Nov 15, 2018

White supremacy can be addictive, and leaving it behind can be like kicking a drug habit.

White supremacy can be addictive, and leaving it behind can be like kicking a drug habit.
October 10, 2017

The 2016 election and the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year have focused the attention of many on to the resurgence of far-right extremism and radicalization. In new research based on interviews with former white supremacists, Pete Simi, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele and Steven Windisch find that many of those involved in such movements consider themselves as having been “addicted” to white supremacism. They write that the totalizing lifestyle and extreme hatred-based identity associated with white supremacism may explain why former white supremacists feel they are addicts.

The tragic violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in August prompted many to ask questions about the resurgence of far-right extremism and how individuals become radicalized into these movements. Even before Charlottesville, the 2016 presidential election helped cast a spotlight on the “alt-right’s” efforts to rebrand white supremacy while appealing to a younger and more tech savvy generation. Far less attention, however, has been devoted to understanding what happens when people leave white supremacist hate groups and the challenges they may encounter.

Does leaving hate behind involve a recovery process that mimics what substance users and other types of addicts’ experience? Based on extensive life history interviews with 89 former US white supremacists, we find that a substantial portion of our interview subjects report a difficult time shaking their former thoughts, feelings, and bodily reactions, and, in many cases, come to think of themselves as being “addicted” to white supremacism.

On the one hand, conventional wisdom suggests white supremacists are entirely consumed by hatred where the prospect of change seems unlikely (“once a hater, always a hater”). In this sense, being addicted to hate might make sense. On the other hand, previous studies have noted the high burn-out rate among members of the white supremacist movement and the substantial retention efforts initiated by various groups to sustain participation. The question is not whether people can leave white supremacist hate groups as they clearly do, but, rather, what happens after they leave?

White supremacy has a long political, economic, and social history that permeates US institutions and culture. Our focus on the personal consequences of white supremacy is not an effort to reduce the problem to an individual pathology but rather highlight the deep-seated nature of white supremacy. But sociologists have been reluctant to study the addictive qualities related to identity formation and change and the social significance of hate.

Why would hate result in consequences so severe that former white supremacists use the term addiction to describe their struggles? In truth, we are only beginning to learn about the neurocognitive dynamics related to involuntary and unwanted aspects of a past identity. We think two factors are especially important for understanding what generates these addiction-like qualities among former white supremacists.

First, white supremacy involves a totalizing, all-encompassing lifestyle that typically dominates everything from their thoughts, feelings, and relationships to their selection of television shows, music and even food they consume. In short, becoming a white supremacist is a complete identity transformation similar to what has previously been described in relation to drug and alcohol addiction.

Second, extreme hatred is characterized by rigid boundaries of “us” and “them” and various types of dehumanization. Identities, like white supremacism, that involve extreme hatred related to group-based prejudices, are likely to produce long-term neurophysiological consequences.

The routinized and insular nature of white supremacy along with the focus on extreme hatred produces an identity that may be much harder to leave behind than previously thought. In this sense, disengagement is not really the end of that identity as a whole other layer of unwanted and involuntary thoughts, feelings, bodily reactions, and behaviors may persist and continue to shape the person’s life.

Yet, the persistence of hate is not inevitable. The formers we interviewed also devised extensive self-talk strategies to respond to the sudden resurfacing of their previous identity as a white supremacist. Self-talk is part of a larger process of learning new ways to act by reminding themselves that their past need not be their current or future self.
Self-talk represents an internal dialogue and allows formers to suppress manifestations of a self they no longer embrace. Instances of self-talk may contribute to a person’s sense of self efficacy by cumulatively demonstrating their ability to initiate change.

While we do not endorse the idea, “once a hater, always a hater,” there may be shreds of truth in this statement in that any kind of powerful identity will leave traces on the remainder of a person’s life. The point is not that change is impossible but rather transformation is rarely complete and past identities linger while continuing to shape future selves. It is much better for individuals to understand how these past identities may continue to shape their lives rather than remain oblivious and unaware of these influences.

This article is based on the paper, ‘Addicted to Hate: Identity Residual among Former White Supremacists’ in the American Sociological Review.

About the authors

Kathleen Blee – University of Pittsburgh
Kathleen Blee is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She has written extensively about organized white supremacism, including Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement and Women in the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, as well as methodological approaches and the politics and ethics of studying racist hate groups and strategies for combatting racial hate.

Matthew DeMichele – Research Triangle Institute

Matthew DeMichele is a Senior Research Sociologist at the Research Triangle Institute, where he conducts research on correctional population trends, risk prediction, criminal behavior, community corrections, terrorism/extremism, and program evaluation. He is currently leading research projects for federal and local governments, and for private foundations. DeMichele has several technical reports and policy briefs as well as publications appearing in Crime and Delinquency, Theoretical Criminology, and Criminology and Public Policy.

Pete Simi – Chapman University

Pete Simi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Earl Babbie Research Center at Chapman University. He has published widely on the issues of political violence, social movements, and street gangs.

Steven Windisch – University of Nebraska Omaha

Steven Windisch is a 3rd year doctoral student in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. His research interests include domestic terrorism, extremist radicalization, violence, street gangs, collective behavior, social movements and qualitative research methods.

Is There A Cure For Hate?

Taly Kogon and her son Leo, 10, listen to speakers during an interfaith vigil against anti-Semitism and hate at the Holocaust Memorial late last month in Miami Beach, Fla.
Taly Kogon and her son Leo, 10, listen to speakers
during an interfaith vigil against anti-Semitism
and hate at the Holocaust Memorial late last month in Miami Beach, Fla.

November 6, 2018

For months prior to the recent shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, suspect Robert Bowers spewed venomous bigotry, hatred and conspiracies online, especially against Jews and immigrants. During the Oct. 27 attack, according to a federal indictment, he said he wanted "to kill Jews."

He is charged with 44 counts — including hate crimes — for the murder of 11 people and wounding of six others at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue.

The attack follows a spike in anti-Semitic incidents, concerns about the rise in domestic extremism and calls for politicians to rethink their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

We wanted to know what programs, if any, are effective in getting violent and violence-prone far-right extremists in America to cast aside their racist beliefs and abandon their hate-filled ways.

Here are five key takeaways:

1) Neglected, minimized and underfunded

Creating and expanding effective programs to get homegrown far-right racists to find the off-ramp from hate is, overall, an under-studied, underfunded and neglected area.
White supremacy is really a problem throughout the United States. It doesn't know any geographic boundaries. It's not isolated to either urban or rural or suburban — it cuts across all. - Pete Simi, Chapman University
"We haven't wanted to acknowledge that we have a problem with violent right-wing extremism in this kind of domestic terrorism," says sociologist Pete Simi of Chapman University, who has researched and consulted on violent white nationalists and other hate groups for more than two decades.

"White supremacy is really a problem throughout the United States," he says. "It doesn't know any geographic boundaries. It's not isolated to either urban or rural or suburban — it cuts across all."

But it's a problem and topic that America has "tended to hide or minimize," he adds.

That willful denial, Simi says, has left many nonprofits, social workers and police and other interventionists largely flying blind.

"There really haven't been much resources, attention, time, energy devoted to developing efforts to counter that form of violent extremism."

In fact, the Trump administration in 2017 rescinded funding that targeted domestic extremism.

The administration, instead, has focused almost exclusively on threats from Islamist extremists and what it sees as the security and social menace of undocumented immigrants including, again, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of the midterm elections.

2) There's no consensus on what really works

The research done so far shows that adherence to white supremacist beliefs can be addictive. Some who try to leave can "relapse" and return to the hate fold.

But Simi says, "We're really very much in the early days."

And there is no consensus yet on what works best over the long haul.

Academically, there has been more attention and research on interventions with American gang members or would-be Jihadis.

And while there is some crossover, far-right hate comes with ideological baggage often absent in gangs and is different from the religion-infused Jihadi belief system.

3) Best practices are costly and labor-intensive

Can racist radicals and homegrown right-wing violent extremists successfully be rehabilitated and re-enter civil society?

"The answer to that question is absolutely 'yes,' " Simi says.

The groups with the best approach, he says, seem to be those that partner with a broad section of civil society — educators, social workers, those in health care and police — to tackle the full range of problems someone swept up into an extremist world might face.

They may need additional schooling or employment training, he says or "maybe they have some housing needs, maybe they have some unmet mental health needs," such as past trauma or substance use problems.

It's a more holistic approach that he says, in the end, is far more effective and less costly than prison and packing more people into the already overcrowded U.S. criminal justice system.

But that "wraparound services" model is also labor-intensive, expensive and hard to coordinate.

It's also severely hampered, Simi says, by America's woefully inadequate drug treatment and mental health care systems.

