“We must use all resources to hold accountable those who place themselves above other ordinary human beings who claim they have divine right to rule. These are people who try to govern us, here on earth, and in the hereafter. We are not only fighting terrorists, we are fighting theocrats;” HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran radicalized militants in Bahrain and across the Arab world, culminating in a Tehran-sponsored failed coup in Bahrain in 1981. These developments were discussed in the first part of this series.
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 new system of Constitutional Monarchy and parliamentary politics. Between 2001 and 2006, militants and moderates within the opposition achieved a fragile consensus. However, Al-Wefaq’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.
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
Violence triggered by a fun-run – 1990s
During the 1990s a new generation of Shia clerical figures emerged. With Najaf and Karbala under the straightjacket of Baathist rule, this generation had looked to the Iranian holy city of Qom as the most desirable location for study. These Qom-educated clerics imbibed many of the principles of the Islamic Republic, like Khomeini’s Wilayat al-Faqih doctrine, advocating a more activist role for the clergy.
Sheikh Ali Salman is an example of this upcoming leadership. Salman initially studied chemistry at University in Riyadh. However, during that period his worldview took an increasingly theological turn and he decided instead to study Islamic law, traveling to study in the seminaries of Qom from 1987 until 1992. Salman then returned to Bahrain, at around the same time that Sheikh Isa Qassim was heading in the opposite direction, to Qom to pursue his own studies. Ali Salman had been deeply influenced by Qassim’s sermons in his younger years and when Qassim left for Iran, Salman was Qassim’s choice to replace him as preacher in the Diraz and Al-Khawaja mosques. As well as preaching and leading local prayers, Salman and others, like Sayyid Haidar al-Sitri and Hamza al-Dairi, quickly became politically active within their communities.
These younger ulema came to embody a new clerical class which saw religion and politics as essentially linked. They were too young to have known the period prior to the Iranian revolution when Shia in the Gulf pursued a politically quietist path. In public processions these activists would proudly display their heroes on huge banners; Ayatollah Khomeini; Rafsanjani; Ayatollah Khamenei and leading figures of Hezbollah like Hassan Nasrallah. The readiness of figures like Ali Salman to discuss political, social and religious issues interchangeably seized the attention of disenfranchised young people and challenged the conservative old guard in Bahraini Shia communities.
In 1992 a group of Sunni and Shia professionals had put forward a petition favouring the restoration of the 1973 National Assembly. These included Sheikh Abdullatif al-Mahmud, a Sunni cleric, Ahmed al-Shamlan, a Sunni lawyer, and Sheikh Abdulamir al-Jamri, a Shia religious leader.
Bahrain’s Emir sought to meet them half-way by announcing his plans to set up a Consultative (Shura) Council. This “elite petition” was followed by a broader wave of political agitation and a further round of petitioning advocating for even stronger demands. The petitioning campaign was jointly coordinated by Sunnis and Shia, with the draft of the new petition being prepared by Ahmed al-Shamlan. The University of Bahrain Professor Dr. Munira Fakhro advocated greater activism for women. Proposals for reform were circulated and discussed peacefully and amicably within Sunni and Shia communities.
As these debates raised the political temperature, a single incident during a marathon race in November 1994 would transform the course of these events and radicalize a new generation of Shia youth.
The marathon, organized by a Bahrain-based Western company, had been going for several years. However, the November 1994 race, as it tried to pass through a number of Shia villages, was confronted by protesters objecting to the marathon route. Ali Salman was one of the leaders of these protesters who began throwing rocks at female runners, claiming they were dressed inappropriately. Soon fights broke out between the runners and the demonstrators.
Several protesters were arrested for instigating the violence, which triggered further rioting and led to the arrest of Ali Salman, who was later deported, along with fellow clerical radicals; Haidar al-Sitri and Hamza al-Dairi. The marathon incidents were therefore the trigger for a sustained period of rioting and political confrontations known as the “1990s unrest”.
The marathon events show how Islamist political movements had succeeded in imposing increasingly conservative attitudes upon a traditionally tolerant society. It also illustrates how radicals exploited issues like the marathon event to mobilize supporters and create a climate of activism and radicalism.
Elements behind the 1990s unrest
Over the 1990s this increasingly radical generation of Shia clerics led their supporters on a path of confrontation with Bahrain’s leadership. As well as calls for reform, and a return to an elected Parliament that the Sunni and Shia petition movements had jointly called for; the 1990s unrest would see the protest movement take a more sectarian and divisive turn. The 1990s unrest was directed and coordinated by a Shia religious leadership, including radical figures like Abdulwahab Hussein. These theocrats had the explicit aim of forcibly renegotiating the sectarian consensus which had existed in Bahrain and abolishing Bahrain’s progressive legal system and cultural traditions.
