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A Brewing Proto-Insurgency: Is Bahrain the Next Target of Iran’s Regional Ambitions?
The recent eruption of protests on February 14, 2018 – the seventh anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Bahrain – demonstrates that the underlying grievances and divisions that sparked the original protests still remain.[i] Furthermore, the sentencing of a prominent democracy activist – Nabeel Rajab – in February 2018 demonstrates the continuing determination of the Bahrani Government to quell any form of anti-government activism.[ii]
This scenario postulates increased instability in the Persian Gulf region (which is already engaged in a range of competitive dynamics), but potentially jeopardizes US interests, since the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy is headquartered in Bahrain [The US Fifth Fleet is responsible for the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea].
The United Kingdom has also re-invigorated its military presence “East of Suez” with the re-opening, in November 2016, of HMS Juffair, the Naval Support Facility in Bahrain which was designed to be the second most significant command and support facility for the Royal Navy outside of Portsmouth (UK).[iii] It was also the first “permanent” British military base to be established in the Middle East since 1971, and would ultimately house 500 British military personnel.
The two NATO allies, then, have a significant stake in the stability of Bahrain.
Background and Context
Since gaining its independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, Bahrain has been ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family. The often-postulated view by the Iranian Government is that Bahrain is a “renegade province” of Iran, considering it was once a satrapy during the Safavid Persian period.
Religious demography within this country of roughly 1.3-million includes: 70 percent Muslim (which is further broken down as 70 percent Shi’a and 30 percent Sunni), 14 percent Christian, nine percent Hindu, and seven percent other.[iv]
Shi’as within Bahrain have historically been systemically marginalized by the al-Khalifa Government (politically, economically, and socially). Bahraini Shi’as have regularly participated in coup attempts, uprisings, and protests calling for an overhaul of what they have claimed as a corrupt status quo.
The most significant of these uprisings occurred during the 2011 Arab Spring protests in which marginalized and disenfranchised Bahraini Shi’a took to the streets (largely peacefully) demanding change. These protests – which were spurred by legitimate domestic grievances having essentially nothing to do with Iran – were immediately repressed and labeled as an Iranian plot to destabilize the country and the greater Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent some 1,500 troops and armored vehicles into the Bahrain Kingdom to help quell the uprisings [Operation Peninsula Shield].[v]
This systematic suppression of Shi’a political activism has continued unabated over the subsequent seven years and now risks devolving into a full-fledged sectarian and geopolitical conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Sectarianism, Extremism, and the Role of Iran
While the 2011 uprisings within Bahrain were domestically inspired by the systemic marginalization of the Shi’a community by the Sunni al-Khalifa Government, continued and increased oppression of mainstream Shi’a elements could serve to bolster the position and legitimacy of hardliners and increase the possibility of driving this disenfranchised community into the arms of Iran.
Virtually every country within the Middle East has been dramatically affected by the regional rise in religious sectarianism, and Bahrain is no exception. The 2011 uprisings served to both cement and accelerate these sentiments.
The entrenchment of sectarianism, coupled with the inability and unwillingness of the ruling al-Khalifa regime to address legitimate grievances amongst the country’s Shia society (combined with the fierce repression of Shia political activism), and the allegations of increased Iranian interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs, have unsurprisingly led to the emergence of fringe opposition groups with reported links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards corps (IRGC) and other Iranian-sponsored proxies.
Considering that Iran lacks the capability to invade or occupy Bahrain outright due to the ardent support of Saudi Arabia and the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Iran has instead decided to focus on the procurement of proxy organizations among the hardline margins of the Shia opposition, and exploit widespread Shia grievances and anger. The two most important Shi’a extremist groups engaged in Bahrain have emerged as Saraya al-Ashtar and Saraya al-Makhtar. Their choice of names denotes their staunch religiosity, and particularly their Shi’a identity: Malik al-Ashtar was one of Ali Ibn Abi Talib’s [the fourth Islamic Caliph and the individual viewed by Shi’as as the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed] greatest companions, and Makhtar al-Thaqafi launched a campaign against the Umayyads in the seventh century after the martyrdom of the third Shi’a Imam, Husayn Ibn Ali, during the battle of Karbala.
