Series introduction

Militant groups first began to emerge in Bahrain around the time of independence in 1971. Many were galvanized by the radicalizing effects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. This first phase of militancy culminated in a Tehran-sponsored failed coup in Bahrain in 1981, which some observers saw as an attempt to abort the new Gulf Cooperation Council that had only been announced a few months before. 

Militants embarked on a period of unrest during the 1990s which only came to a definitive end with the ascendance to the throne of King Hamad in 1999 and his amnesty for releasing political detainees and allowing exiles to return. King Hamad’s new Constitution ushered in a system based on Constitutional Monarchy and parliamentary politics.

Between 2001 and 2006, militants and moderates within the opposition achieved a fragile consensus. However, Al-Wefaq Islamic Society’s participation in the 2006 elections caused its most radical elements to secede and sowed the seeds for renewed militancy which would come to fruition after 2011. Later segments of this publication will also look at Sunni militancy and Islamist tendencies, although these currents have less of a coherent and politically-significant history than Shia militancy in Bahrain.

Click on the hyperlinks below to access the complete series:

Part 1: Beginnings of militancy – 1950-1990

Part 2: Evolution of militancy – 1990-2011

Part 3: Eruption of militancy – 2011

Part 4: Expansion of militancy – 2012-2016

Part 5: Exporting militancy – Iran’s role

Part 6: Confronting militancy – 2015-2017

Part 7: Conclusions & recommendations

Political Islam imported from Iraq

During the 1950s and 60s, it looked highly unlikely that political Islam could have a significant role in Bahrain which was proud of its status as one of the most progressive states in the region. At the time, the intellectual currents sweeping the region were primarily secular; Arab nationalism, Baathism and various combinations of socialism and communism. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood was also a major regional force, but at the time only had limited impact within Bahraini society. As a result, the most militant political trends in Bahrain between 1930 and independence in 1971 were unmistakably secular; this included trade union movements and strikes by oil workers; and the Higher Executive Committee during the 1950s which lobbied for greater political participation.

There tendencies impacted Sunnis and Shia alike, because intellectuals and activists tended to have been educated together in the new secular schools and the oil industry. Bahrain’s developing institutions likewise tended to bring the educated elites from both communities together and make sectarian differences appear like a relic of the past. It was only in the early 1970s that two strands of Shia political Islam appeared and very quickly had an impact. These two principle trends were both imported from Iraq at this time – the Da’wah and Shirazi movements.

The origins of Da’wah in Iraq & Bahrain

In Iraq during the late 1950s and 60s, political Islam (Sunni and Shia) was largely a reaction to the dominant currents of secularism and modernization. The Najaf clergy were concerned that most young Shia were joining the Communist Party and had little interest in attending Quranic schools. The number of pilgrims visiting the major shrines in Najaf and Karbala dropped to a trickle, and the succession of military coups which took place in Iraq between 1958 and 1968 marginalized the Shia holy cities even more.

The three principle trends of Shia political Islam – Da’wah, Shirazism and Khomeinism – represented a reaction to these modernist trends. All three tendencies envisaged establishing an Islamic state.

For the traditional Shia clergy at this time – in Iraq, Bahrain, Iran and elsewhere – these ideas verged on being heretical. The twelfth Shia Imam – Muhammad al-Mahdi – had disappeared from the world in 874 at the age of five; his followers believed that he would return in the future to bring justice and peace. However, in the absence of a divinely-guided Imam, Shia believed that involvement in politics could only bring corruption and ruin. In the absence of the Imam, most Shia communities at that time didn’t even tend to practice mass Friday prayers, because nobody existed who was sufficiently righteous to lead the faithful. The two successive leading clerical authorities in Najaf over this period; Grand Ayatollahs Muhsin al-Hakim and Abulqassim al-Khoei, were virulently opposed to these activist political tendencies.

We can therefore see how radical the innovations of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (Da’wah), Ayatollah Muhammad al-Shirazi, and Ayatollah Khomeini (based in Najaf 1965-68) were: The Da’wah movement was on the rise in Najaf during the 1960s, at a time when a number of Bahraini theological students were studying in Iraqi seminaries; notably Isa Qassim, Abdulamir al-Jamri, Shaikh Abdullah al-Ghuraifi, Shaikh Abdullah al-Madani and Shaikh Abbas al-Rayyis – all of whom had a significant role to play in the next phase of political activism. All of them were from the same generation and knew each other well before travelling to Al-Najaf.

