The 2011 unrest in Bahrain galvanized militant groups which quickly gained control over the protest movement; taking it in a more sectarian and revolutionary direction. Iran also saw an opportunity and began cultivating militant entities with the aim of engineering regime change and expanding its influence inside the GCC. The result was a growing pattern of terrorist activity targeted mainly against the police, but also against civilian targets.
In the second half of this section we look at Sunni militancy; in particular the radicalizing effect of ISIS in Iraq and Syria after 2014, which inspired a small but significant number of Bahrainis to associate themselves with this jihadist movement. After threats were made against mosques and institutions the authorities introduced measures to crack down on these militants. Previous sections of the Militancy in Bahrain series can be found below:
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
Threats against the Formula One – Martyrs or terrorists?
The 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled as a result of the unrest. The 2012 event went ahead in a somewhat tense atmosphere, with opposition militants seeking to gain as much attention as possible by burning tyres and staging riots in local villages – which many international journalists duly went and gave serious coverage to.
By 2013 and 2014, however, the security situation had been transformed for the better and the Formula One racing went ahead in a much more normal atmosphere. Opposition tactics began to have an increasing smell of desperation, relying on over-the-top hysterical slogans like: “Stop, my blood is flowing” – “Race over blood” – “BloodyF1” and “The Grand Prix is killing us”.
In fact, those who paid attention to opposition activities during the 2014 event may have been perplexed by rallies, funeral processions and tearful eulogies dedicated to a certain Hussein Sharaf. Even Al-Wefaq lauded Hussein on their website as a martyr and demanded an investigation into his death. Online opposition propagandists like Maryam Al Khawaja and Marc Owen Jones were blaming the authorities for Hussein’s death and citing Hussein as yet another example of the Bahrain Government’s “brutal repression”. So who was Hussein Sharaf and how did he die.
Hussein Sharaf in fact had been wanted for a whole string of terrorism-related offences, including the murder of 19-year old policeman Mohammed Khan who died in October 2012 when his patrol was ambushed with petrol bombs. He was also charged with possessing explosive devices. Sharaf went on the run and was tried and sentenced in absentia.
Hussein died in an explosion on 1 April 2014 in the property where he was hiding out in Al-Eker. Witnesses reported hearing a massive explosion at the site before a large fire broke out. The Director-General of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Science concluded after a substantive investigation that the fire had been caused by the detonation of a bomb which Hussein Sharaf was in the process of assembling. The identity of Hussein was confirmed by DNA testing.
The Director-General reported that after the fire was extinguished, another bomb was found and defused at the location. “Several other bombs were also found there, in addition to bomb-making material and mobile phone detonators linked to wires. Police also seized homemade shotguns and ammunition from the site.”
At a time when militant groups possessed only limited bomb-making skills, Sharaf was clearly an important figure in helping take the militant movement from Molotovs to reliance on more serious explosive materials, the result of training he had received overseas from IRGC personnel.
Although not all the facts were known at the time of the Formula One race, it was clear that Sharaf was a dangerous criminal with terrorist intent, so the noisy commemoration of his “martyrdom” by the opposition was cynical to say the least.
For example, opposition figure Alaa Shehabi wrote in a Channel Four article that Hussein Sharaf’s death strengthened the argument for boycotting the Grand Prix; conveniently forgetting to mention that Hussein was a wanted murderer, whose death had nothing to do with so-called “police repression”. In fact Hussein’s death was the only incident she was able to cite when alleging the “escalation of the repressive crackdown” ahead of the 2014 Formula One.
The main protest rally by the opposition coinciding with the motor racing was licensed and approved by the Bahraini authorities and as a result went ahead uneventfully. However, the funeral of Hussein Sharaf and the various procession marches to condemn his “martyrdom” were marked by violence, as youths came heavily armed with petrol-bombs and other makeshift weapons and attacked the police. There were several blasts described by eyewitnesses during the funeral procession and a number of police were injured.