"A big, big problem that we face as a society is abdicating our responsibility in terms of providing this kind of social support and social safety net for individuals that suffer from mental health," as well as drug problems, he says.

4) Life after hate

Tony McAleer knows the mindset of the suspect in the synagogue shooting.

A former member of the White Aryan Resistance and other hate groups, he once echoed the type of racist invective Bowers spewed online; the kind that sees a cabal of malevolent Jews running the world by proxy through banks, Hollywood, corporations and the media.

I think of them as lost...And I can tell you being in that place is not a fun place to be. When you surround yourself with angry and negative people I guarantee you your life is not firing on all cylinders. - Tony McAleer, Life After Hate

And McAleer knows how savvy racist recruiters can be. He was one of them.

"I was a Holocaust denier. I ran a computer-operated voicemail system that was primarily anti-Semitic," he says.

He eventually renounced his bigotry and helped co-found the nonprofit Life After Hate, one of just a handful of groups working to help right-wing extremists find an off-ramp. It also was among those that lost funding — a $400,000 Obama-era federal grant — when the Trump administration changed focus.

In McAleer's experience, adherence to racist beliefs — whether as part of a group or as a lone wolf like the synagogue suspect — is more often sparked by a flawed search for identity and purpose than by a deeply held belief.

The group doesn't attack people's ideology verbally. He calls that approach "the wrong strategy. Because it's about identity."

The best method, he believes, is simply listening and trying to reconnect to the person's buried humanity.

McAleer says he tries to get at what's motivating the hate, to find out why people are really so angry and upset to begin with, and to start the dialogue from there.

You condemn the ideology and the actions, he says, but not the human being.

"I think of them as lost. Somewhere along the line, they find themselves in this place," says McAleer, "and I can tell you being in that place is not a fun place to be. When you surround yourself with angry and negative people, I guarantee you your life is not firing on all cylinders."

He says that's the way he felt. "I was just so disconnected from my heart."

The birth of his children and compassion from a Jewish man, he says, helped him to leave that life and to reconnect with his own humanity and that of others.

People often have never met the people that they purport to hate, he says.

"And there's nothing more powerful — I know because it happened to me in my own life — than receiving compassion from someone who you don't feel you deserve it from, someone from a community that you had dehumanized."

5) How do you scale compassion?

But there are only a few programs like Life After Hate.

And they're often small. Since the summer of 2017, for example, the Chicago-based group has taken on only 41 new people who want to leave their racist hate behind.

"Keep in mind, de-radicalization is a lifelong process," says Life After Hate's Dimitrios Kalantzis. "We consider it a major success when formers remain active in our network, even if that means checking in within our online support group. That means they are engaged and unlikely to relapse."

But is inspiring compassion really scalable, and how can groups more effectively structure and organize similar efforts?

How can researchers and others scale it to reach as large a number of people as possible?

"That's the answer I can't provide because at this point, we really don't know," sociologist Pete Simi says.

Nov 14, 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses Recount Stories of Abuse, Estrangement in Leah Remini-Hosted Special

Scientology and the Aftermath's
Katie Kilkenny
Hollywood Reporter
November 13, 3018

In a special preceding 'Scientology and the Aftermath's' third season, Remini gathered ex-members to discuss their experiences with the church on issues including blood transfusions, justice and women's rights.

Leah Remini kicked off the third season of her A&E series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath on Tuesday night with a deep-dive, two-hour special on the Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses.

On Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath: The Jehovah's Witnesses, Remini led a panel of ex-Jehovah's Witnesses as they explained some of the church's most controversial positions and practices: its belief in Armageddon, disavowal of blood transfusions, disfellowships and subjugation of women.

As Remini explained at the beginning, the special stemmed from letters and social-media messages the production received, asking it to look into the denomination. "I thought Jehovah's Witnesses were just nice people knocking on doors," Remini said. But "We have received many letters, [saying], 'Please look into the Jehovah's Witnesses'" and making the connection between Scientology and Jehovah's Witnesses, she noted.

"Take Scientology, add eight million members, and you've got Jehovah's Witnesses," Lloyd Evans, a former member of the church and author of a book called The Reluctant Apostate, told her.

Jehovah's Witnesses emerged from the International Bible Students Association in the 19th century but was officially given its current name in 1931. Believers differ from other forms of Christianity in denying the the Trinitarian belief that Jesus is divine, instead acknowledging him only as the son of God. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Armageddon is coming, and when it does, non-Witnesses (or "worldly" people) will go to Hell and God's Kingdom will be established on earth with only Jehovah's Witnesses populating it. They do not celebrate holidays or birthdays and also famously oppose blood transfusions on grounds of faith.

The church has recently weathered accusations that it helped cover up accusations of child sexual abuse and other misconduct worldwide.

In an early discussion on Armageddon during the special, one man noted that his beliefs stopped him from being friends with "worldly" children, as he believed that those could imminently die once Armageddon came. Another, Nate Quarry, said, "As long as you can understand words, you're being told Armageddon is coming … I had the most horrific nightmares for at least 10 years after leaving the organization."

Believing that those Jehovah's Witnesses who stray from scripture also will not survive Armageddon, followers police each other, panelists said. One means of doing this is "disfellowshipping," or shunning church members who have disobeyed rules that range from adultery to smoking a cigarette; family, friends and church members avoid contact with those who have been disfellowshipped.

Quarry and panelist Sharon Follis noted that they had been disfellowshipped for dating "worldly" partners. Another panelist, Cliff Henderson, was disfellowshipped for having a relationship with a woman while he was depressed. After, he says he made "desperate" attempts to re-contact his family, including showing up at his brother's wedding, where his father rebuffed him. When his mother saw him, she started crying but didn't say a word: "I have to accept that I may never have a relationship with them again, and that hurts," Henderson said.

"The basis of this organization is conditional love," Quarry noted.

The panelists lingered on the topic of suicide, which is forbidden in the church but had touched many of their lives. Panelist Jerry Minor attempted to commit suicide because he thought he was too flawed to survive Armageddon; the mother of another panelist, Shannon Rowland, took her own life after experiencing a long period of depression. Panelists Rick and Sharon Follis, who are siblings, noted that they only reunited with their parents after having left the church at the funeral of a brother who also committed suicide.

The last quarter of the special touched on hot topics that have pervaded news coverage of Jehovah's Witnesses in recent years. The Witnesses' position on blood transfusions — that they are forbidden by scripture — led to the death of Rowland's brother, she says, before he was about to get married. "Imagine finding out the one medical thing you cannot do is what your loved one needs," Rowland said. One panelist noted that a Jehovah's Witnesses publication, Awake!magazine, once published a list of "youths who put God first" by dying instead of accepting a blood transfusion.

The church also believes that women should live in subjection to men, using such fictional justifications as their brains are 10 percent smaller and that their skulls are lighter than men's. The only grounds for divorce within the church is adultery, which, three of the female panelists said, led them to be entrapped in marriages with abusive husbands.

One, Cynthia Hampton, reported the alleged abuse to church elders, only to be told to be more submissive and stop "nagging" her husband. Only when she was able to prove he smoked — forbidden by the church — was she able to separate from him.

Rubio described giving her daughter up for adoption to a congregation member when she was disfellowshipped for getting a secular divorce. "I felt I couldn't let her suffer the consequences of my sins," Rubio said. But her daughter, Mikaysha Soto, who was also on the panel, said that the night she was officially adopted, her adoptive father began molesting her.

The special's final discussion, on the topic of child abuse, especially homed in on the church's "two-witness" rule, which does not allow members to punish a crime unless two people have witnessed it (which is naturally rare in cases of child abuse). Followers are strongly encouraged to handle judicial matters within the church, and pedophiles can be forgiven if they say they're sorry, one panelist noted. Soto was eventually able to prosecute her alleged abuser because a 9-year-old friend of hers said she was also being abused by the man, satisfying the two-witness rule.

At the end of the special, Evans noted, "As a Jehovah's Witness you're taught to look forward to paradise. But you never realize that the paradise is being able to think for yourself." The final sequences showed panelists estranged from family members who are still within the church telling them what they wish they could say in person.

Season three of Scientology and the Aftermath will examine the church's tax-exempt status and vast resources that enable its organization. The series will return Nov. 27 at 9 p.m. on A&E, with eight new episodes and four specials.

Jonestown survivors lost only life they knew, built new ones

November 14, 2018

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Jonestown was the highlight of Mike Touchette’s life — for a time.

The 21-year-old Indiana native felt pride pioneering in the distant jungle of Guyana, South America. As a self-taught bulldozer operator, he worked alongside other Peoples Temple members in the humid heat, his blade carving roads and sites for wooden buildings with metal roofs. More than 900 people lived in the agricultural mission, with its dining pavilion, tidy cottages, school, medical facilities and rows of crops.

