"We know where you live"

Working for a western magazine in Iran, Maziar Bahari finds that he has acquired some surprisingly c

I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I met Mr Mohammadi. In fact I met three Mr Mohammadis in four days. Mohammadi is the nickname of choice for the agents of Iran's ministry of intelligence - the country's equivalent of the CIA. They have other nicknames as well, most of which are variations on the names of Shia imams such as Alavi, Hassani and Hosseini. I guess the names don't indicate a rank or anything (I have to guess, because Mr Mohammadi doesn't tell you much. He asks the questions).

Mr Mohammadi is responsible for the security of Iran. That includes protecting the values of its government. It's a tough job. It's like being in charge of Britney Spears's public image. The values change so often that the officials who put former colleagues on trial today are careful not to be incarcerated by the same people tomorrow (who may well have jailed them in the past). Mr Mohammadi's job is to keep the integrity of the regime intact and to stop those who plan to undermine the holy system of the Islamic Republic. But what does undermining mean? And what if it is the government that is doing the undermining (as it does constantly)? These questions seem to puzzle Mr Mohammadi. So he is more than a little paranoid and edgy these days. When he calls you for questioning, you don't know if he's going to charge you with something or seek your advice.

These days, Mr Mohammadi's main concern is that the American fifth column, disguised as civil rights activists, scholars and journalists, is destabilising the Islamic Republic. The US government has, after all, allocated $75m to promote "democracy" in Iran. It is also giving $63bn in military aid to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel to "counter Iran". The US would love to have agents in the country to take the money and spend it wisely. There are so many social and economic problems in Iran, that if someone wanted to exploit them to create dissent it wouldn't be difficult to do so. But most activists I know inside Iran wouldn't touch the money with a bargepole and resent the American government much more than their own. In the meantime, the Iranian government tries to find foreign perpetrators and domestic accomplices instead of solving the root causes of dissent, such as mismanagement of the country's economy, poverty, internal migration and drug addiction.

In the 1980s and 1990s, intelligence agents were rough and scary, but nowadays they politely call you for tea at some fancy hotel or other to question you. I never understood their fascination with hotels. Why can't you just meet them in their offices? Or why don't they come to your office? Anyway, when you enter the hotel room you are offered a range of non-alcoholic drinks. Mr Mohammadi is very generous with his beverages. As soon as you finish your tea you are offered Nescafé, then some kind of juice, then Fanta, Pepsi, etc. But he never offers anything solid. Why can you drink tea while being asked about plots against the government but not have a biscuit? Does an interrogation over a kebab lunch make it less trustworthy?

Hotels and beverages

These questions pop into your head while you're enjoying the comfort of not being in Mr Mohammadi's presence. He has killed many people in the past. And you know that he is capable of violence again if he thinks it necessary. Mr Mohammadi's counterparts in the numerous parallel security apparatuses (intelligence units of the judiciary, Revolutionary Guard and the police) still have not caught up with his methods. Recently a number of students and labour activists were arrested and instead of being offered tea or Nescafé they spent days in solitary confinement and were beaten with electric cables and batons. But Mr Mohammadi's ministry of intelligence is supposed to be the main agency. It is certainly the most professional, and polite.

I met the three different Mr Mohammadis while on assignment for Newsweek magazine. I was writing an article about the suppression of civil society and civil rights activists in Iran.

Day one: I've set up an appointment with a teachers' union leader at a cafe. I am supposed to meet him after an exam at the high school where he teaches. The teacher doesn't show up on time. I wait for an hour. Even by Iranian standards he is late. I call him on his mobile but it is off. Strange. He was so keen to talk the day before, so what has happened? I then get a call from his mobile.

"Who is that?" the caller asks. It is not the teacher. "I'm Bahari from Newsweek." "News what?" "Week." "So you're a journalist. Will call later." I learn that the teacher was arrested during the exam and sent to prison. An hour later I get a call from a "private number". It is a new voice. He is much more pleasant. "Could you come to the . . . Hotel at three this afternoon?" asks Mr Mohammadi. It's been a while since I've been summoned. Naturally I oblige.

Mr Mohammadi has become more polite, cordial and strangely reassuring. He sneaks a smile when I ask him, "Why am I summoned here?" He used to give me an angry look that would mean he was the one in charge. He begins by asking simple questions about me and my work: who am I? How long have I worked for News week? Why did I want to meet the teacher? Have I ever met him before? What is the angle of my story? Easy questions to answer. Mr Mohammadi is quite relaxed. He scribbles in his notebook while I talk and every now and then exchanges a smile with me. There's nothing remotely amusing about what I'm saying, but Mr Mohammadi keeps smiling. That makes me think: what is so interesting about the banality I'm spewing here? Is he really taking notes or is he doodling a fish? Is it a dead fish? When is he going to let me out of here? Is he going to let me out of here?

I get tired of talking after a while. Then, like Muhammad Ali in the seventh round of his fight with George Foreman, Mr Mohammadi snaps and starts to challenge me. He keeps on smiling. I wish he wouldn't. Why do I think an American publication is interested in talking to Iranian dissidents? Was I given a list of questions by American paymasters to ask the dissidents? Have I ever been to any conferences in the US or Europe? Have I ever met any dissidents in Europe or the US? How did I come to be chosen as Newsweek's correspondent in Iran and not someone else? Mr Mohammadi is now targeting my integrity as a journalist, explicitly trying to make a connection between me and a dissident, suggesting that we both work as agents of the Great Satan and that we are part of a bigger plot to topple the Islamic government.