Saraya al-Ashtar is Bahrain’s most significant Shi’a extremist group in the Kingdom. Formally created in 2013, the organization’s initial logo very similar to that of both HizbAllah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) [the logos portray a clenched fist holding an AK-47 surrounded by a verse from the Quran]. The group is known for its advanced bomb-making capabilities and has launched several attacks within the country. Significantly, the organization formally changed its logo in February 2018, to a more outright IRGC branding, stating that the changing of its “identity” was to reflect its “inclusion” and “integral role in the Axis of Resistance in the region.”[vi] Simultaneously, the group reaffirmed its loyalty to the Islamic Republic of Iran: “We believe that the commander and ruler of the Islamic religion is the line of the two imams, Khomeini and Khamenei, which is in the original Muhammad approach in confronting the oppressors and fighting back against the tyrants.”
In his first foreign terrorist designation since taking office, US Pres Donald Trump labeled both Hasan Yusuf and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi as “Iranian-based senior members” of the Iranian-linked Saraya al-Ashtar.[vii] This formal designation was meant to highlight allegations of Iran’s growing influence within the organization, and therefore within Bahrain.
In February 2017, Saraya al-Ashtar also announced an alliance with the Iran-backed Shi’a HizbAllah Brigades (Kata’ib HizbAllah) in Iraq which is also a US-designated terrorist organization.[viii] This move served to demonstrate the increasing rôle of Iran and the transitional interconnectedness of its various proxies. Kata’ib HizbAllah reportedly provided explosives and weapons training at camps in Iraq and offered “logistical and financial support” to Saraya al-Ashtar.
Similar to Saraya al-Ashtar, Saraya al-Makhtar is linked to Iran and has been actively engaged in carrying out terrorist operations within Bahrain. Saraya al-Makhtar has also established itself within Syria, where it is fighting in support of the Bashar al-Assad Government.[ix] The organization has developed deep links with both the IRGC and Hezbollah inside Syria, which have likely been training Saraya al-Makhtar for operations back in Bahrain. On February 23, 2018, Iranian state media publicized funeral ceremonies held in Qom for “three martyrs of the Bahraini people’s resistance”, who were all members of Saraya al-Makhtar. Similar to Saraya al-Ashtar, Saraya al-Makhtar also changed its logo to more resemble the IRGC brand in 2018.[x] Also, Saraya al-Makhtar’s social media accounts regularly reference the plight of marginalized Shi’as within Eastern Saudi Arabia, describing their mission and cause as one. Furthermore, while there were only four attacks on security forces within Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 2014-2015, there were 24 in 2016-2017, as well as several shipments of weapons intercepted that were being smuggled from Bahrain over the causeway into Saudi Arabia containing claymore-like IEDs.[xi]
On February 23, 2018, Iranian state media publicized funeral ceremonies held in Qom for “three martyrs of the Bahraini people’s resistance” who were all members of Saraya al-Makhtar.[xii] The fact that these funerals were held in Iran – especially the religiously-significant city of Qom – demonstrates the deep influence of Iran within the organization.
Both of these organizations – along with others – have reportedly been responsible for numerous attacks throughout the country over the past several years: there were four IED attacks on the Bahraini security forces in 2012, 10 such attacks in 2013, 11 such attacks in 2015, five such attacks in 2016, and nine such attacks in 2017.[xiii] Combined with these more formal attacks was the sporadic targeting of security forces inside the country with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and other homemade devices. Members of Saraya al-Ashtar and Saraya al-Makhtar are also both believed to have traveled to Iraq and Lebanon where they have worked closely with (and receive logistics training from) Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed organizations.[xiv]
The decision by the al-Khalifa Government to ban/dissolve the country’s primary Shi’a opposition group, al-Wefaq, in 2016 served to eliminate the most popular mainstream avenue through which people were able to challenge the status quo.[xv] The Government then moved to ban the largest secular opposition group, Wa’ad, in 2017.[xvi] Following the decision to ban/dissolve Wa’ad was the approval of a constitutional amendment which granted the State permission to prosecute civilians in military courts.[xvii]
The elimination of mainstream political activism in the form of banning the two dominant opposition blocs served to bolster the legitimacy of extremists and further radicalized the marginalized masses as they are now seeming to seek an alternative (and more desperate/irregular) way to challenge the al-Khalifa Government.
