'Gray Lady' Runs Ad for Terrorists

Daily Insight - Jan. 24, 2003

By Kenneth R. Timmerman


The New York Times has published a full-page advertisement for an Iraqi-based terrorist group that boasts of the support the group has received from 150 members of Congress.

The group, the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), claims to have thousands of armed members based in military camps in Iraq, financed and equipped by Saddam Hussein.

In the 1970s, elements of the group were involved in the murder of American servicemen and civilian contractors in Iran and took part in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. They later clashed with the radical Islamic clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini over power-sharing arrangements, and were driven into exile in 1981. Since 1986, they have been based in Iraq.

The State Department has included the MEK on its list of international terrorist organizations since 1994. Its flagship organization in the United States, the National Council of Resistance, was designated by the State Department as a "front" for the MEK in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The pro-MEK ad appeared on page A8 of the Times on Jan. 15. Fine print at the bottom identified the sponsor as the "Colorado Iranian-American Community, 19857 E. Lindale Place, Aurora, CO 80013."

The Colorado secretary of state's office, which maintains corporate registries, had no files on such an entity. Unregistered groups with similar names have been used by the MEK in the past as fronts for its public activities. According to the New York Times advertising department, full-page ads appearing during the week sell for $104, 554.80.

An FBI spokesman tells Insight he is "unclear" whether the ban on activities by terrorist groups in the United States extends to newspaper advertising, or whether the New York Times had broken the law by accepting money in support of a group whose assets have been frozen by executive order.

Unlike many large newspapers, the New York Times has no ombudsman to represent the readers or correct factual errors in the newspaper's reporting. No one at the Times' advertising department would say who had made the decision to accept the payment on behalf of the terrorist group.

The ad included photographs of six of the 150 members of Congress who allegedly had signed a recent statement of support for the MEK. Top billing went to Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who circulated the pro-MEK letter among her congressional colleagues. She and others have signed previous letters of support for the group.

Also appearing were Reps. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). Most acknowledge having signed the pro-MEK letter, although a spokeswoman for Diaz-Balart tells Insight that she was "not aware" that his picture had been used in the ad.

In the 1990s, before its assets were frozen, MEK members and supporters contributed heavily to the election campaigns of their political supporters in Congress. They gave more than $136,000 in hard money contributions to disgraced former senator Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and large amounts to Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). Mujahedin supporters also gave several thousand dollars to Towns and Ros-Lehtinen.

The MEK has proved adept at winning congressional support for its activities by painting itself as the only credible opposition to the clerical regime in Tehran. "They come to us and say, 'Don't you oppose terrorism? Don't you oppose the mullahs?' It's hard to say no," one congressional staffer, whose member later withdrew from an MEK support letter, said.

Veterans of Capitol Hill tell Insight that young staff members with little or no international experience sometimes make the decision for their congressman to sign on to these letters, thinking they are supporting a pro-democracy group. "I would say they are terribly misinformed and should educate themselves [as] to what's really going on," says Larry Klayman, chairman and chief counsel of Judicial Watch.

Responding to a lead editorial in the Rocky Mountain News last week that blasted him for supporting a terrorist group, Rep. Tancredo took full responsibility for his decision. "I do not dispute the claim that the history of the [MEK] is not that of the Boy Scouts," he said. To claim that he or others had been "duped" was simply "arrogant."

Tancredo reiterated MEK propaganda that the group is "dedicated to the overthrow of the bloodthirsty regime that today holds power in Iran," and called them a "secular coalition." In fact, the MEK imposes Islamic headscarves on female members -- which secular groups in the Muslim world eschew -- and regularly has purged coalition "partners," starting with former president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, whose daughter had been married to MEK leader Massoud Radjavi in the early 1980s.

"The MEK is not a secular but a religious party," says Roozbeh Farahanipour, a prominent leader of the 1999 student rebellion in Iran who now lives in the United States. "The fact that their own 'president,' Maryam Radjavi, covers her hair is a sign of them being a religious party. People are looking for a secular government in Iran."

The FBI has been investigating MEK activities in the United States and Iraq since the 1980s. An FBI penetration agent, who spent several months in MEK camps in Iraq in the late 1980s, tells Insight that the group still celebrates the anniversary of the murder of U.S. servicemen in 1977 by singing revolutionary songs at reveille.

Defectors from the group, which former insiders say is run like a cult by co-leaders Massoud and Maryam Radjavi, provided information to U.N. weapons inspectors in 1997 that the Iraqi regime had hidden banned weapons-production equipment and possibly nuclear materials in a MEK training camp east of Baghdad. MEK troops blocked entrance to the camp when a U.N. inspection team attempted to enter the site.

U.S. intelligence officials today believe the MEK camps still are used by Iraq as hiding places for banned weapons of mass destruction, and expect Saddam to call on MEK troops in the event the U.S. marches on Baghdad. MEK units fought Iraqi opposition Kurds during the insurrection of 1991.

Many Iranians think of the MEK as traitors, say regional experts, because they fought on the side of Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. "The MEK is not the hope of Iranians," student activist Aryo Pirouznia tells Insight. "We saw how they backed the Islamic regime in seizing power. They took part in the mass executions at the beginning of the regime, then backed Iraq in its attack on Iran, thinking they would become the sole power in Iran."

The Islamic veil the MEK imposes on women "has become a synonym of oppression in Iran," Pirouznia adds.

Khosrow Akmal, former secretary general of the Constitutionalist Movement of Iran, an exile group with members across Europe and the United States, calls support for the group from members of Congress "100 percent wrong" and "surprising, especially after so many reports from the State Department. It's simply not possible for members of Congress not to know that these people killed many Americans."

Some 60 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 25 and too young to remember the former shah or the mujahedin. And yet it is these young people who repeatedly have risen up against the regime over the past three years in cities and universities across the country.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.