Throughout the contemporary history of Iran, numerous militia groups have been formed especially among the left streams, among whose common features are violent and terrorist measures. Although those groups were formed to fight the ruling political system, most of the victims of their operations were civilians. The Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization, also known as MKO or MEK, is one of the most well-known of these groups that officially launched its militia in the first months of the victory of the Islamic Revolution and started a period of violence and bloodshed in different parts of Iran. Now, nearly two decades after the MEK’s disarmament, the group has re-launched its terrorist cells under the new name “rebel centers.”
According to dictionary definitions, militia is a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency. Also, it has been defined as a military force that engages in rebel or terrorist activities in opposition to a regular army. What is meant by militia in this article is the latter definition i.e., the organized armed insurgent forces in the first years of the Iranian Revolution.
After the Islamic Revolution, the term militia was first used in Iran by the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) although this concept was not unfamiliar to left-wing groups. According to the statements and documents the MKO left behind, Massoud Rajavi, the group’s leader after the Revolution, announced formation of the militia on November 23, 1979 although it was officially announced on 27th of November in the Mojahed Magazine. The militia was an organized non-professional force whose members could continue education and work as well as organizational activities. Hence, a militia can perhaps be called a “part-time guerrilla” or, in MKO’s words, “part-time fighters” emphasizing its military and armed nature.
The reason behind formation of the militia
After the siege of the American embassy and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilization order i.e., “the army of 20 million” on November 26, 1979, the MKO announced the formation of its militia. According to the military-political declaration No. 23 on November 23, 1979, the militia branch was formed in the MKO. In order to justify arming themselves and the formation of this small private army, the MKO announced that they aimed to stand against the United States (Collection of Declarations, Vol. 2, pp. 140-141). Mojahed, the official magazine of the MKO, on November 27, 1979 in its special issue No. 2, thanked Imam Khomeini and tried to turn the Supreme Leader’s order to its advantage by calling its militia the army of 20 million. They issued this statement: “And now all the revolutionary forces, all the brave warriors of the army and our brothers in the Revolutionary Guard Corps are to do everything in their power to establish the 20-million revolutionary army in particular and also organize the militia of thirty-seven million people”.
Next, the MKO issued another statement under the title of “regulations for carrying and maintaining weapons and objectives of the militia” to justify arming of most of their members. During the victory of the revolution, many army garrisons were looted by members of the MKO, and the group’s military branch, which had been active since 1971, was also illegally armed. Therefore, they used to pretend that their armed organization is somehow related to the regular armed forces in an effort to prevent sensitivities that arose after the formation of their militia.
Actions taken by the militia
Since January 1979, the militia was used as a lever at the service of propaganda techniques and social missions to disrupt social order and create confrontations in some neighborhoods of Tehran and other cities. Activities of the militia units augmented during the first presidential election campaign in support of Bani Sadr. Students made up majority of the members of the militia, and, given their revolutionary spirit and great interest in military and armed activities, they constituted a major part of these organized units’ recruitees. According to the policies of the MKO leaders before the crucial period of June 20, 1981, the militia units made several symbolic moves during this period in order to flaunt their power to the opponent. These units performed maneuvers to show their social power at different times such as December, January and February of 1980. At the time, Maryam Qajar Azdanlu (Rajavi), the current leader of the MKO, had various responsibilities with respect to organizing the women’s militia and leading female students’ revolutionary campaigns of construction activities in rural areas (Kayhan newspaper, March 10, 1980, p. 15). The militia marched from the University of Tehran to the US Embassy on Wednesday April 9, 1980, in order to demonstrate its firm grip on the opponents.
Following the tensions created by the MKO, on June 13, 1980, the militia demonstrated simultaneously in 10 locations in Tehran to exhibit its power. In this series of demonstrations, dozens of ordinary people and individuals resembling government supporters (characterized by being religious and having a beard) were beaten or injured by cold weapon. Dozens of buses, motorcycles and people’s automobiles were set on fire and the MKO chanted mottos against Shahid Beheshti and the Islamic Republic Party and in favor of Bani Sadr. Most of the militia’s encounters in the clashes were physical and involved the use of cold weapon. Members of the militia had received military training and acted in an organized manner and could easily identify the opposition and beat them more. Throughout 1980, the militia started major riots in the cities of Sabzevar, Isfahan, Karaj, Abadan, Gorgan, Ghaemshahr, Tehran and Shiraz. Presence of the militia during Bani-Sadr’s speech at the University of Tehran on March 5, 1981, and its subsequent clash with government supporting forces was another manifestation of this militant group of the MKO.
On the afternoon of June 20, 1981, while the political inadequacy of President Bani Sadr was being examined in the Parliament, the militia which was equipped with knives, cutters, brass knuckles, Molotov cocktails, acid sprays and firearms (only for group heads and main cadres), organized demonstrations on streets of Tehran to revolt against the ruling government. Simultaneously with the movements in Tehran, similar sporadic clashes took place on a smaller scale in several cities such as Isfahan, Hamedan, Urmia, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Arak, Zahedan, Masjed Soleyman, Bandar Abbas and Mashhad, during which dozens were injured and several were murdered (IRIB Website).