Also significant was the recent verdict against Bahrain’s most prominent Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim. Sheikh Qassim was stripped of his nationality in 2016 and accused of promoting sectarianism and violence within Bahrain on behalf of Iran. Protests and marches broke out before the verdict on Sunday, May 21, 2017, in support of the cleric. Facing a possible jail term of 15 years, Sheikh Qassim was sentenced to serve one year (suspended for three years), to pay 100,000 Bahraini dinars ($265,266), and had 3.36-million dinars confiscated from various bank accounts in his name. Qassim is currently on de-facto house arrest.[xviii]
Both Iranian and Hezbollah media have publically lauded the Shia cause in Bahrain and have expressed their support for the “revolutionaries”. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini-Khamenei had also expressed his support for the Shia community, lending to the fear that Iran was pursuing an active role vis-à-vis Bahrain (which was also used by the al-Khalifa to support their own narrative). Indeed, rhetoric championing an “international Basij”, a “Shia full-moon”, and the “liberation of Bahrain” preached by Iranian authorities have been used by the al-Khalifa as “proof” of Iran’s intentions to undermine stability within the country. Both Saraya al-Ashtar and Saraya al-Makhtar demonstrated their interconnectedness with Iran’s regional proxy network after their condolences to Kataib Hezbollah following a U.S. airstrike on the group near the Syrian town of Albu Kamal in June 2018, describing the two groups as “brothers in arms”, and part of the “axis of resistance”.[xix]
However, while some Bahraini Shi’as look toward Khamenei for religious guidance, the vast majority of the Bahraini Shia community follow Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Indeed, it is critical to understand that the vast majority of Bahraini Shia would not welcome the idea of their country becoming an Iranian protectorate under the system of Wilayat al-Faqih, and it is instead only a marginal subsection of hardliners in the opposition who actually have allegiances to Iran.[xx] The threat, therefore, is to what extent the Bahraini population writ large come to accept and support – either actively or passively – an insurgency against the regime.
Iranian interference has been gradually growing over the past several years, as have the efforts to supply domestic terrorist organizations (namely Saraya al-Ashtar and Saraya al-Makhtar):
- December 28, 2013: a speedboat from Iran was intercepted by Bahraini forces carrying large quantities of advanced bomb components, including 31 claymore-type anti-personnel fragmentation mines and 12 armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs);
- July 25, 2015: the Bahraini Navy intercepted another speedboat carrying 43 kilograms of C4 explosives, detonators, and eight AK-47-like assault rifles with 32 magazines and ammunition [one of the two men detained on the boat confessed to having received extensive weapons and explosives training at an IRGC camp in Iran];
- September 30, 2015: Bahraini authorities discovered an elaborate bomb factory containing over $20,000 in lathes and hydraulic presses for making EFPs [the finished bombs discovered were very similar to ones constructed by Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq], and a cache of 1.5 tons of C4 explosives [several EFPs constructed at this factory were intercepted en route to Shi’as in eastern Saudi Arabia which would have allowed them a significant capability against Saudi armor].[xxi]
Equally significant are the high levels of arrests currently taking place within Bahrain against individuals allegedly linked to the IRGC. While it is possible that accusations over alleged arrests of Iranian-backed/trained individuals may have been exaggerated or falsified in order to bolster the regime’s narrative, continued attacks within the country – coupled with the emergence of fringe groups espousing praise for Iran’s leaders and professing an ideological adherence to Wilayat al-Faqih – points towards some form of increased Iranian role inside Bahrain.
While Bahrain was expected to only remain a secondary theater for Iran within the near future (as opposed to primary theaters such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon), the low cost and burden of continuing such supportive action for Shi’a militant groups means the support would likely continue. Advances made by Iran and its proxies regionally could serve to increase Iranian support vis-à-vis Bahraini extremist groups, particularly as the IRGC’s influence within Iran rises.
Therefore, the risk is how far the mainstream Shi’a polity could be pushed towards the more extreme margins, and to what extent they are willing to support – actively or passively – a campaign of violence against the government.