Half-hearted interrogation

If this session had been with previous Mr Mohammadis a few years ago, I would be scared of a pending trial and imprisonment for something I had never done - a destiny that befell many of my friends and colleagues. But what makes this Mr Mohammadi tolerable is his half-hearted approach to the whole thing. His expression is not a grin or a smirk. He almost feels sorry for himself and asks for your sympathy. He looks genuinely confused and somehow out of his depth. His bosses have come up with a conspiracy theory and asked Mr Mohammadi to validate it. He is a smart man and has been down this road many times since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It's never worked in the past and he really doesn't think it will work now. Mr Mohammadi knows that he's wasting his time and mine. He knows that his government should reform itself if it wants to survive. As the former minister of intelligence, Ali Yunesi, (who was removed from office by the current president) put it the other day: "Transforming the opposition into our supporters should be the main security strategy of the government, but unfortunately these days we not only fail to do that, but change our supporters into the opposition."

But a job is a job. And Mr Mohammadi has to pay rent and put food on his family's table. He wraps up our session with a few farewell sentences that all other Mohammadis use: "I hope you don't think it's personal. There are people who want to take advantage of your good intentions. We just want to protect you." And then the punchline: "We know where you live."

Day two: I'm meeting a labour union activist. I've set up an appointment with him for 3pm. I'm supposed to see him after he's found out the nature of the charges against him in an upcoming trial at the Revolutionary Courts headquarters. The activist is late for our appointment. I try to contact him, with no success. I call a friend of his: the activist has been arrested.

When I get home, a friend calls me from London and says that I've been accused of being an intelligence agent. Earlier this year, I made a film for the BBC about the MEK, an Iranian terrorist group that opposes the Islamic government. The film exposed the group's cult-like aspects and its collaboration with Saddam Hussein and the Americans. In the film, we also showed how the Iranian ministry of intelligence deals with MEK prisoners relatively humanely - not torturing or killing them as they did in the 1980s, but treating them as cult members rather than terrorists. This progressive approach is converting former MEK members into supporters of the government. As a result, the MEK now accuses me of being an agent of the mullahs. I should tell this story to Mr Mohammadi if he calls me again.

Day three: another Mr Mohammadi calls: "The . . . Hotel at 11am." Mr Mohammadi likes my MEK story but wonders what the reasons were behind making the film. "When you make a film or write an article you do it because you think it's an important story. I really don't need ulterior motives for doing my job, sir." He doesn't look convinced.

"But . . ." and he goes on asking me the same questions as Day one's Mr Mohammadi. And he smiles the smile as I start answering him. I give the same answers: "There is nothing surreptitious about what I do, sir. I'm just a journalist doing my job. I just report what I see around me. If there's poverty, I report that. If there are terrorists, I write about them. And now when you arrest all these people, wouldn't it be strange if I didn't talk about them? Don't you find it bizarre that the MEK calls me an agent in your pay and you question me as if I'm a guerrilla fighter?"

Mr Mohammadi says that he is sorry for the trouble. He then gives me a modified farewell spiel. The conclusion remains the same: we know where you live.

Day four: I've been meeting feminist activists to find out why 15 of them were sent to jail and how they were treated in Tehran's Evin Prison. Apparently, their Mr Mohammadi was not that different from mine. He smiled and tried to find a connection between them and the government of the US. Less than an hour after I leave the house of my last interviewee, I am invited to tea at a hotel. This time it's different, more upscale.

Finally, Mr Mohammadi's smile is gone. "There is one thing that you forget in your mature government theory." I feel that he is finally coming out of his bureaucratic shell. "I've heard that you've studied in Canada." "Yes." "Good. Now imagine if Iran has 250,000 soldiers in Canada and Mexico [roughly the number of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan] and then allocates a budget to help civil rights movements in the US, let's say to the Black Panthers or a Native American movement, wouldn't Americans be paranoid? We know our problems much better than anyone and we do our best to tell those who are responsible about the social maladies you just talked about. But this is Iran. It takes ages for anything to happen. In the meantime we have a vicious enemy to deal with: the US. It's determined to topple our government by any means necessary. As Tom Clancy says, the US is: A Clear and Present Danger."

The Islamic regime change

I don't know how Mr Mohammadi will react to my writing about these encounters. Not too happily, I guess. He strongly advised me not to talk about them with anyone. But it's important to know that Mr Mohammadi has changed. And if he can change, the Islamic regime can change. I'm still not convinced by his point about the American threat. Throughout its history, the Islamic Republic has looked for foreign enemies and has usually found them in abundance. Yet on many occasions it has undermined its own legitimacy by linking genuine domestic opposition to its foreign enemies. It's time for the international community, especially the US, to accept that the Islamic Republic is a force to be reckoned with and deserves as much respect as any other sovereign nation. But it is equally important for the Islamic Republic to realise its own maturity and act responsibly. Maybe instead of a conference on the myth of the Holocaust, our president could organise a conference entitled "Islamic Republic of Iran: 28 Years of Trials and Tribulations".

On a more personal note, the change can start with the government treating its citizens with respect. I know Mr Mohammadi knows where I live. He doesn't have to brag about it.

Maziar Bahari is an Iranian journalist and film-maker. This article first appeared in Index on Censorship, volume 36, number 3

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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