Most of the militia’s activities were propaganda and sabotage. Up till June 20, 1981, the militia mostly performed as guardians of meetings and lectures of those they believed in. The activities they performed later on include selling the group’s publications, collecting financial aid for the benefit of the group, organizing construction campaigns in deprived areas of the country, and military activities. Construction activities of the militia and their presence in villages were mostly to compete with the Jihad of Construction (Jahād-e Sāzandegī), to carry out propaganda in favor of the MKO, and to gather supporters for this group, which in most cases failed. In fact, these actions of the militia, similar to the reason of its formation, were in competition with revolutionary institutions and organizations such as the Basij Force.
Having the illusion of owing the revolution, the MKO at this time tried to emulate the government structure as if it were a legitimate ruling system. The MKO had pinned its hope on the militia as a means of executing the group’s authoritarian intentions. Rajavi acknowledged that his militia had about 10,000 capable troops and used it to distrain the ruling government. This half-baked idea of the MKO soon created the illusion of being able to stand against the government. By triggering their revolt on June 20, which led to the apprehension or escape of the MKO militia members and exposure of their weaknesses not only in terms of military power but also in even revolting, this illusion quickly faded (Website of Rahenoo News Agency).
Formation of National Liberation Army
In the street clashes of the summer of 1981 and on September 27, the militia, whose philosophy of existence was to form a private army for the promised day, entered the social insurgency phase once again by provoking students. According to the available documents, the militia organized eight unsuccessful riots between 1983 and 1985, which were of course much smaller than the flood of people supporting the revolution and simply failed. Nonetheless, the large-scale assassinations of government officials and ordinary people may be considered the greatest achievement of the MKO militia in these years (Document Archive of Habilian Association).
Coming to know its inability to conduct terrorist attacks inside Iran and according to the MKO’s policy on exiting the country, the militia gradually moved to Iraq and with the benefit of Saddam’s military and logistical facilities, changed its name to the so-called National Liberation Army in 1987. In his statement for the establishment of this army, Massoud Rajavi described the militia as the nucleus of the Liberation Army and said in that regard “… this is why the MKO founded the militia in the first year of (Ayatollah) Khomeini’s ruling” (Document Archive of Habilian Foundation). This so-called army of the MKO carried out several military operations against Iran on the battlefields during the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war and was eventually destroyed in Operation Mersad.
After the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, the MEK which was listed by the US as a terrorist group, was forcibly disarmed by the US Army and the group’s military wing was forced to hand over its heavy and semi-heavy weapons to the US forces in Iraq.
The MEK has since tried to adapt its tactics to the new situation. So, in order to get out of the terrorist lists in the UK, EU and US, it took a new approach that was more like a tactical change than a strategical one. In this way, through launching a political and propaganda campaign against Iran, the group sought to persuade the West that it is the only alternative to the Islamic Republic. In recent years, however, the MEK has attempted to direct its regime-change activities inside Iran by organizing its forces in the form of terrorist cells called “rebel centers”.
The fact is that the foundation of this group relied on armed activity both at the time of the official announcement of the formation of the militia in 1979, and during the 1980s. Thus, with Donald Trump coming to power and his non-diplomatic behavior and actions against Iran, the MEK gained the opportunity to gradually revive their past militant approach after 13 years of forced disarmament.
Launching terrorist cells
The MEK considered Trump to be the last circle of pressure on Tehran, whose unprecedented encounter with the Islamic Republic would lead to the collapse of the ruling political system in Iran. Thus, by focusing on the establishment of violent and terrorist cells inside Iran, they challenged the claim of some viewers regarding the group’s transition from military stage to the political phase and proved that the Mojahedin is still a violent militant group.
The remarks made by some senior MEK members during Trump’s presidency regarding the group’s new terrorist cells, known as rebel centers and describing them as an extension of the National Liberation Army militia prove that the political gestures of the MEK leader, Maryam Rajavi, are nothing but a deceptive approach to gain the support of some European and American politicians.
During the same period, the MEK carried out dozens of sabotage and violent operations against various targets in Iran. Although those operations did not cause any casualties or damage, the very establishment of terrorist cells and encouragement of the youth to join these destructive centers as well as inciting them to attack governmental and non-governmental sites, are examples of promoting violence and terror, and are as illegal as the threats of Canadian anarchist extremist groups to target the country’s infrastructure.
Now, with the end of the Trump era and fading of the MEK’s aspirations in the US presidential election, it remains to be seen whether the group’s terrorist cells will continue to act or not. Regardless of the ineffectiveness of the actions of these cells inside Iran during recent years, what seems to be important is that Europe has probably inadvertently become the main focus of the elements of this violent and terrorist group. Previously only present in Western Europe, former pro-Saddam Hussein militia terrorists have now spread to the other side of Europe, the Balkans.