“We built a community out of nothing in four years,” recalled Touchette, now a 65-year-old grandfather who has worked for a Miami hydraulics company for nearly 30 years. “Being in Jonestown before Jim got there was the best thing in my life.”

Jim was the Rev. Jim Jones — charismatic, volatile and ultimately evil. It was he who dreamed up Jonestown, he who willed it into being, and he who brought it down: First, with the assassination of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan and four others by temple members on a nearby airstrip on Nov. 18, 1978, then with the mass murders and suicides of hundreds, a horror that remains nearly unimaginable 40 years later.

But some lived. Dozens of members in Guyana slipped out of Jonestown or happened to be away that day. Plunged into a new world, those raised in the temple or who joined as teens lost the only life they knew: church, jobs, housing — and most of all, family and friends.

Over four decades, as they have built new lives, they have struggled with grief and the feeling that they were pariahs. Some have come to acknowledge that they helped enable Jim Jones to seize control over people drawn to his interracial church, socialist preaching and religious hucksterism.

With their lives, the story of Jonestown continues, even now.


Jordan Vilchez’s parents were Berkeley progressives in the 1960s — her father African-American, her mother Scotch-Irish. They divorced when Jordan was 6.

When a friend invited her family to Peoples Temple’s wine country church, they were impressed by the integrated community. And when her 23-year-old sister joined, Jordan went to live with her at age 12.

“The temple really became my family,” she said.

Devotion to its ideals bolstered her self-worth. At 16, she was put on the Planning Commission where the meetings were a strange mix of church business, sex talk — and adulation for Jones. “What we were calling the cause really was Jim,” she said.

Instead of finishing high school, Vilchez moved to San Francisco, where she lived in the church. Then, after a 1977 New West magazine expose of temple disciplinary beatings and other abuses, she was sent to Jonestown.

Grueling field work was not to her liking. Neither were the White Nights where everyone stayed up, armed with machetes to fight enemies who never arrived.

Vilchez was dispatched to the Guyanan capital of Georgetown to raise money. On Nov. 18 she was at the temple house when a fanatical Jones aide received a dire radio message from Jonestown. The murders and suicides were unfolding, 150 miles away.

“She gives us the order that were supposed to kill ourselves,” Vilchez recalled.

Within minutes, the aide and her three children lay dead in a bloody bathroom, their throats slit.

For years, Vilchez was ashamed of the part he played in an idealistic group that imploded so terribly. “Everyone participated in it and because of that, it went as far as it did,” she said.

Vilchez worked as office manager at a private crime lab for 20 years and now, at 61, sells her artwork.

This past year, she returned to long-overgrown Jonestown. Where the machine shop once stood, there was only rusty equipment. And she could only sense the site of the pavilion, the once-vibrant center of Jonestown life where so many died — including her two sisters and two nephews.

“When I left at 21, I left a part of myself there,” she said. “I was going back to retrieve that young person and also to say goodbye.”


Though he waved and smiled at Peoples Temple services, seemingly enraptured like the rest, Stephan Gandhi Jones says he always had his doubts.

“This is really crazy,” he recalls thinking.

But Stephan was the biological son of Jim and Marceline Jones. And the temple was his life — first in Indiana, later in California.

“So much was attractive and unique that we turned a blind eye on what was wrong,” he said, including his father’s sexual excesses, drug abuse and rants.

As a San Francisco high school student, he was dispatched to help build Jonestown. It would become a little town where people of all ages and colors raised food and children.

Stephan helped erect a basketball court and form a team. In the days before Ryan’s fact-finding mission to the settlement, the players were in Georgetown for a tourney with the Guyana national teams.

Rebelling, they refused Jones’ order to come back. Stephan believed he was too cowardly to follow through with the oft-threatened “revolutionary suicide.”

But after temple gunmen killed the congressman, three newsmen and a church defector on the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jones ordered a poisoned grape-flavored drink administered to children first. That way no one else would want to live.

Stephan Jones and some other team members believe they might have changed history if they were there. “The reality was we were folks who could be counted on to stand up,” he said. “There is no way we would be shooting at the airstrip. That’s what triggered it.”

He went through years of nightmares, mourning and shame. To cope, he says he abused drugs and exercised obsessively. “I focused my rage on Dad and his circle, rather than deal with me,” he said.

More than 300 Jonestown victims were children. Now, Stephan Jones is father of three daughters, ages 16, 25 and 29, and works in the office furniture installation business.

He says his daughters have seen him gnash his teeth when he talks about his father, but they also have heard him speak lovingly of the man who taught him compassion and other virtues.

“People ask, ‘How can you ever be proud of your father?’” he said. “I just have to love him and forgive him.”


Eugene Smith recalls how his mother, a churchgoing African-American, bought into Jim Jones’ dream after they attended a service in Fresno. She gave her house to the Peoples Temple and they moved to San Francisco.

He was 18 and running a temple construction crew when the church sanctioned his marriage to a talented 16-year-old singer, Ollie Wideman. After Ollie became pregnant, she was sent to Jonestown; Eugene remained behind.

When Smith reunited with his mother and wife in Jonestown, Ollie was 8½ months pregnant.

The reunion with Jones was not as joyous. Jones berated three other new arrivals for misbehavior on the trip; they were beaten and forced to work 24 hours straight.

“He made a promise — once we get to Jonestown there is no corporal punishment,” Smith said. “In an hour, that promise was broken.”

Life became more tolerable after the couple’s baby, Martin Luther Smith, was born. Ollie worked in the nursery, and Eugene felled trees. But he said his discontent festered.

When he was ordered to Georgetown to help with supply shipments, Smith said he concocted an escape plan: Ollie and other temple singers and dancers, he believed, would soon be sent to Georgetown to perform, and the family would flee to the U.S. Embassy.

But the entertainers stayed in Jonestown to entertain Ryan. And Smith’s wife, son and mother died.

“All I could do is weep,” he said.

After more than 22 years at California’s transportation department, Smith retired in 2015. He’s 61 now. He’s never remarried, and Martin Luther Smith was his only child.


When John Cobb was born in 1960 in a black section of Indianapolis, his mother and older siblings already were temple members. But in 1973, John’s oldest brother and a sister, along with six other California college students, quit the church and became its enemies. When the prodigals visited, the Cobbs kept it secret from Jones.

John was attending a San Francisco high school when he was allowed to join his best friends in Jonestown. There, as part of Jones’ personal security detail, Cobb saw the once captivating minister strung out on drugs, afraid to venture anywhere for fear of his legal problems.

“If anything, we felt pity for him,” he said, “and it grew into a dislike, maybe hate.”

He too was a member of the basketball team. His biggest regrets revolve around the team’s refusal to return to Jonestown. “I believe 100 percent that not everyone would have been dead,” he said.

Cobb lost 11 relatives that day, including his mother, youngest brother and four sisters.

Now 58, he owns a modular office furniture business in the East Bay and is married with a daughter. 29. One day, when she was in high school, she came home and told her parents that her religion class had discussed Peoples Temple; only then did her father share the story of how his family was nearly wiped out.

She wept.


The Joneses adopted a black baby in Indiana in 1960, and Jim gave the 10-week-old infant his own name. “Little Jimmy” became part of their “Rainbow Family” of white, black, Korean-American and Native American children.

In California, he was steeped in temple life. Those who broke rules were disciplined. At first it was spanking of children. Then it was boxing matches for adults.

“To me the ends justified the means,” he said. “We were trying to build a new world, a progressive socialist organization.”

The church provided free drug rehabilitation, medical care, food. It marched for four jailed Fresno newsmen. When Jim Sr., a local Democratic Party darling, met with future first lady Rosalyn Carter, Jim Jr. proudly went along.

After the temple exodus to Guyana, he was given a public relations post in Georgetown — and was part of the basketball team.

He was summoned to the temple radio room. In code, his father told him everyone was going to die in “revolutionary suicide.”

“I argued with my Dad,” he said. “I said there must be another way.”

Jim Jr. would lose 15 immediate relatives in Jonestown, including his pregnant wife, Yvette Muldrow.

In the aftermath, he built a new life. He remarried three decades ago, and he and his wife Erin raised three sons. He converted to Catholicism and registered Republican. He built a long career in health care, while weathering his own serious health problems.

Of course, even if he wanted to forget Jonestown, his name was an ever-present reminder.

He has taken a lead role in a 40th Jonestown anniversary memorial to be held Sunday at Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery, where remains of unclaimed and unidentified victims are buried. Four granite slabs are etched with names of the 918 people who died in Guyana— including James Warren Jones, which deeply offends some whose relatives perished.