The continued oppression of Shi’a political activism (such as the elimination of the two dominant opposition blocs) in hopes of curtailing Iranian influence could serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy as more people became disenfranchised and radicalized.
Furthermore, the current economic and political challenges faced by Saudi Arabia – particularly the overextended military campaign in Yemen – and the fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council over the rift with Qatar means that it will be more challenging and burdening for “big brother” Saudi Arabia to save Bahrain a second time.
The recent decision by US Pres Donald Trump to renew sales of F-16 fighters — this time advanced F-16V, fourth-generation types — and other military hardware to Bahrain could signal a desire to use more hard power against Iranian proxies, as opposed to a more political approach [the sale of F-16s and other military hardware to Bahrain were halted by former US Pres Barak Obama due to Manama’s deteriorating human rights record].[xxii]
The Bahraini Shi’a, who are increasingly feeling that they are not capable of changing the status quo peacefully, may begin to look for other, more non-conventional and extreme means.
[i] Regencia, Ted. “Clashes Mark Anniversary of Bahrain's 2011 Uprising.” Israeli–Palestinian Conflict | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 14 Feb. 2018, .
[ii] “Bahrain Activist Jailed for Five Years over Twitter Comments.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Feb. 2018, .
[iii] Stubley, Peter. “Britain Opens Permanent Military Base in Bahrain to Strengthen Presence in Middle East.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 6 Apr. 2018, .
[iv] “The World Factbook: BAHRAIN.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 6 June 2018, .
[v] Saudi Research & Marketing. “Peninsula Shield Force: Ensuring the Gulf's Security.” ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive, 15 Mar. 2011, .
[vi] Weiss, Caleb. “Bahraini Militant Group Adopts IRGC Branding.” FDD's Long War Journal, FDD's Long War Journal, 23 Feb. 2018, .
[vii] “State Department Terrorist Designations of Ahmad Hasan Yusuf and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 17 Mar. 2017, .
[viii] Weiss, Caleb. “Illini Journal of International Security.” The Foundation of Modern Geology, 13 Mar. 2017, .
[ix] “Hizballah Cavalcade: Saraya Al-Mukhtar: A Bahraini Militant Group with Regional Goals.” Jihadology, 5 Sept. 2014, .
[x] Weiss, Caleb. “Bahrain militia sends condolences to Hezbollah Brigades, adopts more IRGC branding.” FDD’s Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), 19 June 2018, .
[xi]Knights, Michael, and Matthew Levitt. The Evolution of a Shi'a Insurgency in Bahrain. Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jan. 2018, .
[xii] Originally published on (in Farsi)
[xiii] Knights, Michael, and Matthew Levitt. The Evolution of a Shi'a Insurgency in Bahrain. Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jan. 2018, .
[xiv] Weiss, Caleb. “Bahrain Blames ‘Iran-Trained’ Cell for Deadly Bombing.” FDD's Long War Journal, 17 Nov. 2017, .
[xv] “Bahrain Court Dissolves Main Shi'ite Opposition.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 17 July 2016, .
[xvi] “Bahraini Government Moves to Dissolve Leading Secular, Leftist Opposition Society Wa'ad.” Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, 6 Mar. 2017, .
[xvii] “No Justice in Bahrain | Unfair Trials in Military and Civilian Courts.” Human Rights Watch, 7 July 2015, .
[xviii] “PressTV-Iran Raps Bahrain Verdict against Top Shia Cleric.” Bolivian Workers Clash with Police, .
[xix] Weiss, Caleb. “Bahrain militia sends condolences to Hezbollah Brigades, adopts more IRGC branding.” FDD’s Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), 19 June 2018, .
[xx] Saab, Bilal. “Iran's Long Game in Bahrain.” Atlantic Council, 18 Dec. 2017, .
[xxi] Knights, Michael. “Iranian EFPs in the Gulf: An Emerging Strategic Risk.” Chemical Weapons in the Middle East - The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 23 Feb. 2016, .
[xxii] Lederman, Josh, et al. “Trump Administration to Allow Bahrain F-16 Deal.” Defense News, Defense News, 8 Aug. 2017, .