As a result, the mid-1990s would see incessant bouts of tyre-burning, rioting, blocking roads, vandalism and low-level violence; following much the same pattern as the activity by militants after 2011. There were three main elements which contributed to the momentum of these events:
The local grassroots activists behind the rioting were given an organizational structure by the parent Da’wah movement (which enjoyed no official status); resulting in a coordinated campaign of civil disobedience which was dressed us as spontaneous outbursts of local anger.
During this period the Bahraini Shirazis were kept at arm’s length from these new organizations, partly as a result of factional rivalries. So although the Islamic Front perpetrated some of the most notorious terrorist attacks, for the most part it was considered to be politically marginal.
Support from abroad
Many commentators noted the role of Iran behind the scenes. Iran maintained close relations with those activists who had studied in Qom and support for these militants was seen as a way of expanding its influence, as Iran was doing in Lebanon and other Gulf states.
Opposition in exile
The exiling of mid-ranking clerics like Ali Salman to London and elsewhere facilitated the creation of the “Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement”. These exiles were joined by many activists and radicals who were currently studying abroad. Key figures included Mansour al-Jamri (son of the cleric Abdulamir al-Jamri) and Sheikh Ali Salman.
London during the 1990s became a hub for shadowy GCC opposition movements, some of which were affiliated with Iran, and others which had Sunni extremist links or were rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Until the London bombings of 2005, many elements of British intelligence believed that they had a tacit understanding with Islamist groups, that they would be left alone on condition that Britain was never seen as a potential target:
“A key feature of Londonistan was the operation of a so-called ‘covenant of security’ between radical Islamists in Britain and the security services. Crispin Black, a former Cabinet Office intelligence analyst, described the covenant as ‘the long-standing British habit of providing refuge and welfare to Islamist extremists on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven here they will not attack us on these shores.’ A Special Branch officer said that ‘there was a deal with these guys. We told them that if you don’t cause us any problems, then we won’t bother you.’” Mark Curtis
1996 Hezbollah-Bahrain coup attempt
In a speech in 1990, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that IRGC Quds Force’s mission was to “establish popular Hezbollah cells all over the world”. With Hezbollah al-Hijaz in Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah-Bahrain and equivalent entities in other states, we can see Khamenei using Quds Force to make this a reality during the 1990s.
A June 1996 attack by the Iranian proxy Hezbollah al-Hijaz in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 US servicemen coincided with another unsuccessful Iranian-backed coup attempt in Bahrain. A Reuters report from the time states that these “Hezbollah-Bahrain” personnel were trained by the Lebanese Hezbollah. The Bahrain authorities detained 44 suspects involved with the plot. Confessions by several of those involved confirmed the Iranian link in training, arming and directing these personnel.
“The climate of tension between the Bahraini government and its Shia opponents is creating an atmosphere in which terrorist groups, supported by outside countries such as Iran, can meddle in domestic affairs. On June 4, 1996, the Bahrain government gave TV coverage to a group of young Bahraini Shia who claimed that they were given support by Iran and military training in Lebanon, in the name of a group called the ‘Bahrain Hezbollah’. Their mission was to recruit and train additional members;” Louay Bahry
Little is known about the details of the 1996 coup attempt. However, the Bahrain authorities said at the time that they had foiled a plot to topple the government and install a pro-Iranian leadership:
“Iran tried to create and organize a Bahraini Hezbollah organization before and during the recent spate of violence in the mid-1990s. To this end, the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force trained several Bahrainis studying in Iran as a local leadership cadre and provided the group with limited financial support. Bahraini Hezbollah actively spread propaganda against the Al-Khalifah”. D Byman, in Crises in the Contemporary Persian Gulf
During the 1990s, Da’wah activists came to associate themselves with what they called the “Hezbollah Line”; or the “Imam Line”; meaning faithfulness the Imam Khomeini’s revolution. For example; the Bahraini Hezbollah propagandist Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ansari explained that “Hezbollah is a concept in Bahrain and an organization in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia”.
The key protagonists in the 1990s unrest were the original members of the Najaf-educated Da’wah movement and their protégés. The Shirazis were thus relatively marginalized by the grassroots leadership steering the unrest. With many of its experience activists exiled abroad the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain was not well placed to play a role or steer the course of events, which were mainly directed by rural non-Shirazi clerics like Abdulamir al-Jamri. Likewise, as we have seen, Iran had long-since marginalized the Shirazi movement as its preferred vehicle for “exporting the revolution”. The Bahraini exiles, who Iran assembled in Qom and Tehran to steer events in Bahrain under the “Hezbollah-Bahrain” brand, had very different affiliations.
However, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist incidents throughout this period. In November 1996, the Front declared its responsibility for the bombing of the Diplomat Hotel, with the group telling the Associated Press “We put a bomb in the Diplomat hotel 20 minutes ago… after the feast… tell the government that we will destroy every place.”
Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement
“The Islamic Revolution is a divine gift… Suddenly Muslims became proud of their identity. Today after 32 years since the Islamic Revolution of Iran, Islam has become a world player;” Saeed Shehabi, BIFM
Many exiles from the 1981 coup attempt and the 1990s unrest set themselves up in London as the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement, including Saeed al-Shehabi, Majid al-Alawi and Mansour al-Jamri (Abdulamir’s son). During the 1990s the father-son link between Abdulamir al-Jamri; the prominent leader of the unrest; and Mansour al-Jamri, based in London, helped keep the Freedom Movement as a relevant body in steering events in Bahrain. After another key figure – Ali Salman – was exiled to London, he became closely associated with the Freedom Movement.
Many commentators noted how the Freedom Movement sought to market itself differently to different audiences: In its Arabic literature it goes by its full name of the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement, pushing a radical Islamist and revolutionary narrative; in its English writings it is simply the “Bahrain Freedom Movement” and expouses a narrative of democracy and human rights.
Since 2001, Saeed Shehabi remained the leading London-based figure behind the Movement. Shehabi would later hit newspaper headlines when the Evening Standard produced documentary evidence that Shehabi and his offices had been in the pay of the Iranian Embassy. Senior British Government sources said there were “concerns” around Saeed Shehabi and that he was “of interest”:
“A human rights activist who met Gordon Brown and visited the House of Lords is facing questions over his links to the brutal Iranian regime. Dr. Saeed Shehabi, 56, runs the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, which seeks to topple the King of Bahrain’s dictatorship. But today it can be revealed that Dr. Shehabi has made speeches supporting Iranian hardliners, and worked for 13 years in offices owned by the government of Iran;” Evening Standard, 2011
The investigation discovered that the offices where Shehabi had worked for 13 years were owned by the Iranian Government. The property’s mortgage was lent by the Iranian government and one of its directors, Dr. Ali Helmi, was the cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in London.
“This man’s connections with Iran are extremely concerning and embarrassing to those who have praised him as a credible voice on Bahrain;” MP Patrick Mercer
The BIFM has its headquarters in a north London Mosque. Its main mouthpiece is the Voice of Bahrain website. The Freedom Movement has been highly active in establishing relations with NGOs like Amnesty International and lobbying foreign governments.
Attempts to resolve the crisis
In order to find paths towards rapprochement, Bahrain’s Government conducted discreet negotiations with jailed opposition leaders, including Sheikh Abdulamir al-Jamri and Abdulwahhab Hussein. An agreement was reached in mid-1995 for many of these detainees to be released, in return for them using their influence to calm the situation.
However, once these releases took place in September 1995, these figures claimed the government hadn’t gone far enough and went straight back to organizing new bouts of rioting. Abdulamir al-Jamri conducted a much-publicized ten-day hunger strike in solidarity with those who remained in detention, which attracted large gatherings of militant supporters.
The 1990s unrest continued inconclusively throughout the 1990s although the numbers of rioters and activists dwindled as it became clear that many of their demands would not be met. It was only in 1999, on the occasion of the accession of the new ruler King Hamad, that the opportunity presented itself for far-reaching reforms and an amnesty for all opposition figures.
It is also worth noting that with the election of the dovish Mohammed Khatami as Iranian President in 1997, Iran was temporarily trying to show a more conciliatory face to the world. Thus, in the aftermath of the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996, until the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Iran tended to take a less openly-provocative regional stance. This would all change under Khatami’s radical successor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2005. Khatami’s presidency coincided with the massive growth of the Revolutionary Guard movement as an economic and military force which dominated Iranian society, setting the stage for renewed bouts of Iranian regional interference through the Quds Force and other IRGC entities in the coming years.
In 1998 Qassim Soleimani was assigned as head of the IRGC’s Quds Force. Over the coming years, Soleimani would oversee some of Iran’s most aggressive regional interference to date; including the bankrolling of Iraqi militias fighting the Americans in Iraq (resulting in the deaths of over 500 US servicemen), the Houthis in Yemen, the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan, Shia militias in Syria, terrorist and insurgent networks across Africa and support for militants in Bahrain.
Entering the National Action Charter era
When Emir Isa died in 1999 and his son Hamad Bin-Isa came to power there was widespread optimism about the possibility of drawing a line under the political disputes and traumas of the 1990s. King Hamad embarked on a series of measures for transforming the political scene. Most significant of these was the new proposed constitution, the National Action Charter; and an amnesty for all political exiles.
The committee designated with the task of drafting the Charter was drawn from a broad cross-section of Bahraini society and the full text of the draft was widely circulated in the media ahead of the referendum. Criticisms and proposals made by oppositionists were often taken into account, including the decision to open the text up to a public referendum, rather than just being ratified by an appointed council.