Killed by their own explosives
Immediately after the 2014 Grand Prix, two youths were killed and a third was seriously injured when a home-made bomb they were transporting in their car in Al-Muqsha exploded on 19 April. On 22 April, the funeral of these two youths was held amidst widespread incidents of violence against police. Many of the rioters had brought substantial quantities of petrol-bombs to the funeral.
Between 2013 and 2014, Bahrain witnessed a succession of such incidents as poorly-trained militants struggled to handle highly dangerous materials which they clearly had failed to fully comprehend. In fact, between mid-2013 and mid-2014 the highest proportion of unrest-related fatalities was by far the result of militants dying as a direct result of their own actions. Citizens for Bahrain recorded at least nine such fatalities.
One of the first significant such casualties was Hussein Abdulkarim, who was killed on 26 June 2013 while trying to build a bomb at a workshop located at his home in Saar. Given the densely-populated localities where Hussein and many other such bomb-makers operate, it is remarkable that such incidents haven’t resulted in higher numbers of casualties among those in the vicinity – including children and family members. Needless to say, Abdulkarim was widely proclaimed as a martyr and his funeral was once again the occasion for firebomb attacks against police.
Two children aged 10 and 11 on 5 March 2014 were hospitalized after being forced by militants to carry a bomb to a location in Al-Daih in order to detonate it; in the same spot where three policemen had been killed in an explosion two days before.
Also over this period, Ahmed Abdulamir was trying to throw a Molotov, which exploded in his hand. He later died of severe burns; and Mohammed Al Kasoor was killed by a falling palm tree that he had been cutting down to build a roadblock. Ali Khalil died while transporting an IED in the village of Bani Jamra. As we saw above, in April 2014 Hussein Sharaf was killed trying to build an explosive device.
Making sense of casualty statistics for the Bahrain unrest
By 2012 opposition militants were citing terrifying-sounding death tolls and lists of “martyrs”; claiming upwards of 150 fatalities over the unrest period. The opposition has consistently sought to portray an unjustifiably inflated impression of the number of deaths in Bahrain; using every alleged “martyr” to insight further social unrest and raise tensions, while inserting statistics for police and civilians killed by militants into their data and trying to convey a false picture of violent repression to international audiences.
Opposition statistics include many cases whose links to the unrest is vague at best. For example, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights statistics includes Yusuf al-Nashmy and Jaafar Mohammed Jaafar; one of whom died of a brain tumor and the other while hospitalized as a result of sickle cell anaemia. Lists of “martyrs” also include several individuals who were killed in car accidents.
These lists usually include those who were killed by opposition militants; around 22 police officers (as of 2017); a number of South Asian workers killed by opposition vigilantes, and citizens killed by rioters or explosives.
A closer look at the opposition’s own statistics reveals the relatively small number of protesters who died as a result of police use of force, particularly from 2012 to 2014. Nine deaths over this period were due to militants killed as a result of their own actions.
The BCHR statistics for early 2012 are greatly inflated by people who they claim died as a result of exposure to tear gas. The BCHR’s list of “tear gas victims” includes several people who had been in hospital for a prolonged period suffering from other symptoms before they died, people suffering from respiratory disorders; elderly victims and one unborn baby. Reportedly, opposition figures encouraged families of the deceased to link these deaths to the unrest, pointing out the substantial compensation payments available for those deaths linked to these events. In most of these cases the link to tear gas is highly speculative.
Although the BICI report indicates that 17 people associated with the protest movement died during February to April 2011 as a result of actions by the security forces; over the three year period up to February 2015 there were 12 fatalities among rioters and protestors; many of which were not conclusively attributable to the security forces.
2014-2015: A new phase of terrorism in Bahrain
As the Feb 14 movement was broken up, a new generation of militants was being prepared to wage a campaign of terrorism. These successor organizations were of a very different nature.
The Feb 14 movement was a diffuse and wide-ranging entity. Many segments of the opposition associated themselves with it, even if not actively involved in terrorism. These features made Feb 14 somewhat unsuccessful as a terrorist movement. This is because most of those involved knew everybody else in the local branches; there was a lot of contact and coordination with opposition elements based in London and elsewhere; and those involved in militancy lacked the ability to cover their tracks.