“Like everyone else, he died there,” his son said. “I’m not saying he didn’t cause it, create it. He did.”


Tim Reiterman, AP environment team editor, covered Jonestown for the San Francisco Examiner and was wounded when temple members fired on Rep. Leo Ryan’s party in 1978. He is the author with the late John Jacobs of “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People.”

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Nov 13, 2018

Bizarre Korean cult leader jets into Harare

Mandla Ndlovu
November 13, 2018

Hak Ja Moon, the Leader of a Korean cult, The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, is landing at the National Sports Stadium in Harare on the 21st of November to advance her bizarre beliefs that have drawn worldwide condemnation over the years.

Hak is coming under the guise of healing the wounds of the past and to support the Zimbabwean government's endeavours for peace and reconciliation.

The Moon cult has lined up music heavyweights such as Oliver Mtukudzi, Mathias Mhere, Minister Mahendere and Hope Masike among others to offer entertainment during the event which they have dubbed; Peace and Family Festival.
In Zimbabwe, the movement is led by Reverand Bosako Iyolangomo.

Pastor Scotch from Christ the Saviour Ministries spoke to Bulawayo24 and said,"This is very worrying that a time when we are supposed to seek the face of the one true God, we are seeing our country being invaded by strange people of bizarre beliefs. This woman and her late husband have all over the years taught a strange doctrine about our Lord Jesus Christ and they claim they are the physical parents of all humanity. 

"If our government allows this woman to come and preach her doctrine and cement it in Zimbabwe using her money that she is flashing around, we are bound to see God reacting by deserting our country. 

"I am even shocked at how this woman got seriously known Christians like Minister Mahendere and Mathias Mhere to be part of her event. 

Hak is the second wife of Sun Myung Moon the late Founder of the Unification Movement.

The Unification movement believes that God s original intent was for Jesus to form a perfect marriage in order to redeem humanity and undo the harm perpetrated by Adam and Eve.

Because Jesus (the second Adam) was executed before accomplishing his mission, a third Adam was needed to form this perfect marriage and complete Jesus'  task. This third Adam would be recognized as the second coming of Christ. As the perfect man, he would marry the perfect woman and become the true spiritual parents of humankind. 

Members of the Unification Church regard Moon and his second wife, Hak Ja Moon, as these True Parents. Married couples and their families within the movement are regarded as the True Children and linked to God through the True Parents.

He was a KKK member, then a neo-Nazi: How one white supremacist renounced hate

Filmmaker Deeyah Khan interviewed Ken Parker for her documentary, "White Right: Meeting the Enemy." (Photo: Fuuse Films)
Filmmaker Deeyah Khan interviewed Ken Parker for her documentary,
 "White Right: Meeting the Enemy." (Photo: Fuuse Films)
Monica Rhor
November 1, 2018

For years, Ken Parker lived in a world of bigotry and hate.

He wore the green robes of a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. He stood at lecterns and shouted racist catchphrases. He posed shirtless in a photo posted on Facebook, a swastika tattoo on his chest and a gun cradled in his arm.

He paid $30 to ride in a 15-person van from Jacksonville, Florida, to Charlottesville, Virginia, for the 2017 Unite the Right rally, where he marched as part of the National Socialist Movement contingent. They spit out slurs and anti-Semitic slogans, clashed with counterprotesters and celebrated the violence and chaos.

When a neo-Nazi plowed into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer, who was there to stand against white nationalists, Parker and his crew were in a parking garage about a mile away, giddy over what they saw as a victorious day.

Parker was immersed in white supremacist ideology, radicalized by a steady diet of racist propaganda. Like Dylann Roof, who killed nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Like Robert Bowers, who police said gunned down 11 Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Hate crimes leave grieving families and terrorized communities – from the Muslims whose Texas mosque was burned to the ground to the Indian-born immigrant gunned down in a Kansas bar to the two African-Americans killed last week in a Kentucky Kroger grocery store.

After Charlottesville, something shifted inside Parker. He began to turn away from hate and toward the people he once might have targeted.

Why did Parker change? And how was the U.S. Navy veteran, who said he grew up in a “good Christian” family outside Chicago, drawn to hate groups in the first place?

The answers offer insight into the dynamics feeding the spread of right-wing extremism.

Need, narrative, network

In many ways, Parker was the perfect recruit for the hate movement.

After serving in the Navy for 11 years, he floundered. Scuffling to find a job in a bad economy. Trapped in a crumbling marriage. Seething about demographic changes that seemed to leave him behind.

One rainy night in early 2012, as he and his now-ex-wife shuffled through shows on Netflix, they stumbled on programs about neo-Nazi skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan.

As they watched the show about the KKK, the oldest hate group in the country, his wife turned to him. "You should look them up," she said, according to Parker. "They seem right up your alley."

Parker reached out to Klan groups he found through an online search and got a call within 15 minutes from the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. At first, he bristled at the anti-Semitic rhetoric the members tossed around, thinking it conflicted with the Christian teachings he had grown up with.

“Within six months, I was head over heels,” said Parker, 38. “I was looking through my Bible just to put down Jewish people.”

Parker’s path is an almost textbook example of how hate group members are radicalized.

They often feel “less than,” searching for someone to blame, for some place to direct their rage, said Tony McAleer, a former leader of the White Aryan Resistance and co-founder of Life After Hate, which helps people leave hate groups.

Parker felt lost without the camaraderie and rank structure of the military – and even more alone after his marriage collapsed and his wife left him.

Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland who has studied extremists around the world, calls that dynamic the three N’s: need, narrative and network.

The “need” is a basic human “quest to matter, to be somebody, to have respect,” Kruglanski said.

In some cases, that need for significance leads people to good deeds; in others, it leads to violent means. The deciding factor, Kruglanski explained, is the narrative to which they are exposed.

“If you’re exposed to a narrative that the way to attain significance is by contributing to society and helping others, then you would follow that particular course of action,” Kruglanski said. “However, if you're exposed to a narrative that tells you the way to do it is through violence, through fighting the enemy of your group or the enemy of your culture, then that is what you are going to do.”

The third “N” refers to network – the community that rewards behavior and dispenses adulation and recognition.

In the 1980s, when McAleer first joined a group of racist skinheads as a student in England, it took months, sometimes years, for someone to be radicalized. They had to order books and material promoting racist beliefs through the mail and look for places to meet in person. Now, someone like Roof, whose descent into hate began with a Google search, can binge on white nationalism through YouTube videos and online forums such as 4chan.

Once in the KKK, Parker was further indoctrinated through weekly “Klan class,” a Bible study that used Scripture to advance racist beliefs, and a Klan website and chat room.

He attended his first Klan rally in May 2012, months after his first contact. Soon, he had risen to the rank of grand dragon, a reward for recruiting other members.

After four years with the KKK, Parker broke away from the organization. Not because he had renounced racist beliefs but because of a woman, who is now his fiancee, whom he met at a cross-burning. The Klan disapproved of her because she associated with black people.

“I said, screw you,” Parker recalled. “That’s how I became a Nazi.”
The rise of 'White Power'

In video footage, Parker stands at a lectern, wearing the black “battle dress” uniform of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in this country. Behind him, Confederate flags rustle in the breeze.

He rails against Muslims, refugees and Mexican immigrants and vows to “stop at nothing” to wipe out those groups. He flings his arm out in a Sieg Heil salute and chants, “White Power.”

The NSM, which has roots in the original American Nazi Party, espouses violent anti-Jewish rhetoric and warns of a “white genocide."

The country's demographic changes are part of standard white supremacist talking points. Combined with easy online access to racist propaganda, it is what experts who track extremism call a perfect formula for the spread of hate.

“When these talking points slip into political debate, it lends legitimacy to it,“ said Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “People get sucked into the echo chamber.”

The alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who blamed Jews for the caravan of asylum seekers making its way north through Mexico, called the immigrants “invaders” – echoing descriptions used by President Donald Trump and by pundits on the Fox cable news network.

Parker, who said he did not hear racist beliefs when he was growing up in a churchgoing Baptist family outside Chicago, absorbed the hate disseminated by the NSM on its website and on a radio station run by the neo-Nazi group, where it promotes an “all-white ethno-state.”

He would let loose with racial slurs if someone from a different ethnicity bumped into him in a store. He was furious when the NSM changed its logo from a swastika to the Odal rune, another Nazi symbol the group thought would be more palatable to a mainstream audience.

And he couldn’t wait to get to Unite the Right in Charlottesville.

“I was so pumped up,” Parker said of the white nationalist rally in August 2017. “Everyone was saying that we were going to start a revolution.”