Bahrain was to become a Constitutional Monarchy and the text proposed a “bicameral system” of Parliament: “One chamber is constituted through free, direct elections whose mandate will be to enact laws while a second one would have people with experience and expertise who would give advice as necessary…”
As such, the Constitution was highly progressive for the Gulf region; clearly setting out guarantees for equal rights and freedoms for all religions and sects, freedom of expression and emphasizing the importance of a flourishing civil society: “Individual freedoms quality, justice and equal opportunity are core principles of the society. The State shoulders the responsibility of ensuring them for all citizens on an equal footing…”
However, the two-chamber system provided safeguards against the hijacking of Parliament by any single faction with a sectarian or retrogressive agenda; with the appointed Shura Council mandated with protecting the freedoms and rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum the King (until after the Constitution was ratified, he was still the “Emir”) visited many areas of Bahrain, including Shia-majority areas which had been central to the 1990s unrest, such a Sitra. Members of the public were given opportunity to state their criticisms and concerns and even in localities like Sitra the King found himself surrounded by demonstrators lobbying in support of the new Constitution. Observers talk about a climate of “celebration” and a widespread desire for all segments of society to work together for a unified and prosperous nation.
The text met with widespread public support and as a result received a 98.4% approval rating in a popular referendum that was credited with having taken place in a free and fair environment.
King Hamad’s amnesty
One of King Hamad’s most significant moves after coming to power in 1999 was to issue a general amnesty for political exiles and detainees. Ayatollah Isa Qassim returned in March 2001 after a prolonged period of study in Qom in Iran. He was greeted by cheering supporters as he disembarked from the plane. However, other opposition figures received a rather more modest welcome; discovering that after long years of exile, Bahrain had moved on and their contributions to opposition activity were long-since forgotten.
Although the vast majority of opposition supporters welcomed the amnesty, a number of hardliners chose to stay away. One result of this is that the opposition members who remained overseas – particularly the London-based Islamic Freedom Movement and those based in Qom – became increasingly hardline and spoke with a tone that didn’t always reflect that of their colleagues back in Bahrain.
In January 2001 leading opposition cleric Abdulamir al-Jamri was released from house arrest and hundreds of other political detainees were gradually released. That February the Emir issued decrees suspending the State Security Law and dissolving the State Security Courts. All this helped create a feeling that genuine change was in the air.
Even members of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which had plotted a coup and terror campaign in previous decades could be forgiven. Mohammed Ali al-Mahfoudh, an Islamic Front leader during the exile period, had spent much of the 1990s in Damascus calling for the overthrow of the Monarchy. However, he too benefitted from the 2001 general amnesty. Mahfouth founded Amal (the Islamic Action Society) in 2002, but refused to register the society until 2005. Ayatollah Hadi al-Mudarrisi who had masterminded the failed 1981 coup plot came to be Amal’s source of emulation and continued to influence their activities from abroad.
Al-Wefaq was initially strongest in the older villages of Bahrain and looked to the traditional clergy for leadership. Meanwhile, Amal’s core membership was strongest amongst the “Ajam” – Shia of Persian origin – who mainly hailed from urban areas of Manama and Muharraq.
Changing of the guard: From Jamri to Isa Qassim
The undisputed spiritual leader and political figurehead during the 1990s unrest had been Sheikh Abdulamir al-Jamri. His son, Mansour al-Jamri played a leading role from exile in London as part of the Islamic Freedom Movement. He returned to Bahrain and became chief editor of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat.
Abdulamir al-Jamri was initially supportive of the new National Action Charter, but along with much of the opposition, he came out against the new Constitution when it was formally issued on 14 February 2002. However, by May that year Jamri had been incapacitated by a severe stroke which forced him to withdraw from public life until his tragic death in December 2006.
Jamri’s departure allowed for the unrivalled ascendance of Ayatollah Isa Qassim. Like Jamri, Qassim had also been an important figure in the 1973 Religious Bloc. Qassim also led the Islamic Enlightenment Society, formed in 1972 which was effectively the Bahraini branch of Da’wah. Qassim had remained to some extent in Jamri’s shadow, and he would come to be seen as a hardliner and even closer to Iran and its Welayat al-Faqih theory of governance:
“While Sheikh Abdulamir al-Jamri led the political movement in Bahrain in the 1990s, Qassim generally kept silent. Although he disagreed with the 1992 and 1994 petitions, he nonetheless kept his opposing views to himself, partly as a sign of respect for Jamri, who was his life-long friend since the youth days when they both studies in the holy city of Najaf in the 1960s;” Mansour al-Jamri
Qassim spent most of the 1990s in Qom in Iran pursuing his religious studies, so it was only from his return in early 2001 that he was able to establish a close personal rapport with the Bahrain Shia community. From the outset, many Shia figures saw Isa Qassim as being less flexible than Jamri:
“It is also believed that Qassim, unlike Jamri, is not enthusiastic about close cooperation with liberal and secular forces in the opposition. The fact that he spent a long time in Iran meant that eventually he sympathized with the prevailing idea of ‘Wilayat al Faqih’, the cornerstone of the 1979 Iranian constitution which gave Shia jurisprudents wide-ranging powers over public life;” Mansour al-Jamri
Isa Qassim came to be seen as the spiritual leader of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society and a driving force within this movement. As Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq, Ali Salman, was understood to be a “disciple” of Isa Qassim.