Da’wah had absorbed many of the ideas of its own political enemies, the Communists, and in many ways was established on Leninist principles. Da’wah was a secret society which clandestinely recruited people through Shia institutions; it was designed with a cellular structure and had four phases for taking power:

Ideological phase: Establishing the ideology and propagating its propaganda.

Political phase: Consolidating its support across society and preparing hundreds of political cells across the country which can be mobilized when the time is right.

Revolutionary phase: Ruling elites would be removed through a violent coup d’état with the assistance of sympathetic elements within the armed forces.

Governing phase: An Islamic society would be established and protected against counter-coups by political rivals. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s “Al-Usus” manifesto, written around 1960, aspired to “establish an Islamic government & install a ruling apparatus until favourable conditions arise to enable the nation to give its opinion in a referendum”.

In contrast to the Khomeinists, who (successfully) sought to take power through bringing millions of people onto the streets in a revolution of the masses (thawrah); Da’wah and the Shirazis tended to favour secret activity culminating in a coup (inqilab).

Many of these theological students returned to Bahrain around the time of the country’s independence in 1971. Because of their relatively advanced levels of education, these figures quickly became influential within the community. Several of them were elected into Parliament as the “Religious Bloc” and played a role in writing Bahrain’s Constitution. By then, they had already established the Bahrain branch of Da’wah. This took its institutionalized form in the Islamic Enlightenment Society. The Enlightenment Society is administered under the Shia Ulema Council which came to be dominated by Shaikh Qassim.

Da’wah members enter Parliament

When Bahrain declared its independence in 1971, one of the first challenges was to produce a Constitution and establish an elected Parliament. With just a small proportion of religious figures at that time having benefitted from further education, Isa Qassim was singled out by the clerical establishment as a candidate for the Constitutional Assembly elections. However, Isa Qassim was still pursuing his studies in Al-Najaf and declared that he preferred to continue his education – until his brother travelled to Iraq, four days before candidates registration closed and personally ensured that Isa Qassim and his family returned to Bahrain.

As one of the 22 elected delegates in the Constitution committee, Shaikh Qassim played a key role in demanding emphasis on Islamic Shari’ah in the new Constitution. This Constitution provided for a single-chambered Parliament, the National Assembly, with 30 elected members.

To contest the 1973 National Assembly elections, Shaikh Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim, along with Abbas al-Rayyis, Abdullah al-Madani and others, formed the Religious Bloc. This was to be the political front of the Da’wah movement in the institutional form of the Islamic Enlightenment Society. Jamri himself only returned from Najaf in 1973 to contest these elections.

During the National Assembly elections, Da’wah members played a major role in influencing Shia communities away from nationalist and left-wing groups. For example, in the case of the influential Jidhafs Club: 

“To control the club for political purposes the religionists infiltrated it in huge numbers and consequently won the election of 1973 with seven out of nine seats on the Executive Committee. They changed the club constitution in favour of Islamism instead of Arab nationalism, published and distributed many pamphlets with heavy religious content and abolished many of the ‘worldly’ programmes the modernists had established” – Khouri 1980.

As a result of this intense activity, a high proportion of the candidates put forward for these elections were from Diraz, educated in Al-Najaf and associated with the Al-Da’wah movement. During the 12 December elections Qassim won more votes than any other candidate in the contest (1,079) and entered Parliament.

Islamists in the National Assembly

Until that moment, the Islamists had been seen as a conservative bulwark against the general strikes and political activism of the left. Once in Parliament, it was the Islamist Religious Bloc that proved to be most forceful in undermining the democratic enterprise.

Shaikh Jamri, Qassim and others wanted Islamic law and the entrenchment of Islamic customs. Bahrain’s leaders wanted to open up the country to foreign investment, tourism and a globalized work-force.

The Religious Bloc advocated measures like the separation of men and women in society; banning alcohol; criminalizing blasphemy; and Islamic forms of punishment; all of which would have been disastrous for the leadership’s vision:

“The relationship between the ruling family and the religious bloc deteriorated quickly because of Shia opposition to the government’s support for socially liberal and progressive legislation initiatives, which Sheikh Qassim and his Shia colleagues considered contrary to Islam” – Ali Alfoneh.

The authorities found themselves siding with the progressives, to halt initiatives by these clerics. This pressure from Islamists for laws unfavourable to non-Muslims was a contributing factor towards the failure of the National Assembly project. However, the final straw was the new Security Law.

