Then there was an outbreak of AIDS as these same Saudis were often frequent travelers to the sex shops of Thailand. The Iranian "pilgrims" to the holy sites in Lebanon and Syria were not as bad, but only because they hadless money.

During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the Saudis acted pretty much the same way with everyone - "You are mere servants." When I got into a conversation about the inequities of wealth distribution in what they like to call the "Arab Nation" (a myth as far as I amconcerned), a Saudi brigadier just shrugged and said, "God meant for us to be rich." How do you argue with that? Sort of like theIsraelis and the "God gave this land to me" argument.

Yeah, they're real sweethearts. You may ask why my book is banned in the Kingdom.

Saddam Husayn - Witness for the Defense?

I recently spoke to a group in Corvallis, Oregon. Although the press coverage is not entirely accurate, it makes for interesting reading.

ANDY CRIPE/Gazette-Times

Port Orford resident Rick Francona gave a talk about the Middle East on Friday during a lunch meeting of the Greater Corvallis Rotary Club. Francona has been a Middle East military analyst for NBC, CNBC and MSNBC since 2003.

Close view of Iraq

By KYLE ODEGARDGazette-Times reporter

Hussein will be guilty and executed, analyst predictsRick Francona wasn't thrilled with the prospect of serving as a defense witness for Saddam Hussein.

But there the Port Orford man was, telling the former dictator's legal team that, yes, the United States knew Iraq used chemical weapons to kill Iranian troops — and on 5,000 Iraqis as well.

And yes, the United States continued to support Hussein's regime during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Francona, 54, won't testify in the trial after all, but he'll be involved as an analyst for NBC television.

Few people know Iraq like he does, after stints with the CIA and other agencies in the Middle East. On Friday, the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel talked with the Greater Corvallis Rotary Club.

"I think it's a foregone conclusion that (Hussein) will be found guilty" and executed, Francona said. "They've reinstated the death penalty just for him.

"Hussein's trial is set to start Oct. 19, and he will face charges for numerous alleged crimes committed by his regime, including the use of poison gas against 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988.

"They were testing the weapons to see if they worked," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the United States knew that without its support, Iraq would lose the war against its neighbor.

"We were so concerned about an Iranian victory that it overshadowed Iraq using chemical weapons," Francona said.

Hussein was seen as the lesser evil.

The dictator will not face charges of using poison gas against Iranian troops, which Francona said he discovered. That omission got Francona crossed off the defense list, he said.

During the last year of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Francona served at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as an advisor for Iraqi armed forces, serving in the field with Iraqi army and flying with the Iraqi air force.

Throughout the Gulf War, Francona was the personal interpreter for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

After that, Francona served in northern Iraq with the CIA.

Besides Hussein, Francona also talked Friday about the messy history and borders of the Middle East, and the new war in Iraq.

"I think there was always a plan for Iraq starting in 1992," he said. America was forced to play its hand because sanctions against Iraq were going to be lifted.

Two things went wrong with the invasion, he said. First, Turkey wouldn't let the United States invade Iraq from the north, so the Sunni Triangle wasn't reached until two weeks after Baghdad fell.

Second, the United States disbanded the Iraqi army.

"Three hundred thousand people in the street with guns and no money," Francona said.

Things will improve there when people take a stand to end the chaos in the Sunni Triangle.

"We're not going to defeat the insurgency. The Iraqis are going to defeat the insurgency," he said.

And America's been waiting a long time for that to happen, Francona added.

Francona is the author of "Ally to Adversary: An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace."

Kyle Odegard covers Philomath and rural Benton County. He can be contacted at or 758-9523.

Copyright © 2005 Corvallis Gazette-Times

September 2, 2005

Al-Qa'idah Ties to London Bombings Confirmed

This does not come as a surprise.

A connection between the perpetrators of the London transportation system terrorist bombers and the Al-Qa'idah organization has been suspected all along, but the recent videotape from Al-Qa'idah number two man Ayman Az-Zawahiri eliminates any doubt.

The connection spans three continents over a period of six years.

Ayman Az-Zawahiri

The earlier connection:

Harun Rashid Aswat met with convicted (and admitted) Al-Qa'idah member James Ujaama in Bly, a small town in southern Oregon to discuss establishing an Al-Qa'idah training camp. Aswat spent some time there, but in the end decided that the facility was not optimum for Al-Qa'idah's needs. Aswat returned to the united Kingdom. After Ujaama's arrest and confession, the United States issued an indictment for Aswat and sought his extradition to answer the charges. The British refused to arrest Aswat at that time.

A later connection:

The July 7 London attacks were committed by four British-born Muslims, including one named Mohammed Sidique Khan. During the investigation into the backgrounds and activities of the bombers, a link turned up between Aswat and Khan. Khan and Aswat had been in numerous telephone calls for the two week period prior to the attacks on July 7. Links between the July 7 and July 21 bombers have been established as well.

Now the tape:

The video from Az-Zawahiri includes a segment with Mohammed Sidique Khan obviously made prior to the July 7 attack in which Khan died. I'd call that an Al-Qa'idah link.