MANEZ, Albania — In a valley in the Albanian countryside, a group of celibate Iranian dissidents have built a vast and tightly guarded barracks that few outsiders have ever entered.
Depending on whom you ask, the group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People’s Jihadists, are either Iran’s replacement government-in-waiting or a duplicitous terrorist cult. Journalists are rarely allowed inside the camp to judge for themselves, and are sometimes rebuffed by force.
But after President Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassim Suleimani, a powerful Iranian general, it seemed worth trying again. Would a group that claims to want a democratic, secular Iran allow a reporter inside their camp?
The group’s loudest allies include Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, and John R. Bolton, his former National Security Adviser. Both have received tens of thousands of dollars for speaking at the group’s conferences, where these influential Americans describe the People’s Jihadists as Iran’s most legitimate opposition.
Initially, the group ignored several requests for access. So less in hope than desperation, I drove to its base and presented my credentials to a guard.
Three hours later, shortly before sunset, I got a call. To my surprise, I was being allowed inside. So began a series of interviews, propaganda sessions and tours that lasted until 1:30 a.m. A New York Times photographer was admitted several days later.
The group perhaps hoped to correct the impression left by previous journalistic encounters. A visit in 2003 by a Times reporter to the group’s former base in Iraq ended badly after her subjects spoke from a rehearsed script, and she was barred from talking to people in private.
This time around, most residents were off limits, but officials did allow private interviews with several members.
At my request, these included Somayeh Mohammadi, 39, whose family has argued for nearly two decades that she is being held against her will.
“This is my choice,” said Ms. Mohammedi, after her commanders left the room. “If I want to leave, I can leave.”
While the group may not have tried to hide Ms. Mohammedi, there were several odd and telling moments when secrets were tightly held.
In particular, senior officials stumbled when asked about the whereabouts of the group’s nominal leader, Massoud Rajavi, who vanished in 2003.
“Where is he?” said Ali Safavi, the group’s main representative in Washington. “Well, we can’t talk about that, that’s … ”
He trailed off, staring at his feet.
Is he still alive? Is he in Albania?
“We can’t talk about it,” Mr. Safavi replied, after several seconds of silence.
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