In reality, he realizes, they did not score a victory. Instead, a “bunch of angry white guys got locked up for a long time,” and an innocent woman was killed. “Her mother doesn’t have a daughter,” Parker said. “That is not cool. At all.”

The rally marked a turning point for Parker – through an unlikely encounter with a Muslim filmmaker.

Confronting 'the enemy'

“This is Ken Parker,” Deeyah Khan narrates in her Netflix documentary “White Right: Meeting the Enemy.” “Ken is exactly the kind of person I’ve always been afraid of.”

Khan, a British Norwegian filmmaker who was targeted by racists, went to Charlottesville to try to understand what drove people into hate groups. She found “broken men” who were afraid – afraid of being marginalized by women and minorities, of being emasculated, of their own trauma and weakness.

She found Parker, whom she followed back to his home in Jacksonville, Florida. There, as Khan’s camera rolled, Parker made flyers with anti-Jewish slogans and swastikas that he tossed into front yards.

At first, he laughed and boasted about the hate act, then grew increasingly anxious as Khan questioned him about his actions. He listened as Khan read samples of racist e-mails she had received.

For Parker, who had often spewed the ugliest kind of anti-Muslim taunts, Khan’s compassion and respect were revelatory. Khan, who said she had previously tried to combat fascism with angry demonstrations and in-your-face retorts, described her approach as a necessary way to retain her own humanity.

"I don't believe it's the job of minorities to reform racists or to have to engage with their abusers," Khan said. "When we're confronted with people who hold such ugly views, who act out in such horrible and violent ways, it's hard to hold onto your own humanity. But I refuse to become like them."

On the last day of filming, Parker surprised Khan, the first Muslim person he had ever spent time with, by referring to her as a friend.

“What does this change?” she asked him. “What is this going to do for you moving forward?”

After Khan’s documentary was completed, Parker watched it over and over. By the fifth or sixth viewing, he saw himself and the NSM with new eyes. “I’m like, dude, I look stupid,” he said. “We all look so stupid. This is foolish.”

Shortly after that, Parker and his fiancee struck up a conversation with a neighbor – the pastor of an African-American church. Like Khan, the neighbor treated the couple with kindness, inviting them to Sunday service.

They became regulars at the All Saints Holiness Church, where they were welcomed by the African-American congregation.

At first, Parker could not discard what he saw as the brotherhood of the NSM, and he planned to go to a rally in Georgia.

The night before, he prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance – and decided not to attend the rally. Instead, he sent a resignation e-mail to the National Socialist Movement.

“I could not keep living that lifestyle of hate,” Parker said.

Just as Parker’s journey into the KKK and the NSM illustrates the pull of hate groups, his path out shows how extremists can be deradicalized.

“You have to basically reverse the process,” said Kruglanski, the social psychologist. “You’ve got to convince potential recruits that this movement will not bring significance. It only brings humiliation and ignominy.”

That counter-narrative must come not only from friends, Kruglanski said, but also from public officials and political leaders.

Parker, who rejects the message of hate he once promoted, found a new network. Almost a year after he marched as a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, a few days before he began the process of having his white supremacist tattoos removed, he was baptized in All Saints Holiness Church.

He walked hand-in-hand with his black pastor into the Atlantic Ocean, dipped his head under the water and rose into a new life.

Nov 11, 2018

Terrorists, cultists - or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the MEK

Maryam Rajavi in Tirana, Albania in September 2017. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty
They fought for the Iranian revolution – and then for Saddam Hussein. The US and UK once condemned them. But now their opposition to Tehran has made them favourites of Trump White House hardliners. 

Arron Merat
The Guardian
November 9, 2018

Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi came to Albania to rescue their daughter. But in Tirana, the capital, the middle-aged couple have been followed everywhere by two Albanian intelligence agents. Men in sunglasses trailed them from their hotel on George W Bush Road to their lawyer’s office; from the lawyer’s office to the ministry of internal affairs; and from the ministry back to the hotel.

The Mohammadis say their daughter, Somayeh, is being held against her will by a fringe Iranian revolutionary group that has been exiled to Albania, known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). Widely regarded as a cult, the MEK was once designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and UK, but its opposition to the Iranian government has now earned it the support of powerful hawks in the Trump administration, including national security adviser John Bolton and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Somayeh Mohammadi is one of about 2,300 members of the MEK living inside a heavily fortified base that has been built on 34 hectares of farmland in north-west Albania. Her parents, who were once supporters of the group, say that 21 years ago, Somayeh flew to Iraq to attend a summer camp and to visit her maternal aunt’s grave. She never came back.

The couple have spent the past two decades trying to get their daughter out of the MEK, travelling from their home in Canada to Paris, Jordan, Iraq and now Albania. “We are not against any group or any country,” Mostafa said, sitting outside a meatball restaurant in central Tirana. “We just want to see our daughter outside the camp and without her commanders. She can choose to stay or she can choose to come home with us.” The MEK insists Somayeh does not wish to leave the camp, and has released a letter in which she accuses her father of working for Iranian intelligence.

“Somayeh is a shy girl,” her mother said. “They threaten people like her. She wants to leave but she is scared that they will kill her.”

Since its exile from Iran in the early 1980s, the MEK has been committed to the overthrow of the Islamic republic. But it began in the 1960s as an Islamist-Marxist student militia, which played a decisive role in helping to topple the Shah during the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-American, MEK fighters killed scores of the Shah’s police in often suicidal street battles during the 1970s. The group targeted US-owned hotels, airlines and oil companies, and was responsible for the deaths of six Americans in Iran. “Death to America by blood and bonfire on the lips of every Muslim is the cry of the Iranian people,” went one of its most famous songs. “May America be annihilated.”

Such attacks helped pave the way for the return of the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who quickly identified the MEK as a serious threat to his plan to turn Iran into an Islamic republic under the control of the clergy. The well-armed middle-class guerrillas, although popular among religious students and intellectuals, would prove to be no match for Khomeini’s organisation and ruthlessness.

Following the revolution, Khomeini used the security services, the courts and the media to choke off the MEK’s political support and then crush it entirely. After it fought back, killing more than 70 senior leaders of the Islamic republic – including the president and Iran’s chief justice – in audacious bomb attacks, Khomeini ordered a violent crackdown on MEK members and sympathisers. The survivors fled the country.

Saddam Hussein, who was fighting a bloody war against Iran with the backing of the UK and the US, saw an opportunity to deploy the exiled MEK fighters against the Islamic republic. In 1986, he offered the group weapons, cash and a vast military base named Camp Ashraf, only 50 miles from the border with Iran.

For almost two decades, under their embittered leader Massoud Rajavi, the MEK staged attacks against civilian and military targets across the border in Iran and helped Saddam suppress his own domestic enemies. But after siding with Saddam – who indiscriminately bombed Iranian cities and routinely used chemical weapons in a war that cost a million lives – the MEK lost nearly all the support it had retained inside Iran. Members were now widely regarded as traitors.

Isolated inside its Iraqi base, under Rajavi’s tightening grip, the MEK became cult-like. A report commissioned by the US government, based on interviews within Camp Ashraf, later concluded that the MEK had “many of the typical characteristics of a cult, such as authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labour, sleep deprivation, physical abuse and limited exit options”.

After the US invasion of Iraq, the MEK launched a lavish lobbying campaignto reverse its designation as a terrorist organisation – despite reports implicating the group in assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists as recently as 2012. Rajavi has not been seen since 2003 – most analysts assume he is dead – but under the leadership of his wife, Maryam Rajavi, the MEK has won considerable support from sections of the US and European right, eager for allies in the fight against Tehran.

In 2009, the UK delisted the MEK as a terror group. The Obama administration removed the group from the US terror list in 2012, and later helped negotiate its relocation to Albania.

At the annual “Free Iran” conference that the group stages in Paris each summer, dozens of elected US and UK representatives – along with retired politicians and military officials – openly call for the overthrow of the Islamic republic and the installation of Maryam Rajavi as the leader of Iran. At last year’s Paris rally, the Conservative MP David Amess announced that “regime change … is at long last within our grasp”. At the same event, Bolton – who championed war with Iran long before he joined the Trump administration – announced that he expected the MEK to be in power in Tehran before 2019. “The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself,” he declared.

The main attraction at this year’s Paris conference was another longtime MEK supporter, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now Donald Trump’s lawyer. “The mullahs must go. The ayatollah must go,” he told the crowd. “And they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents.” Giuliani also praised the work of MEK “resistance units” inside Iran, that he credited with stoking a recent wave of protests over the struggling economy. “These protests are not happening by accident,” he said. “They’re being coordinated by many of our people in Albania.” (Giuliani, Bolton and the late John McCain are among the US politicians who have travelled to Albania to show support for the MEK.)