Qassim has been often reticent about explicitly expressing his political views. However, many of his followers understood him to be ambivalent about engaging in the political process; which led to the perception that Al-Wefaq had one foot inside and one foot outside this process; even before Al-Wefaq’s parliamentary walk-out in 2011.
Qassim’s failure to come out strongly at an early stage in favour of participation in the 2006 elections may have been among the factors which allowed for the split in Al-Wefaq and the appearance of rejectionist movements like Haqq and Wafa.
As Al-Wefaq came into existence in 2001; the parallel Islamic Scholars Council was created. This was essentially a religious scholars’ organization for providing theological guidance, but quickly came to be viewed as a vehicle led by Qassim for giving religious legitimacy to Al-Wefaq’s political activity.
2002 elections – Al-Wefaq boycotts
The largest opposition grouping that appeared in 2001 as a result of these far-reaching constitutional reforms, was Al-Wefaq Islamic Society. Although this was an entirely new entity; its organizational infrastructure and personnel had a long history of political activism, through the Islamic Enlightenment Society, Al-Da’wah and the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement.
Throughout 2001, prominent figures within Al-Wefaq were supportive of the new Constitution and the reform programme, but almost overnight after the Constitution was formally issued on 14 February 2002, these same figures came out strongly and vocally against the provisions of this Constitution for a new parliamentary system.
Despite the text of the National Action Charter referring to a bicameral Parliament attaining 98.4% of the vote during the popular referendum; the opposition moved the goalposts, rejecting the existence of the “Shura Council” upper house which was appointed to scrutinize legislation; arguing that this reduced the powers of the elected parliamentary chamber. The outspoken attacks against the Charter by prominent clerics like Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim succeeded in uniting their supporters in opposition to the new status quo.
Al-Wefaq participated in the municipal elections in May 2002, but chose to boycott the parliamentary elections in October 2002. Al-Wefaq succeeded in making common cause with other oppositionist groups in this elections boycott. The leftist National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), the Baathist National Democratic Action Rally and the Shirazi Islamic Action Society (Amal) also joined the boycott. As a result, a large number of seats went to independent candidates. Meanwhile, the anti-sectarian Al-Wasat party and leftist Al-Minbar al-Taqaddumi participated in the vote. Three moderate Shia societies: Rabitah; the National Action Charter Society and the National Democratic Assembly; did chose to participate and gained six seats between them.
Following these elections, Al-Wefaq used its success at the Municipal elections to consolidate its influence and gain political experience. It continued mobilizing supporters through rallies devoted to the Palestine issue, the Iraq war and other hot topics. Al-Wefaq also continued its political agitation against the 2002 Constitution.
2006 elections – Al-Wefaq participates
Two decisions – firstly whether to register as a formal political society in accordance with the 2005 Political Societies Law; and secondly whether to participate in the 2006 elections – led to a split within Al-Wefaq. Much of the senior leadership favoured participation in the political process; but the bloc which coalesced around Hassan al-Mushaima preferred the illegal extra-parliamentary route. Mushaima’s group ultimately seceded from Al-Wefaq over the issue of registration, naming themselves the “Haqq” Movement.
Following resolution of the registration issue, urgent debate began over whether or not to boycott the October 2006 elections. The senior leadership and the Islamic Scholars Council led by Isa Qassim favoured participation; preferring the opportunities that Parliament could provide to remaining in the political wilderness. During exhaustive internal debates there were many further defections to Mushaima’s Haqq Movement. However, Al-Wefaq succeeded in reorganizing itself and its General Congress agreed to field candidates only in areas with a majority Shia population, to maximize chances of success.
The decision to support participation in elections and specifically back Al-Wefaq also led to divisions within Isa Qassim’s Islamic Scholar’s Council. The prominent cleric Abduljalil Miqdad was the mouthpiece for those who publicly disagreed with Qassim’s support for participation, and he consequently resigned in 2005. Miqdad later went on to become a joint founder of the rejectionist Wafa Movement.
Al-Wefaq was widely criticized for abusing religious credentials to win votes. They created the impression that Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was urging people to vote, based on a private telephone call with Sistani’s representative. Isa Qassim proclaimed Al-Wefaq to be the “Bloc of Believers”, with clerics leaving their supporters with little doubt of who they had to vote for, despite the law banning the abuse of religious sermons for this purpose, as well as banning political mobilization along sectarian lines.
“According to Al-Sistani’s representative in Bahrain, ‘Ali al-Sistani answered to the solicitation of Al-Wefaq in the framework of a private telephone conversation between his son, Mohammed Redha al-Sistani, and an Al-Wefaq representative.’ The conversation ‘was not meant to be made public’. Al-Sistani’s representative publically clarified that while ‘His Excellency S. ‘Ali al-Sistani considers that participation is most appropriate… the point of view of His Excellency the Sayyid is not a fatwa;’” Lawrence Louër
There was a 72% turnout for elections countrywide and informal polling suggested that only a small percentage heeded the rejectionists’ call for a boycott. Al-Wefaq went on to win in 17 out of the 18 constituencies where they fielded candidates, making them the largest parliamentary grouping. Their decision to only field candidates in Shia-majority constituencies reinforced the national perception that Al-Wefaq was a party with a sectarian ideology and mobilized on a sectarian basis – a practice explicitly forbidden by the Constitution. Despite their success, Al-Wefaq found themselves in a difficult position; squeezed between the radical, rejectionist Haqq Movement which contested Al-Wefaq’s political legitimacy in Shia areas; and the necessary compromises and pragmatism of parliamentary politics.