The Government tried to convince the Religious Bloc that the new measures were aimed against agitation by the far-left. But the Religious Bloc realized that their own vision was the one predominantly in opposition to the Bahraini authorities. As a result, Shia MPs united with the left-wing to block the measures. The authorities responded by dissolving the General Assembly.

The Shirazi movement in Bahrain

“While Al-Da’wah was determined to continue opposing the Bahraini regime through political means, the Shiraziyyin were therefore prepared to confront it more brutally several years before the Iranian revolution;” Laurence Louer.

The charismatic cleric Ayatollah Muhammad al-Shirazi was of Iranian origin, but had been based in Karbala until his militant ideas about clerics playing an activist political role forced him into exile during the 1970s. In Bahrain this “Shirazi movement” gained many supporters among wealthy Shia traders and businessmen, such as the influential Alawi family; and through these gained access to Bahraini elites.

However, this tended to attract a very different demographic from Da’wah. While Da’wah quickly took root in traditional rural communities, among families who were proud of their long Bahraini heritage; the Shirazi trend was most popular among urbanized Shia, particularly the “Ajam” communities who had arrived in Bahrain from Iran in recent times, many of whom had only just gained Bahraini nationality.

The Islamic Guidance Society in 1969 was formed after Mohammed al-Alawi travelled to Iraq and met Mohammed Shirazi, who had a major influence on him. The Islamic Guidance Society succeeded in forming the first nucleus for an organized Shirazi movement in Bahrain and achieved a wide membership for meetings and religious festivals.

Bahrain’s Shirazi movement expanded further and became an increasingly militant force when Hadi al-Mudarrisi, the nephew to Ayatollah Muhammad al-Shirazi, arrived in Bahrain. Mudarrisi quickly attracted a dedicated following, especially among urbanized Shia of Iranian origin. However, Bahrain’s traditional clergy became increasingly concerned about encroachment within their own support base after 1974 when Mudarrisi gained Bahraini citizenship and it became clear that he inspired to play a permanent and dominant role. It was obvious to many observers that with his thinly-disguised political rhetoric, Mudarrisi wouldn’t be content at playing a pastoral role within just one segment of Bahrain’s Shia community.

In 1972 the Social Hussaini Fund was founded as an expansion of the Islamic Guidance Society and led by Shirazi figures like Jaafar al-Alawi, with support from Hadi al-Mudarrisi.The Social Hussaini Fund recruited from among students, intellectuals and businessmen and built its cadres for its organized secret action. Its aims included both building support and preparing the ground for political revolution in Bahrain. Many activists had travelled to Lebanon and received PLO military training in Palestinian refugee camps. This was facilitated by Hadi al-Mudarrisi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They often passed the Bahrainis off as Iranians from the Khuzestan region, to avoid alienating Gulf supporters of the Palestinian cause. Within existing Shirazi organizations preparations were already being made to use force to confront the Bahraini monarchy:

“Following the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hadi al-Mudarrisi began working along with his elder brother, Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi, to export the Islamic Revolution to the Gulf. In Bahrain, he began what was described by the IFLB [Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain]  as underground activity to lead and bring about the revolution;” Hassan Tariq al-Hassan.

Da’wah’s rivalry with the Shirazis & contacts with Khomeini

The mid-1970s were distinguished by rivalry between Jamri and Qassim’s conservative Da’wah faction; and the more radical Shirazis. Shirazi gave his nephew Hadi al-Mudarrisi the task of collecting religious taxes from Bahraini Shia. When Mudarrisi gained Bahraini citizenship in 1974 this sparked intense rivalry:

“A fierce struggle for the Shi’a khums money erupted between the two factions. Shaikh Qassim and Al-Mudarrisi competed with each other from mosque to mosque and ma’tam to ma’tam to attract the greatest number of followers and greatest amount of khums” – Ali Alfoneh.

The Da’wah and Shirazi rivalry was also reflected in politics. While Shaikh Jamri and his associates served in Parliament, Al-Mudarrisi’s faction were preparing for armed struggle. Mudarrisi had studied under Ayatollah Khomeini and was an early exponent of his radical ideas. This radical trend gained greater momentum after the success of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran.

However, Sheikh Isa Qassim’s Islamic Enlightenment Society also supported the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran materially and spiritually and its success provided a stimulus to their own political activities. Before the start of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the leaders of the Islamic Enlightenment Society initiated their first communications with Ayatollah Khomeini in Al-Najaf where many of these clerics had studied.

