Since 14 February 2011, many of the most violent incidents in Bahrain had been attributed to various entities acting under the “14 February Coalition” slogan. However, this has remained a shadowy entity with few visible spokespeople, mainly recognizable from its online presence. Following a series of arrests of 14 February activists in June 2013, the 14 February Coalition has been even less visible as a coherent movement and seems to have dissolved a number of smaller informal groups like Al-Ashtar Brigades and the Resistance Brigades; some of whom very little is known about.
The Al-Ashtar brigades claimed responsibility for the 3 March attack which killed three policemen. It remains to be seen whether the arrests which followed this attack will also neutralize this group as an effective entity.
Although mainstream opposition organizations like Al-Wefaq Islamic Society publically distance themselves from these radical groups, there is clearly a lot of overlap in terms of personnel and political agenda. For example, Al-Wefaq Deputy-Secretary General Khalil Marzouq was criticized for waving a 14 February Coalition flag at a public event.
Iranian military support
What has become increasingly clear in recent months is the Iranian role in supporting this militant activity. Many of those from the 14 February Coalition who were sentenced for bombing attacks were found to have received support and training from Iran’s Republican Guards and Hezbollah elements. Furthermore, a series of operations at the beginning of the year succeeded in impounding shipments of weapons arriving from Iran as well as a group of militants captured as they tried to leave by boat to Iran.
The increasing sophistication of these bombing attacks also clearly shows that these militants are receiving training and support; and Iranian media outlet; particularly Arabic channels like Al-Alam, Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar continue to give ideological support to an increasingly radicalized opposition.
There is growing international consensus about the nature of Iran’s support for militants in Bahrain (in line with their support for militants in Lebanon Iraq, Syria, Yemen…). For example, the 2014 US Intelligence Community’s Global Threat Assessment pointed out that: “Iran will continue to provide arms and other aid to Palestinian groups, Huthi rebels in Yemen and Shia militants in Bahrain to expand Iranian influence and to counter perceived foreign threats”. Western Diplomats have been similarly categorical about the nature of Iran’s relationship with militant elements, and the American Enterprise Institute pointed out that the ideological leader of these groups, Ayatollah Isa Qassim was “increasingly moving into Iran’s orbit”, which they stressed should be a matter of concern for the US.
Dubai’s police chief has stated that the figure who planted the 3 March 2014 bomb had recently visited Lebanon and had received training from Hezbollah.
The Al-Ashtar Brigades have claimed responsibility for around 20 terrorist attacks in Bahrain, mainly against police and security targets. Most recently they claimed responsibility for the explosion which killed three policemen near Al-Daih.“The operation comes in revenge for our martyrs”, read their statement, immediately after the blast.
The group uses a number of Facebook and Twitter accounts and its first statement apparently appeared during April 2013 promising to “strike” against their enemies the next day. They followed up the next day claiming that they had attacked a “collection of mercenaries”.
Since then there have been a succession of bombing attacks, some of which have produced casualties. It is unclear whether a couple of militants who blew themselves up while handling explosives in recent months are associated with Al-Ashtar.
The rhetoric of Al-Ashtar Brigades is similar to that of most of the opposition; denouncing the police as “mercenaries” and calling for an uprising against the Monarchy. The name “Al-Ashtar” links the group to Malik al-Ashtar; a figure venerated by Shia from early Islam, showing clearly the sectarian nature of their vision and illustrating how they see their struggle in a religious context.
Al-Ashtar’s various logos are strikingly similar to those of Hezbollah, sometimes using the same hand clutching a rifle. The increasing number of attacks perpetrated by the group and their growing sophistication indicates foreign support. Terrorism analysts have suggested an Iranian role in setting up Al-Ashtar Brigades; in addition to Emirati confirmation that individuals from this organization received training from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
14 February Coalition
After a series of arrests, a Bahraini court handed down jail sentences in September 2013 to around 50 individuals, some of whom are based abroad, who it accused of involvement in terrorist activities as part of the “14 February Coalition”.
On its Facebook page the Coalition claimed responsibility for a number of bombings; including an attack with a car bomb on Bahrain’s Financial Harbour. The 14 February Coalition encouraged supporters to engage in rioting and violence, posting images of activists burning tyres, throwing Molotovs and attacking police.
The organization published threats of violence against civilians: For example; warning Grand Prix participants of the “consequences” of their actions if the Formula One went ahead; and threatening businesses and schools that their “safety couldn’t be guaranteed” if they opened on protest days.
According to court documents; the 14 February detainees were found guilty of the following activities:
- The Coalition “trained Bahraini teenagers in using explosives abroad and then carried out terrorist acts”. Defendants were convicted of conspiring with Iran to plot attacks.
- The “terrorist group” devised plots to plant a bomb during the 2013 F1 race, blew up ATMs, carried out arson attacks on car showrooms and planted explosives in locations in Manama that resulted in the deaths of two Asian expatriates. Three members were behind a car bombing at the Bahrain Financial Harbour.
- Eight members received firearms and explosives training to carry out attacks. Six defendants provided training in weapons and explosives, while nine collected money to fund its activities.
- Some defendants were part of a terrorist group known as the Al Imam Army and were planning attacks on specific locations, including American targets. The cell was led by “masterminds” in Bahrain and London who frequently travelled to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
The “Coalition Youth of 14 Feb Revolution” first appeared on the Bahrain Online forum whose Facebook page started in April 2011. By mid-2011 the “14 February Coalition” was the main brand being used when publishing schedules for protests.
According to the charges made against the “Coalition”, several prominent opposition figures based overseas, including Saeed Shehabi, Ali Mushaima, Abdulraouf Al Shayeb and Ayatollah Hadi Al Modarasi – many of whom live in London – are the “masterminds” behind many of these terrorist attacks in Bahrain.
Some of these London-based figures, like Saeed AlShehabi, have long been associated with other groups like the Bahrain Freedom Movement – formerly the Bahrain Islamic Revolutionary Front – adding weight to the view that the “14 February Coalition” is a convenient label, rather than a coherent entity.
Many of these individuals, like Ayatollah Hadi Al Modarresi have well-documented links with Iran. An investigation by the Evening Standard provided documents showing Iranian payments to Saeed Al Shehabi and the Bahrain Freedom Movement.
The growing capabilities and sophistication of these terrorist groups and their ability to obtain explosive materials and triggering devices from abroad should worry us all. The killing of three policemen in an explosion in countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya would scarcely get a mention in the media. We don’t want to end up like that.
As we see intensified police operations over the coming days against individuals from these groups, we should be mature enough to recognize that this is necessary to protect the public from further attacks in the near future.
However, despite the anger that many people feel after these attacks, our response has to be measured and proportionate to avoid further inflaming the sectariantensions on which such militants thrive.