Out of the 40 elected seats the Sunni Al-Minbar Society won seven seats and the Salafist Al-Asalah won five, along with 11 independents; which all three groupings together were seen to comprise the pro-Government bloc. The Shirazi Amal society failed to win any seats, suggesting that even in traditionally Shirazi urban constituencies, Al-Wefaq was seen as the preferable candidate for a united opposition.
Although the Islamist Shia of Al-Wefaq and the Sunni Islamist parties had little affection for each other; these entities enjoyed a common cause in uniting to push through Islamic legislation. This resulted in the Islamist-dominated Parliament often being pitted against a more progressive Cabinet and Shura Council. The strong showing of Sunni and Shia Islamists when grouped together shows why many Bahrainis had favoured the balanced system of two houses of Parliament, providing a check on unwelcome legislation.
Sectarianizing grievances – Blocking the Family Law
By establishing itself as a political society which mobilized along sectarian lines and answered to the senior Shia clergy, Al-Wefaq and Isa Qassim consolidated a dangerous and divisive trend in Bahraini society.
Although many Shia communities are impoverished and marginalized, comparable Sunni communities can be found in Muharraq, Hamad Town and elsewhere. The difference was that Al-Wefaq and more radical entities like Haqq, Wafa and the BCHR exploited economic grievances through the prism of sectarian politics
The Family Law was an example of how Al-Wefaq used their parliamentary leverage to block a bill which gave women the rights to go to court for issues of divorce, child custody and inheritance. Eventually a Sunni version of the Family Law did pass in Parliament; which left Bahrain’s Shia community without legal recourse on personal issues because Al-Wefaq wanted to maintain the traditional system where local clerics arbitrarily gave rulings on family issues – a reality which provoked many Shia women to resort to Sunni courts to seek justice.
Sectarian political agendas became self-perpetuating. In particular the more radical entities encouraged their constituencies to disengage from the rest of society and self-identify as separate from the remainder of Bahraini society. They protested that Shia were excluded from the security forces, and then when community police force initiatives after 2012 specifically tried to recruit Shia personnel these entities coerced their supporters not to enlist for the “enemy” authorities.
This radicalism created new generations of radicalized youth who identified themselves as against the Bahrain political system, even before they were sufficiently mature to have a grasp of politics. This fraught environment after 2011 gave rise to hundreds of young people who would embrace militancy and engage in illegal and violent activities. Charismatic figures like Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Hassan al-Mushaima cultivated and channeled this radicalism.
Al-Wefaq’s rejectionist wings – Haqq & Wafa
From its inception in 2001 Al-Wefaq Islamic Society suffered from divisions between those who wanted to engage with the parliamentary politics – and those who wanted to boycott the political process and use all means at their disposal to bring about radical change.
This explains why Al-Wefaq has continually shifted its position and rhetoric over the years and failed to adopt a clear political strategy; either of compromise or confrontation – its rhetoric often playing to its radical base, while its actions indicated greater willingness to manoevre. By 2005-2006 the leadership’s decision to participate in the elections fundamentally alienated the hardliners, resulting in a split of the movement and the emergence of Haqq.
Hassan al-Mushaima, originally from the village of Jidd Hafs and a founding member of Al-Wefaq, was popular within militant circles and had gained his rabble-rousing credentials during the 1990s unrest. From 2005 onwards, Mushaima consolidated this reputation by leading his supporters on bouts of rioting, tyre-burning and mob violence; collaborating with other militant leaders like Abdulhadi al-Khawaja to incite young people to throw Molotov cocktails at police. However, Mushaima lacked any kind of religious credentials and was clearly no political strategist, beyond his talent for stirring up trouble on the streets.
The leaders of Haqq were furious at what they saw as Al-Wefaq and Isa Qassim’s dishonest tactics and exploitation of religious authority to convince Shia citizens to vote. Haqq’s spokesman Abduljalil al-Singace complained that Al-Wefaq had “coerced” Shia voters. Mushaima was quoted as saying that the “Shia were on the verge of committing the same mistakes as the Christians by giving too much authority to the clerics.”
Between 2006 and 2011, the Bahraini authorities faced a dilemma in how to respond to militant groups like Haqq which were undermining Bahrain’s stability through constant rioting and street-level violence. There were several brief crackdowns and bouts of arrests which only seemed to fuel the unrest; along with pardons and efforts at conciliation. The King met Mushaima and other rejectionist leaders on a number of occasions, including a meeting in London in 2008. However, Mushaima was unwilling to compromise. Such high-level engagement may have reinforced Mushaima’s sense of self importance and his maximalist demands that ultimately sought an end to Constitutional Monarchy.