“The Iranian Revolution is the call that never dies and will not die. It is not right for the nation to weaken and waver in its support for it and without pledging its full alliance in thought, sentiment, and practice, and refusing to submit to the arrogant American administration;” Isa Qassim

After the revolution succeeded, Qassim’s Society sent a telegram congratulating Ayatollah Khomeini and expressing their support for the revolution and Islamic rule. A delegation from the Bahrain Shia Islamist movement also visited Tehran.

Radicalization of Bahraini theological movements – 1979

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran radicalized these two factions further, in particular the Shirazis who began to spearhead politicized religious processions calling for an Islamic Republic in Bahrain and declaring loyalty to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and his Wilayat al-Faqih doctrine of clerical rule.

“His revolution, his victory, his state created many revolutionaries on the path of God…you rightfully and honestly say that Khomeini’s revolution, his victory, and his state created a new widespread jihadist line that transcended the borders of the revolutionary country;” Isa Qassim

In February 1979 thousands of Bahraini Shia demonstrated in support of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Similar demonstrations also broke out in eastern Saudi Arabia. Much of the activity was centred around Shia mosques and ma’tams; many of these institutions became social fronts for Shia Islamic groups. These centres played an active role in mobilizing supporters against the authorities.

Prominent Shia clerics presented a petition to the Prime Minister demanding the application of Islamic law in Bahrain; including segregation of males and females in schools and the imposition of Islamic dress for women. The proposals were similar to those advocated by Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim’s Islamic Bloc during the 1973-75 National Assembly.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi-born Hadi al-Mudarrisi established the clandestine organization, the “Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain”. The IFLB enjoyed financial and logistical support from the Tehran-based “Office of the Liberation Movements” which had the specific mandate for fermenting revolution across the Arab world. Hadi al-Mudarrisi and the Bahraini Shirazis were seen as the “subcontractors” of this office, for the task of “liberating” Bahrain.

The “Islamic Front” was a new name, but the institutional and ideological framework of the Islamic Front were already several years in the making, through clandestine efforts of figures like Hadi al-Mudarrisi, Mohammed al-Mahfouz, Jaafar al-Alawi and Mohammed al-Alawi, from pre-existing entities, like the Social Hussaini Fund, the Islamic Action Organization and the Islamic Guidance Society. ILFB activist Mohammed al-Alawi stated: “Before the revolution, the leadership of the Front was already formalized, but we were not aware of constituting a political organization, strictly speaking, and our objective was not clear.”

Hadi al-Mudarrisi declared that he was the representative of Ayatollah Khomeini in Bahrain and staged a number of demonstrations, including the Khomeini-influenced Quds Day rally, during which Mudarrisi publically declared his support for Khomeini and Wilayat al-Faqih”. The Bahrain authorities promptly deported Mudarrisi who fled to Tehran and began using broadcast services to call for the downfall of Arabian Gulf rulers. Ayatollah Saddiq Rohani, who was close to Khomeini, announced that Bahrain was the fourteenth province of Iran and demanded “Islamic government” for Bahrainis, fueling further tensions between Iran and Arabian Gulf states.

On 2 September 1979 Hadi al-Mudarrisi held a press conference from Tehran, formally announcing the “Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain”. According to Mudarrisi the Islamic Front wished to overthrow the ruling regime in Bahrain and replace it with an Islamic Republic.

“[The IFLB’s] long term objectives revolved around three axes, namely: The development of the individual as one educated in Islam… and being prepared to sacrifice himself in its defence; building the believing community through a vanguard capable of leading it to glory; and finally the erection of Islamic civilization which would be the end result of the Islamic Revolution;” Hassan Tariq al-Hassan.