Meanwhile, back in Albania, the MEK is struggling to hold on to its own members, who have begun to defect. The group is also facing increased scrutiny from local media and opposition parties, who question the terms of the deal that brought the MEK fighters to Tirana.

It would be hard to find a serious observer who believes the MEK has the capacity or support within Iran to overthrow the Islamic republic. But the US and UK politicians loudly supporting a tiny revolutionary group stranded in Albania are playing a simpler game: backing the MEK is the easiest way to irritate Tehran. And the MEK, in turn, is only one small part of a wider Trump administration strategy for the Middle East, which aims to isolate and economically strangle Iran.

Before the MEK could become a darling of the American and European right, it had to reinvent itself. Democracy, human rights and secularism would become the group’s new mantra – as its leader, Maryam Rajavi, renounced violence and successfully repositioned an anti-western sect as a pro-American democratic government-in-waiting.

The long march to respectability began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The war toppled Saddam Hussein, the MEK’s patron and protector, but it brought the group into direct contact with US officials – who would soon be looking for additional ammunition against Iran.

The US had designated the MEK as a terrorist group in the late 1990s, as a goodwill gesture toward a new reformist government in Tehran. When George W Bush accused Saddam Hussein of “harbouring terrorists” in a 2002 speech that made the case for invading Iraq, he was actually referring to the MEK. But in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, a row erupted inside the White House over what to do with the 5,000 MEK fighters inside their base at Camp Ashraf.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, argued that the MEK was on the list of terrorist organisations and should be treated as such. But Iran hawks, including then secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and vice-president Dick Cheney, argued that the MEK should be used as a weapon against the Islamic republic – the next target in the neoconservative roadmap for remaking the Middle East. (“Boys go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran,” was their half-joking refrain.)

Rumsfeld’s faction won out. Although the group was still listed as a terrorist organisation, the Pentagon unilaterally designated MEK fighters inside Camp Ashraf as “protected persons” under the Geneva conventions – officially disarmed, but with their security effectively guaranteed by US forces in Iraq. The US was protecting a group it also designated as terrorists.

There is no doubt that US hawks regarded the MEK as a weapon in the fight against Iran: as early as May 2003, the same month that Bush famously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, the New York Times reported that “Pentagon hardliners” were moving to protect the MEK, “and perhaps reconstitute it later as a future opposition organisation in Iran, somewhat along the lines of the US-supported Iraqi opposition under Ahmed Chalabi that preceded the war in Iraq”. In 2003, the Bush administration refused an offer, signed off by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to hand over MEK leaders in Iraq in exchange for members of the military council of al-Qaida and relatives of Osama bin Laden, who had been captured by Iran as they fled Afghanistan after September 11.

As the US occupation of Iraq collapsed into a nightmarish civil war, the American right increasingly blamed Iran for the country’s disintegration. Senior politicians openly called for bombing the Islamic republic, amid growing panic over Iran’s nuclear programme – the existence of which had first been exposed by the MEK in what the BBC called a “propaganda coup” for the group. (Several experts on Israeli intelligence have reported that Mossad passed these documents to the MEK.) By 2007, US news outlets were reporting that Bush had signed a classified directive authorising “covert action” inside Iran.

Between 2007 and 2012, seven Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked with poison or magnetic bombs affixed to moving cars by passing motorcyclists; five were killed. In 2012, NBC news, citing two unnamed US officials, reported that the attacks were planned by Israel’s foreign intelligence agency and executed by MEK agents inside Iran. An MEK spokesperson called this a “false claim … whose main source is the mullahs’ regime”.

It was around this time that the MEK began working to remake its image in the west. Groups associated with the MEK donated to political campaigns, blanketed Washington with advertisements and paid western political influencers fees to pen op-eds and give speeches – and to lobby for its removal from the list of designated terrorist organisations.

A stupendously long list of American politicians from both parties were paid hefty fees to speak at events in favour of the MEK, including Giuliani, John McCain, Newt Gingrich and former Democratic party chairs Edward Rendell and Howard Dean – along with multiple former heads of the FBI and CIA. John Bolton, who has made multiple appearances at events supporting the MEK, is estimated to have received upwards of $180,000. According to financial disclosure forms, Bolton was paid $40,000 for a single appearance at the Free Iran rally in Paris in 2017.

A handful of UK politicians have attended two or more of the MEK’s Paris events in the past three years, including the Conservatives Bob Blackman and Matthew Offord, and the Labour MPs Roger Godsiff and Toby Perkins. The Conservative MP and former minister Theresa Villiers has attended the past two annual Paris events. So has David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West – the MEK’s loudest champion in the UK parliament, who has also travelled to the US to speak at a rally in support of the group. (All of the MPs declined to reply to questions about their attendance.)

The other British attendees at this year’s Paris rally included three peers and five former MPs, including Mike Hancock, who resigned from the Liberal Democrats after admitting inappropriate behaviour with a constituent, and Michelle Thomson, who was forced to resign the SNP whip in 2015 in a controversy over property deals. The former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, was also there, carrying a petition in support of the MEK signed by 75 bishops, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

At this year’s event, flanked by union jacks and “#RegimeChange” signs, Villiers spoke of the importance of women’s rights, “paid tribute” to Maryam Rajavi – who is barred from entering the UK – and pledged support for her “just cause” in seeking to create “an Iran which is free from the brutal repression of the mullahs”. In a carefully stage-managed performance, Rajavi laid flowers and wrote a tribute in an enormous yearbook of MEK martyrs. “The time has come for the regime’s overthrow,” she said. “Victory is certain, and Iran will be free.”

One day after the conference, the MEK accused Tehran of plotting a bomb attack against the event, following the arrest of four suspects – including an unnamed Iranian diplomat – in Belgium, Germany and France. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rejected claims of Iran’s involvement and described the accusations as a “sinister false flag ploy”.

Even as the MEK successfully amassed political allies in the west, its security in Iraq eroded as US troops departed. Between 2009 and 2013, Iraqi security forces raided the MEK base at least twice, killing about 100 people. Nouri al-Maliki, then the prime minister of Iraq – whose ambassador to the US called the group “nothing more than a cult” – insisted it leave the country.

Daniel Benjamin, who was then the head of counter-terrorism at the state department, told me that the US decided to remove the MEK from the list of foreign terrorist organisations not because it believed it had abandoned violence, but to “avoid them all getting killed” if it remained in Iraq. After the MEK was no longer designated a terrorist group, the US was able to convince Albania to accept the 2,700 remaining members – who were brought to Tirana on a series of charter flights between 2014 and 2016.

The group bought up land in Albania and built a new base. But the move from Iraq to the relative safety of Albania has precipitated a wave of defections. Those with means have fled the country to the EU and the US, but around 120 recent MEK escapees remain in Tirana with no right to work or emigrate. I spoke to about a dozen defectors, half of whom are still in Albania, who said that MEK commanders systematically abused members to silence dissent and prevent defections – using torture, solitary confinement, the confiscation of assets and the segregation of families to maintain control over members. In response to these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The individuals who are described as ‘former members’ were being used as part of a demonisation campaign against the MEK.”

The testimony of these recent defectors follows earlier reports from groups such as Human Rights Watch, which reported former members witnessed “beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution and torture that in two cases led to death”.

The MEK grew out of Iran’s Liberation Movement, an Islamic-democratic “loyal opposition” established in 1961 by the supporters of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister ousted in a 1953 coup orchestrated by Britain and the US. The movement called for national sovereignty, freedom of political activity and the separation of mosque and state. The MEK cleaved to these traditions, but responded to the growing repression of the Shah throughout the 1960s and 70s by rejecting nonviolence.

At the time, the MEK, whose members were largely idealistic middle-class students, combined Islamism with Marxist doctrine. They reinterpreted the Qur’anic passages that undergirded their Shia faith as injunctions to socialise the means of production, eliminate the class system and promote the struggles of Iran’s ethnic minorities. Steeped in thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray, they expressed solidarity with national liberation movements in Algeria, Cuba, Palestine and Vietnam. Quoting Lenin’s famous pamphlet, the MEK posed the question: “What Is to Be Done?” “Our answer is straightforward,” the MEK wrote: “Armed struggle.”

Rajavi was among 69 members of the MEK tried in 1972 by a military tribunal for plotting acts of terrorism. “The ruling class is on its deathbed,” he told the tribunal. When the prosecutor interrupted him to ask why he had acquired weapons, Rajavi replied: “To deal with the likes of you.”

Of the 11 members of the MEK central committee tried in 1972, nine were immediately executed and one remained in jail. When Rajavi emerged from prison in 1979, three weeks before the Iranian revolution, he was the undisputed leader of Iran’s most deadly underground rebel group.