Taking advantage of another brief bout of detention of Haqq’s leaders in 2009; Abdulwahab Hussein and cleric Abduljalil Miqdad announced in that they had established a new Shia opposition grouping; Wafa – the Islamic Loyalty Movement. From its inception Wafa staged rallies, protesting the detention of those who had been involved in recent disturbances. Wafa shared the same radical tactics and ideology as Haqq. However, they had the advantage of a cleric of the calibre of Abduljalil Miqdad who could challenge the theological status of Ayatollah Qassim’s Islamic Scholars Council.
“Shia community contacts told us that, following his meeting with Hussein and Miqdad on March 14, Bahrain’s pre-eminent Shia cleric, Shaikh Isa Qassim, was not impressed… Abdulwahab Hussein’s stature and credibility as a conservative leader is much greater than Mushaima’s. Hussein was higher up in the Shia opposition of the 1990s, when he had the ear of the late opposition clerical leader Abdulamir al-Jamri in a way that Mushaima never did. Hussein also has a reputation as a thinker… Wafa and Haqq compete for the same Shia oppositionist base. Both were unregistered, but prior to 2011 were mostly allowed to operate uninterrupted, despite being seen as responsible for bouts of rioting and unrest;” US diplomatic telegram
The same 2009 Wikileaks cable reported that: “Leaders of Haqq and Wafa (along with the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights), were encouraging children to participate in sectarian and xenophobic violence that climaxed in the lynching of a Pakistani in March.”
Abdulwahab Hussein, from Nuwaidarat, was one of the most prominent Shia activists during the 1990s unrest. Hussein remained in Bahrain rather than going to exile – which led to his detention in 1996. He was released and pardoned by King Hamad in 1999. Although Abdulamir al-Jamri was the clerical face of the Shia opposition at the time, Hussein’s admirers claim he was the “thinker” behind the unrest. He coordinated activities with the exiles in London associated with the Islamic Freedom Movement. Abdulwahab was a founding member of Al-Wefaq and reputedly played a key role in persuading other opposition societies to boycott the 2002 elections.
Abdulwahab stated that whereas Haqq was limited to being a political movement led by “the old guard”; Wafa’ could be a “total movement”—“religious, political, and societal”—precisely because it had a “Quranic basis” and was was directed by religious leaders. In line with their confrontational stance; Haqq and Wafa deliberately boycotted the Political Societies Law of 2005, which required all political societies to register themselves – thereby, putting themselves on the wrong side of the law and further brandishing their rejectionist credentials.
Haqq and Wafa became very close to similarly-radical London-based Islamic Freedom Movement; all three movements in 2011 would ultimately coalesce into the “Coalition for the Republic”:
“Haqq has now co-opted the Bahrain Freedom Movement, which continues to operate in London. Lord Eric Avebury, vice chair of the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group, has for years been a vocal supporter of Haqq and a critic of the GoB. During King Hamad´s visit to London in January 2008, he met Mushaima and Dr. Saeed Shehabi, an active Bahrain Freedom Movement leader who rejected the amnesty and chose to remain in London. Wefaq leaders such as Sheikh Ali Salman, Abduljalil Khalil, and Mohammed Jamil al-Jamri used to attend the Bahrain Freedom Movement´s annual meetings, but didn´t go in 2007 or 2008. Mushaima attacked Wefaq in the media, calling them ‘Inbataha´een,’ a colloquialism that equates to ‘groveling dogs’ after Salman and other Wefaq leaders skipped a scheduled meeting with Avebury in 2007;” 2008 US Wikileaks cable.
Militant “human rights” societies
“Khawaja’s goal is to provoke the government into aggressive responses, believing that he is ‘untouchable’ because he has the backing of the United States, Europeans and Western human rights groups;” Mansour al-Jamri
Other Shia activists associated themselves with new societies which branded themselves as human rights organizations. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja as a young Shirazi activist started his political engagement as a member of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. At the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Khawaja was a student based in the UK, from where he became the head of the Islamic Front’s human rights wing, the “Bahrain Human Rights Organization”. After the failed Islamic Front coup attempt in Bahrain, Khawaja continued to organize rallies and opposition activity for the Islamic Front from abroad.
In 1991 Khawaja was granted political asylum in Denmark. Having realized the effectiveness of organizing opposition activity under a human rights banner, he founded the Bahrain Human Rights Organization. Through this organization, Khawaja was able to build strong relations with a number of international human rights groups, such as Front Line Defenders. Khawaja would use these associations to his advantage later on.
Following King Hamad’s 2001 general amnesty Al-Khawaja founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights which was officially registered in 2002. The other notable founder of the BCHR was Nabeel Rajab; who was then a little known figure. However, Khawaja and Rajab’s radical leadership would steer the BCHR in a high-profile and confrontational direction.