The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain’s Iranian inspiration, affiliations and support were obvious. Iran supported the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and its Tehran office was very active, producing many publications which promoted the Islamic Front and Iran’s philosophy, as well as proclaiming the group’s loyalty to Khomeini:

“The triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is the precursor to the approach of the regime’s end in Bahrain… The people who lacked a committed and aware leadership began fulfilling these factors through the guidance of Islam and under the banner of Imam Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic nation and of the oppressed, and under the leadership of the guided Islamic Front which stood out in the field and led the masses, launching the slogan ‘God is great’ which toppled the buried Shah and shook the throne of Al Khalifa in Bahrain;” from IFLB tract (Masirat al-thawrah al-islamiyah fi al-bahrain)

Shirazi activist Issa Marhoun stated: “We believe that popular revolution is the best choice, and it is the best and quickest road by which to overthrow the reactionary regime in Bahrain.” Iran’s influence was further obvious in the Islamic Front’s call for the “unification of all Islamic forces in the Gulf”. The IFLB stated that its aim was the “uprising of all Muslims under Imam Khomeini”. Radio Tehran and other Iran-based media channels broadcast lectures by Mudarrisi and prominent IFLB figures. In an interview, Mudarrisi explained that violent revolution was permissible, confronting “the sword with the sword… even if this leads to bloodshed and the killing of the believers”.

Iraqi Shirazis are often credited with exacerbating tensions towards the Iran-Iraq war. For example, exiles in Iran established a radio station near the border with Iraq which attacked the Iraqi, Saudi and Bahraini leaderships and championed the cause of Islamic revolution. It would not be long before stalemate in the Iran-Iraq conflict led Iran’s leaders to consider fomenting unrest and revolution in Bahrain and other Gulf states, as a means of breaking the deadlock and strengthening Iran’s regional position.

The Bahraini authorities watched in concern as prominent Shirazi activists engaged in high level coordination with Khomeini’s regime, even visiting Tehran to coordinate with senior officials. On 21 August 1979 they stepped in to arrest Muhammad Ali al-Ikri after his return from such a visit to Tehran, sparking a wave of rioting and protests by his supporters.

Coup attempt by Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain – 1981

As the Iran-Iraq war gained regional dimensions in the early 1980s, Iran looked for ways to outmanoeuvre Iraq and its regional backers. Iran had always laid claim to Bahrain as its “14th province” and tiny Bahrain was seen as an obvious first step towards making inroads in the Arabian Peninsula.

In December 1981 the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, with Iranian funding and logistical support, staged a coup attempt, aiming to install Ayatollah Hadi al-Mudarrisi as Bahrain’s supreme leader. The plan was for commandos to arrive via Dubai who would assassinate key officials and take over strategic institutions. They believed that the coup would be followed by a mass popular uprising which would allow them to consolidate their victory; a theory adopted by several other extremist Islamic groups which lacked a sufficiently wide support base to achieve any kind of popular uprising.

Although some IFLB personnel had received training alongside Palestinian militants during the 1970s, there was a lack of Bahraini Shirazi activists with military training. Therefore, many of the “commandos” were Saudis, Omanis, Kuwaitis and Arabs of other nationalities who had flocked to Iran after the revolution. They had been organized as the “Movement of Vanguard Missionaries”. Militants from this Movement also were fighting for Iran against Iraq, making use of their Arabic skills for espionage activities. The Islamic Front’s own military commander was killed in the Iran-Iraq war.

The plot was uncovered in its early stages when suspicions were aroused by a group of men behaving suspiciously at Dubai airport. The coup attemot unraveled as those already in Bahrain were rounded up, and their weapons and uniform stashes were uncovered. The plot had been planned to take place on Bahrain’s national day, 13 December. The plan had been to attack government offices, take ministers as hostages and simultaneously gain control of the building containing the national TV and radio stations. Many members of the IFLB were arrested, 73 individuals of a range of nationalities were jailed, and a number of Iranian diplomats believed to have been linked to these developments were expelled. Many other active members fled abroad. The failure of the coup plot represented a major setback for these radical activists which would take many years to overcome.

Following related attempts to stir up unrest and revolution in other countries in the region, the Arab Gulf states came together and declared that the Iran-linked coup attempt in Bahrain was an attack against them all, giving further momentum to the embryonic Gulf Cooperation Council project (formed just a few months ahead of the coup attempt). The GCC had largely come into being as a result of the threat from Iran and its announcement had reportedly had galvanized Khomeini and Mudarrisi to rush their coup plot into the final stages of implementation.

Bahraini militants after the failed coup – 1981-1990

“It’s an accusation that I do not deny; and an honour that I do not claim;” Hadi al Mudarrisi when asked whether he was the mastermind behind the coup attempt.

Of those elements of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain who fled into exile; many dispersed to more amenable locations across the region, like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The main offices of the Islamic Front came to be based in Damascus, with branches in Tehran and London. The Secretary-General was Muhammad Ali al-Khadhari. Its London office was headed by Abdalhamid al-Radhi. Hadi al-Mudarrisi remained a pivotal figure.