The MEK played an important role in the 1979 revolution, seizing the imperial palace and doing much of the fighting to neutralise the police and the army. Two days after the revolution, Massoud Rajavi, who was 30, met the 77-year-old supreme leader. The two did not hit it off. “I met Khomeini,” Rajavi told a journalist in 1981. “He held out his hand for me to kiss, and I refused. Since then, we’ve been enemies.”

Khomeini saw the MEK as a threat to his power, barring Rajavi from running for president and casting his organisation as an enemy of Islam. Armed members of the newly created Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) disrupted MEK events, burned its literature and beat up its members. Without political power, the MEK relied on street protests. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians attended its rallies, which the courts soon banned.

In response, the MEK and the president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was also antagonistic to Khomeini, organised two days of protests across 30 cities – forcing Khomeini to go on television to reiterate the ban. The MEK, he said, were “waging war on God”. Other clerics warned that demonstrators would be shot on sight. On 20 June 1981, the MEK organised a mass protest of half a million people in Tehran, with the aim of triggering a second revolution. The clerics were true to their word: 50 demonstrators were killed, with 200 wounded. Banisadr was removed from office and a wave of executions followed.

Over the following months and years, the violence escalated. Khomeini rounded up thousands of MEK supporters – while his loyalists launched waves of mob violence against MEK members and sympathisers.

By December, the regime had executed 2,500 members of the MEK. The group counter-attacked with a spate of assassinations and suicide bombings against Friday-prayer leaders, revolutionary court judges and members of the IRGC. “I am willing to die to help hasten the coming of the classless society; to keep alive our revolutionary tradition; and to avenge our colleagues murdered by this bloodthirsty, reactionary regime,” wrote one MEK fighter, Ebrahimzadeh, who killed 13 IRGC and Ayatollah Sadduqi, a close advisor to Khomeini, by detonating a hand grenade in a suicide attack in July 1982.

By the mid-1980s, thousands of people labelled as MEK had been executed or killed in street battles by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This was the time when Rajavi accepted Saddam’s offer to fight Iran from the safety of Iraq. Over the next few years, Rajavi launched an “ideological revolution”, banning marriage and enforcing mandatory “eternal” divorce on all members, who were required to separate from their husbands or wives. He married one of the new divorcees, Maryam Azodanlu, who became, in effect, his chief lieutenant and took his name.

For Saddam, the MEK was a useful, but disposable, tool in his war against Iran. The MEK, however, was totally dependent on the Iraqi leader. In addition to cash and arms, he sent Iranian prisoners of war to Rajavi as new recruits. “The whole world was Camp Ashraf,” said Edward Tramado, one of these prisoners, remembering his indoctrination. “Nothing else had any meaning for me,” recalled Tramado, who now lives in Germany. “I was living in a delusional world. Even though I knew I had a mother who was waiting for me, my entire world had become what they had constructed for me.”

In July 1988, six days after the ceasefire that officially ended the Iran-Iraq war, the MEK launched a suicidal mission deep into Iranian territory, dubbed Operation Eternal Light. Once again, Rajavi predicted his actions would spark another revolution. “It will be like an avalanche,” Rajavi told the fighters he was about to send to their deaths. “You don’t need to take anything with you. We will be like fish swimming in a sea of people. They will give you whatever you need.”

The mission would end in a massacre: hapless MEK fighters were lured into an ambush by the Iranian army, which crushed them with minimal effort. One Iranian soldier who took part in the operation recently described it to me. Mehrad, who volunteered in 1987 at the age of 15, recalled that his division, which had fought against Iraqi soldiers on the southern front, was redeployed to the north in July 1988 to repel a new assault from Iraq. His division was sent to a location near the city of Kermanshah, about 111 miles (180km) from the border with Iraq. Mehrad and his fellow soldiers were surprised to hear that enemy soldiers had managed to make such a deep incursion into Iran. “We thought our army had given up,” he said.

When he arrived, Mehrad discovered that the enemy was the MEK – which had been led into a trap. “Their military strategy was very stupid,” he told me. “They just drove down the Tehran highway. It was like if the French army wanted to invade England and they just drove down the motorway from Dover to London.”

“We very quickly killed thousands of them,” Mehrad said. “There were piles of bodies on either side of the road. What was interesting to us was that many of them were women.” Some MEK took cyanide rather than be captured alive. The MEK subsequently claimed that 1,304 of its members were martyred, and another 1,100 returned to Iraq injured.

The survivors were tried on the spot and quickly executed; Mehrad watched as hundreds were hanged at gallows erected in the nearby town of Eslamabad. Khomeini then used the failed invasion as a pretext for the mass execution of thousands of MEK and other leftists in Iranian jails. Amnesty estimates that more than 4,500 people were put to death, and some sources say the numbers were even higher.

Eternal Light marked a major turning point for the MEK. Inside the barbed wire of Camp Ashraf, as the reality of indefinite exile sank in, a traumatised and grief-stricken membership turned against itself under the paranoid leadership of Rajavi. Several former members told me that after the bloody defeat, Massoud Rajavi cast himself as the representative of al-Mahdi, the 12th Imam who was “hidden” in the 9th century and who, according to Iranian Shia, will return alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to the world.

Outside Camp Ashraf, the MEK continued to stage cross-border attacks against Iran, and helped Saddam to crush uprisings against his rule after his defeat by the US in the 1990 Gulf war. In March 1991, Saddam deployed the MEK to help quell the armed Kurdish independence movement in the north. According to the New York Times, Maryam Rajavi told her fighters: “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian revolutionary guards.” The MEK vehemently denies it participated in Saddam’s campaigns to put down the Shia and Kurdish rebellions, but an Iraqi human rights tribunal has indicted MEK leaders for their role in suppressing the uprisings.

Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government’s high representative in London, was a fighter for the Kurdish peshmerga in 1991. He told me that he remembers how the MEK arrived in the town of Kalar, about 93 miles (150km) south-east of Kirkuk, just after Saddam had lost control of the north of Iraq after the first Gulf war. “They came in Saddam’s tanks,” he said. “We thought they were returning peshmerga because the tanks were covered with portraits of Kurdish leaders … but they opened fire on the town … It was a big atrocity.”

In the next decade, the MEK continued to fight against Iran. In 1992, the group launched concurrent attacks on Iranian diplomatic missions in 10 countries, including Iran’s permanent mission to the UN in New York, which was invaded by five men with knives. The MEK also settled more personal scores. In 1998, an assassin killed Asadollah Lajevardi, the former warden of Evin prison who had personally overseen the executions of thousands of MEK members.

Back at Camp Ashraf, commanders would tell wavering members that if they escaped, they would face certain death at the hands of either Saddam or the Iranian authorities. “We were far away from the world,” one member, who only escaped the MEK after the move to Albania, told me. “We had no information. No television, no radio.” Instead, within the camp, they had “Mojahedin television”, which consisted of looped speeches by Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, played “all day long”.

Rajavi told his followers that the failure of Eternal Light was not a military blunder, but was instead rooted in the members’ thoughts for their spouses; their love had sapped their will to fight. In 1990, all couples inside the camp were ordered to divorce – and women had their wedding rings replaced by pendants engraved with Massoud’s face. Spouses were separated, and their children were sent to be “adopted” by MEK supporters in Europe.

MEK commanders demanded that all members publicly reveal any errant sexual thoughts. Manouchelur Abdi, a 55-year-old who also left the MEK in Albania, told me that the confession sessions used to take place every morning. Even feelings of love and friendship were outlawed, he says. “I would have to confess that I missed my daughter,” he says. “They would shout at me. They would humiliate me. They would say that my family was the enemy and missing them was strengthening the hand of the mullahs in Tehran.”

Another recent defector, Ali (not his real name) showed me scars on his arms and legs from what he described as weeks of torture after he first joined the group in the early 1990s, including cigarette burns on his arms. When it was over, he said, he was taken to Baghdad to meet the leader. “They took us into a big hall. Massoud Rajavi was sitting there with a group of women,” Ali recalled. “[Rajavi said] ‘If any of you say one word to any one … One word, if any of this is exposed, reaches anyone else’s ears, or if you talk about leaving, you’ll be delivered to [Saddam’s] intelligence service immediately.’”

Batoul Soltani joined the MEK in 1986 with her husband and infant daughter. At first, her family was able to live together, but in 1990, she says she was forced to divorce and give up her five-year-old daughter and newborn son, who were sent abroad to be raised by MEK sympathisers. Soltani alleges that she was forced to have sex with Massoud Rajavi on multiple occasions, beginning in 1999. She says that the last assault was in 2006, the year that she escaped from Camp Ashraf and a time when Rajavi had not been seen in public for three years. When we spoke recently, Soltani accused Maryam Rajavi of helping Massoud to abuse female MEK members over the years. “[Massoud] Rajavi thought that the only achilles heel [for female fighters] was the opposite sex,” Soltani told me. “He would say that the only reason you women would leave me is a man. So, I want all of your hearts.”