The BCHR presented itself as a human rights body, but was heavily politicized and often took more radical stances than the conventional opposition groupings, with Khawaja becoming directly involved in street agitation and politicizing the youth. The BCHR itself acknowledges Khawaja’s involvement in the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain.
A number of other left-wing activists who were instrumental in establishing the BCHR, such as Abdulaziz Abul, complained of how they were marginalized or forced out as the BCHR pursued an increasingly activist and politicized direction.
Khawaja has never been employed outside his political activism activities, causing many to question his sources of income and how he was able to send his children to expensive private schools in the US. Khawaja continues to have strong ties with the successor movement of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain – the Islamic Action Society, Amal. His brother Salah al-Khawaja was formerly the vice-president and his BCHR colleague, Zahra al-Muradi stood unsuccessfully as an Amal MP in the 2006 elections. Khawaja’s daughters, Maryam and Zainab, have also become intensely involved in opposition activity.
“The BCHR and its allies address two main audiences and hence employ two different rhetorical strategies: Pro-democracy rhetoric is mainly directed and UK and US audiences. The Bahraini audience on the other hand is addressed in sectarian terms;” Study by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute.
Khawaja was also a founder of the Bahrain Unemployment Committee. Despite its harmless-sounding name, many key figures at the BUC, such as Abdulwahhab Hussein came out as driving forces behind the Haqq Movement. Khawaja quickly gained a reputation as a rabble-rouser and even opposition figures regarded his as a dangerous and divisive figure; as the below Wikileaks conversation with Mansour al-Jamri testifies:
“Jamri was highly critical of Khawaja, terming him an opportunist who was more interested in personal notoriety than genuine reform. He cited an Arab expression about people who exploit a good cause (in this case, unemployment among Shia) to create mischief, and said that this expression describes Khawaja perfectly. He said that Khawaja has absolutely no interest in democratic reform, and that if Khawaja ever took over people would look back on the days of the Al Khalifa as paradise. Jamri said that Khawaja’s goal is to provoke the government into aggressive responses, believing that he is ‘untouchable’ because he has the backing of the United States, Europeans, and Western human rights groups.”
By 2004 the BCHR had so alarmed the authorities by its confrontational approach that it was closed down. Khawaja spent a couple of months in detention. Over the following years Khawaja grew even closer to leading figures from Haqq like Mushaima. These figures jointly coordinated bouts of street violence and anti-government activity. US cables record Khawaja and the BCHR’s direct involvement in inciting and perpetrating xenophobic violence. The BCHR has been described by the Institute for International and Security Affairs as the “most radical opposition group currently found in Bahrain”, with the activists involved having “chosen to operate as an NGO – although with political goals”
Khawaja described Ayatollah Khomeini as a “great man”. Meanwhile, the BCHR aligned itself with Islamist parties in opposing the Family Law, which was designed to strengthen the status of women in issues of divorce, child custody and domestic violence. It is strange to see the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights advocating an anti-human rights and socially-retrogressive agenda.
According to US embassy cables released by Wikileaks the US ambassador to Bahrain, Adam Ereli, in 2010 argued that human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, relied too much on their close ties with the BCHR for their information on Bahrain. One cable argued how both Haqq and the BCHR had developed an unhealthily close relationship with international NGOs:
“Haqq´s media specialist Singace maintains close ties to, and provides information for, international human rights NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Frontline Defenders who identify BCHR as their principal partner in Bahrain. According to Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and Khawaja´s son-in-law, Frontline recently hired Khawaja as their Middle East bureau chief.”
These abnormally-close relationships guaranteed Khawaja and the BCHR a sympathetic hearing with organizations like Amnesty International when the 2011 disturbances began.
A “Coalition for a Republic” and the February 14 Coalition – 2011
At the beginning of 2011, the most militant segments of the opposition tended to be rooted in the illegal Haqq and Wafa movements which had rejected all forms of political participation and had been responsible for bouts of rioting and tyre-burning since their inception. The BHCR’s Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was also closely-associated with these radical fringes. Several leaders of these rejectionist groups, like Hassan al-Mushaima, Abduljalil Singace and Abdulwahab Hussein, were jailed in early 2011 after inciting violence and establishing the “Coalition for a Republic” with the aim of establishing of an Islamic Republic in Bahrain.
The disappearance of these figures led radical elements of the opposition to unite as the “February 14 Coalition”. The February 14 Coalition was the umbrella movement for a range of opposition elements which sought to radicalize young people, instigate riots and attacks against police and take the unrest down a more confrontational path. A number of affiliates received weapons and explosives training outside Bahrain, primarily in Lebanon and Iraq; others made visits to Iran over this period.
In the following sections we will review how the 2011 unrest took an increasingly sectarian trajectory after moderates were marginalized and militants became the driving force behind the opposition movement. We will also see how Iran sought to take advantage of the instability to train and arm militants, with the aim of steering the unrest in an even more radical and violent direction.