Many chose to base themselves in the West; particularly the younger figures who could use the opportunity to study abroad. Many of these younger figures would play significant roles during unrest in Bahrain in later decades. The Shirazi activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was in Damascus from 1983 to 1989 and ended up in Denmark where he became involved in a succession of human rights organizations which could be used to give a more credible voice to the opposition.

From the mid-1980s onwards, the Shirazis lost much of their influence with the Iranian regime. This was partly as a result of Ayatollah Mohammed al-Shirazi increasingly being perceived as a rival to Ayatollah Khomeini. Shirazi challenged Khomeini on a number of issues, most notably their differing views of the two clerics on the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih. Mohammed al-Shirazi advocated the alternative concept of “Shurat al-Maraji” – rule by a council of the most senior religious authorities; as well as regarding himself as more senior in the clerical heirachy than Khomeini.

Ayatollah Khomeini sought to ensure that the Qom religious authorities spoke with one voice, with Khomeini remaining the ultimate and unchallengeable authority. Mohammed al-Shirazi’s huge charismatic status and religious legitimacy stood as a challenge to this, so it was inevitable that Khomeini sought to reduce his influence and access to financial patronage networks. As a result, from the mid-1980s the Shirazis lost the regional significance they had previously enjoyed.

From then on, the Islamic Republic would seek to wield its influence in Bahrain and the GCC through direct relations with Shia activists and grassroots organizations, not through relatively independent networks like the Shirazis, which didn’t always share the same agenda.

Iranian attention shifted back to Bahraini clerics associated with the Da’wah movement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (after Khomeini’s death in 1989) realized that in Bahrain it was the traditionalist clerics, not the Shirazis, who they could profit most by backing. Figures like Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim were followed by tens of thousands of Bahrainis. Only through such respected figures that Iran could hope to enjoy long-term influence. Thus, from the mid-1980s relations were intensively cultivated with the Da’wah leadership.

“Khomeini is… one of the heroes of Islam and Islamic unity…and when we speak of Islamic unity we have to salute Khomeini’s jihad and dedication to the cause… He will remain a champion fighting for the oppressed across the world;” Isa Qassim.

Saddam Hussein’s repressive policies made Iraq increasingly unsuitable for study. As a result, Shia Bahraini clerics went to Qom in growing numbers to pursue their studies. Isa Qassim spent much of the 1990s in Qom, Iran’s most important theological centre and the hub for propagating the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih; bringing Qassim and other Bahraini clerics further into Iran’s ideological orbit.

Brig-Gen Mohammad Mustafa Najjar (later Minister of Defence then Minister of Interior under President Ahmedinejad), as head of the Republican Guards Middle East Directorate for much of the 1980s, was seen as having particular influence in Iran’s meddling in GCC affairs. Najjar had been based in Lebanon during the early-1980s overseeing the establishment of Hezbollah. He was present during the suicide bomb attack on the US Marines compound in Beirut in October 1983 which killed 241 Americans; as well as for other attacks against Western and regional targets over that period.

Najjar’s later promotion to Defence Minister was taken as a signal of Iran under Khamenei and President Ahmedinejad taking a more aggressive regional stance. As one former leading Iranian officer commented: “Mohammad Najjar was the first commander of the Revolutionary Guard Middle East branch and is committed to export of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. As Defence Minister, he will be in a unique position to take care of all the logistical needs of the Quds Force for its operations in Iraq and in other parts of the region”.

Iran-sponsored terrorism in the GCC

As it had done in other Arab states, Iran from 1979 onwards adopted a policy of radicalizing Shia populations in eastern Saudi Arabia, culminating in major demonstrations during Ashura that November which featured massive images of Ayatollah Khomeini and anti-American chants.

The leading figure behind these activities was Hassan al-Saffar who attended religious seminaries in Najaf and Qom and was close to Ayatollah Mohammed al-Shirazi. His supporters studied at Shirazi institutions in Kuwait. This dominance of Shirazi ideology can be found in both Saudi and Bahraini radicals at this time, many of whom shared family ties. Saffar during the 1979 uprising declared his allegiance to the Islamic Revolution and announced the formation of the “Organization for Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula”.

When the authorities sought to restore order, Saffar and his allies fled to Tehran and became close to the Office for the Liberation Movements and the Movement of Vanguard Missionaries which had been closely associated with the Bahrain coup attempt.