Soltani, who was one of three women to speak about sexual abuse inside the MEK in a 2014 documentary aired on Iranian television, alleged that Rajavi had hundreds of “wives” inside the camp.

Another former female member, Zahra Moini, who served as a bodyguard for Maryam Rajavi, told me that women were threatened with punishment if they did not divorce their husbands and “marry” Massoud. “Maryam was involved in this sexual abuse, she used to read the vows to allow for the marriage to be consummated,” Moini said, in a telephone interview from Germany.

“Those who didn’t accept to marry would be disappeared. I was told that if I didn’t divorce [my husband], I would end up in Ramadi prison and I would have to sleep with the Iraqi generals every night.” (In response to questions about these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The mullahs’ propaganda machine has been churning out sexual libels against the resistance and its leader for the past 40 years.”)

Two other female defectors, Zahra Bagheri and Fereshteh Hedayati, have alleged that they were given hysterectomies without their consent in the Camp Ashraf hospital, under the pretext they were being operated on for minor ailments. In the eccentric ideological language of the group, the women say the procedure was retrospectively justified to victims as representing “the peak” of loyalty to their leader.

Hedayati, who survived the massacres of Operation Eternal Light, joined the MEK as a 22-year-old in 1981 with her husband, who is still inside the group. “They said I had a cyst,” she told me. “But they also took out my womb. They told me that it meant that I had an even stronger connection to our ideological leader.” Hedayati, who left the group in Iraq and now lives in Norway, says she was never sexually abused, but was “brainwashed” by the group into divorcing her husband, and alleges that more than 100 other women were sterilised by MEK doctors. “I always ask myself why they did this to us,” Bagheri said. “Of course, to take away our futures.”

Between an escape attempt in 2001 and her exit from the MEK in 2013, Hedayati says she was subject to extraordinarily harsh treatment by her commanders. “They said I was a lesbian,” she says. “They spat on me, they beat me, they locked me up. I was put in jail, in solitary confinement.”

Albania ostensibly accepted the MEK members for humanitarian reasons – but the country’s leaders may have seen an opportunity to curry favour with the US government, which had seen its offers rejected by various other European states. “They were the only ones who would take them,” the former state department official Daniel Benjamin has said.

Olsi Jazexhi, a professor of history at the University of Durres critical of the government’s decision to accept the MEK fighters, says that Albanian politicians hoped the deal would lead the US to turn a blind eye to their own corruption. “The MEK is a card which gives them leverage with the United States,” he said. “They think that by taking the MEK, the Americans will leave their business alone.” (A secret US state department cable from 2009, published by WikiLeaks, said that the country’s three major parties “all have MPs with links to organised crime … Conventional wisdom, backed by other reporting, is that the new parliament has quite a few drug traffickers and money launderers.”)

For the Trump administration, the MEK is a valuable asset in the escalating regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This summer, Trump abruptly pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and announced new sanctions, triggering a currency collapse and four months of sporadic protests across Iran. The US has reimposed tough sanctions this week, targeting Iranian oil exports and banking. But Trump’s Middle East strategy has come under new scrutiny after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul – which has sparked a backlash against the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his allies in the Trump administration.

For most of its life in exile, the MEK was funded by Saddam. After his downfall, the group says it raised money from Iranian diaspora organisations and individual donors. The MEK has always denied it is financed by Saudi Arabia – but the former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, made waves when he attended the group’s 2016 rally in Paris and called for the fall of the Iranian regime.

“The money definitely comes from Saudis,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a professor at the City University of New York and author of the definitive academic work on the group’s history, The Iranian Mojahedin. “There is no one else who could be subsidising them with this level of finance.”

Analysts agree that the MEK lacks the capacity or support to overthrow the Iranian government – as even Bolton and Pompeo would surely concede. “They are probably smart enough to know that this group is not democratic and anyway has no constituency inside Iran,” said Paul Pillar, who served in the CIA for 28 years, including a period as the agency’s senior counter-terrorism analyst. Trump and his Iran hawks, Pillar said, are not concerned with replacing the current regime so much as causing it to crumble. “They are pursuing anything that would disrupt the political order in Iran so they and the president can cite such an outcome as a supposed victory no matter what comes afterwards.”

According to one recent MEK defector, Hassan Heyrani, the group’s main work in Albania involves fighting online in an escalating information war between Iran and its rivals. Heyrani, who left the MEK last summer, says that he worked in a “troll farm” of 1,000 people inside the Albanian camp, posting pro-Rajavi and anti-Iran propaganda in English, Farsi and Arabic on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and newspaper comment sections.

“We worked from morning to night with fake accounts,” he says. “We had orders daily that the commanders would read for us. ‘It is your duty to promote this senator, this politician, or journalist writing against Iran’ and we would say ‘Thank you, the Iranian people support you and Maryam Rajavi is the rightful leader’, but if there was a negative story on the MEK, we would post ‘You are the mercenaries of the Iranian regime, you are not the voice of the Iranian people, you don’t want freedom for Iran’.” An MEK spokesperson called these allegations “another lie” made up to support the Iranian foreign ministry.

According to Marc Owen Jones, an academic who studies political bots on social media, “thousands” of suspicious Twitter accounts emerged in early 2016 with “Iran” as their location and “human rights” in their description or account name, which posted in support of Trump and the MEK. These accounts, says Jones, were created in batches and would promote Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric using the hashtags #IranRegimeChange, #FreeIran and #IstandwithMaryamRajavi.

Albanian journalists say that the MEK, which has close contacts with senior politicians and the security services, operates with impunity within Albania. Ylli Zyla, who served as head of Albanian military intelligence from 2008 to 2012, accused the MEK of violating Albanian law. “Members of this organisation live in Albania as hostages,” he told me. Its camp, he said, was beyond the jurisdiction of Albanian police and “extraordinary psychological violence and threats of murder” took place inside.

Former members accuse the MEK of responsibility for the death in June of Malek Shara’i, a senior commander who was found drowned by police divers at bottom of a reservoir behind the group’s Albanian base. Shara’i’s sister, Zahra Shara’i, said that his family had received news from former members that Malek was about to escape, and says the MEK was responsible for his death. “I am their enemy and I will not rest until I get my revenge,” she told the Guardian from Iran. The MEK said that Shara’i drowned while attempting to save another member from drowning. The Albanian police said the death was not suspicious.

While defectors with private means have been smuggled out of the country into the EU, many former members live hand-to-mouth in Tirana. The Albanian state has not granted refugee rights to the MEK or its defectors, and a UN monthly stipend of 30,000 lek (£215) lapsed on 1 September. “They’re stuck,” says Jazexhi, who has worked to support the defectors. “They don’t know the languages, they don’t know the laws, they don’t know what democracy is. They are used to dictators. We tell them that they shouldn’t be afraid.”

Migena Balla, the lawyer representing Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi, the couple in Tirana fighting for the release of their daughter Somayeh, believes that pressure has been put to bear on both the police and the judiciary to ensure the MEK does not “create political problems”. “Politics is interfering in the judicial system,” she says. “When I went to the police station to register their complaint the police officers actually ran away. They are scared of losing their jobs.”

The MEK has not taken kindly to the presence of the Mohammadis in Albania. They accuse Mostafa – and any former member who has spoken out against the MEK – of being a paid agent of the “mullah regime”. On 27 July, Mostafa was hospitalised following an assault by four senior members of the MEK, which was captured on video by his wife. The attackers, who shouted “Terrorist!” at Mohammadi, were briefly detained by Albanian police. But, after a phalanx of MEK members arrived at the police station, the men were promptly released.

The MEK has published letters, purportedly written by Somayeh, accusing her father of being an Iranian intelligence agent. A nervous-looking Somayeh recently gave a video interview inside the MEK base saying that she wishes to remain a member of the group.

The Mohammadis have responded with open letters to their daughter and to Albanian politicians, calling for an unsupervised meeting with their daughter. “I am your mother Mahboubeh Robabe Hamza and I want to meet with you,” Robabe wrote to Somayeh. “I am the woman who fed you at my breast, I held you in the crook of my arm. You are my flesh and blood … I love you more than my life … I’m getting old, I am getting tired, but life is not worth living without seeing you.”

Arron Merat was a Tehran correspondent for the Economist between 2011 and 2014. He has covered Iran for the Guardian, the Sunday Times and Vice News. He tweets at @a_merat