During the early 1980s, significant numbers of Shia radicals from Gulf States and the Arab world took up residence in Iran. Many of these could be found studying in the seminaries of Qom. Others based themselves in Tehran. Meanwhile, many were recruited to fight on the side of Tehran in the Iran-Iraq war. This was seen as a useful method of giving these militants actual military experience which they could return and put to use in their home countries. Several Bahraini militants were killed in this fighting, including prominent IFLB member Hussein Tahir (Abu-Jihad) who tellingly was not killed fighting Iraqis, but died while trying to plant a bomb to kill Iraq-based members of the former Shah’s regime – the bomb went off early, killing him.

Training camps were also set up in Iran under the Revolutionary Guard. However, many Arab radicals preferred to gain training in Lebanon under Hezbollah. As Hezbollah grew in experience and notoriety, it became Iran’s preferred organization for training Arab militants. As well as being fellow Arabic speakers, it was easier for paramilitaries and members of sleeper cells to travel to Lebanon without arousing suspicion. Sometimes members or affiliates of Hezbollah made visits to states like Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to oversee the activities of their GCC protégés. Much later after the 2003 invasion, Iraq would become a favoured location for the training of GCC militants.

As with the 1981 Bahrain coup attempt; groups of Shia Omanis, Saudis, Iraqis and Lebanese could be brought together in support of major operations in the Gulf region. This was also the case for attacks staged in Kuwait during the 1980s. The most notorious such attack was staged in Kuwait City on 12 December 1983, simultaneously targeting foreign embassies, oil installations and government institutions. Among those involved in this operation were the cousins Mustafa Badruddin and Imad Mughniyah, both prominent within Hezbollah. The Iraqi militant Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis was also indicted by the Kuwaitis for his role in this attack. However, he succeeded in fleeing Kuwait and later would be linked to an assassination attempt against the Kuwaiti Emir and two hijackings of Kuwaiti Airways planes, as leverage for freeing the 17 terrorists who were detained for these attacks. Muhandis today is a leader of the Iraqi umbrella paramilitary movement Al-Hashd al-Shaabi. He also leads the Hezbollah Brigades which has been the principle Iraqi entity responsible for training Bahraini militants who have traveled to Iraq in substantial numbers.

Saudi radicals previously associated with the Movement of Vanguard Missionaries also joined Hezbollah al-Hijaz, including Ahmad al-Mughassil: “Hezbollah al-Hijaz’s long-term political goal was the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Arabian Peninsula after the Iranian model and it advocated the overthrow of the Saudi regime through violence.”

As we saw above, during the early 1980s, Iranian support shifted from Shirazi radicals in Saudi Arabia to a range of figures who had received theological instruction in Najaf and Qom. Thus, Iran assembled a new group of Saudi Shia activists who called themselves Hezbollah al-Hijaz. They kept a relatively low profile until July 1987 when pro-Khomeini radicals staged riot during the Mecca pilgrimage which caused a stampede, resulting in the deaths of 400 pilgrims. During the resulting deterioration in Saudi-Iran relations, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was raided and Saudi diplomats were attacked, killing one of them.

In the days after these events, Hezbollah al-Hijaz began issuing statements declaring its intention to destroy the Saudi state and establish a pro-Iranian Islamic republic. The movement staged a series of bombings and attacks against oil installations inside the Kingdom, and there were frequent clashes with police. Several Saudi officials and diplomats based overseas were also assassinated. Hezbollah al-Hijaz activists placed explosives nearMecca’s Grand Mosque in July 1989.

Hezbollah al-Hijaz, in parallel with an upsurge in violence and unrest by Bahraini militants, continued to escalate its activities during the 1990s, culminating in a series of attacks against foreign interests – most notoriously the 1996 Khobar bombings which killed 19 US servicemen.

In understanding the evolution of Shia militancy, it is important to follow the parallel activities of Shia activists in both Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia. There are close family and tribal ties and Saudi Shia often travel to Bahrain to take part in Shia processions and festivals, enjoying Manama’s more tolerant religious and social climate. The Saudi and Bahraini clerical communities are thus closely interlinked, and as we have seen, changing patterns of Iranian support for Shirazi or Da’wah affiliates were very similar in both states. 

The coming section will examine a new period of Islamist insurrection during the 1990s. We will see how one of the principle triggers of this unrest – which would bring a new generation of radical clerics to the fore.

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