As a result; when the authorities moved against Feb 14, dozens of militants were detained and sentenced relatively easily. The courts were able to put together a coherent picture of their relationships to each other, patterns of travel abroad and their responsibility for illegal acts.
Although the emerging organizations would suffer from some of the same weaknesses, clearly lessons had been learnt. The names of several new entities began to emerge in early 2014, including Al-Ashtar Brigades, the Resistance Brigades and Al-Mukhtar Brigades. These organizations acted as smaller units, making secrecy easier. According to Bahrain’s Public Prosecutor, Al-Ashtar Brigades operates in cells of fewer than ten militants, overseen by émigré figures like Murtaza al-Sanadi from Iran. From mid-2013 onwards, there also appears to have been greater investment into sending key personnel abroad for paramilitary training, by the IRGC in Iran, by Hezbollah in Lebanon, or by the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq.
According to the Washington Institute: “The importation of roadside bombing equipment and expertise has gradually transformed the level of terrorist threat inside Bahrain. Prior to 2011, the island saw only a smattering of arson bombings and concussion-inducing “sound bombs” which almost never caused fatalities. Since 2012, however, at least 24 terrorist bombings have occurred, killing twelve security personnel and maiming forty others. And whereas the loss of a single police weapon might have prompted the government to turn whole neighborhoods inside out before 2011, at least some militants now possess assault rifles that outgun a typical police patrol.” (January 2017)
Al-Ashtar became the most notorious of these new groupings and by the early months of 2014 had already claimed responsibility for around 20 terrorist incidents; some relatively trivial, others including fatal attacks against police. The earliest Al-Ashtar claims of involvement in attacks go back to April 2013. Its early attacks included a bomb detonated outside the Bahrain Exhibition Centre on 17 June, a car bomb outside a mosque in Riffa on the same day; and a blast in Bani Jamra which injured seven policemen on 28 May. Attacks continued through 2014 and into mid-2015, including a bomb on a police bus in Budaya on 14 February 2014 and other attacks with explosives in Sanabis, Duraz and Budaya around the same time.
The changing nature of the unrest in Bahrain over this period was illustrated by the fact that between April 2013 and April 2014, no protestors had died as a result of clashes with police, showing the degree to which civil tensions had cooled and Bahrain was returning to normality. However, over this same period, six police died in terrorist attacks, demonstrating that elements within the opposition had redefined their strategy towards a focus on militancy.
Murtaza al-Sanadi & Al-Ashtar Brigades
Al-Ashtar Brigades since early 2013 has been responsible for the most deadly attacks against police and other targets. Since the beginning, this organization was organized and directed by Bahraini militants based in Iran in collusion with the highest levels of the Iranian regime, to the degree that official events and media outlets belonging to Iran’s leadership have actively promoted Al-Ashtar leaders like Murtaza al-Sanadi.
Murtaza al-Sanadi, a militant affiliated with the Wafa movement, spent six months in prison in Bahrain during 2011 on charges of involvement in violence. After his release in 2012 he departed to Iran never to return. With the arrest of the Bahrain-based leadership of Wafa, exiled figures like Sanadi took leading roles.
Sanadi collaborated with IRGC officers to establish the Al-Ashtar Brigades inside Bahrain. Bahraini authorities thus regard Al-Ashtar Brigades as the armed wing of Sanadi’s Islamic Wafa Movement.
To begin with Sanadi recruited Bahraini militants when they visited Iran on pilgrimages and for study. Some of those who came to Iran on other pretexts were presumably former associates of Sanadi and his group. Recruits were then given weapons and explosives training in Iran, Lebanon or Iraq, before returning to Bahrain. With large numbers of Bahraini Shia visiting Iran, Iraq Syria and Lebanon on pilgrimages, or for business or personal reasons, it was difficult for the Bahraini authorities to identify those who had received training or made illicit contacts overseas, although later on some limitations were introduced on travel to sensitive countries.
Sanadi commissioned Reza al-Ghasra to organize the training of Bahraini militants by the IRGC and by Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq. In early 2017, the Al-Ashtar Brigades formalized this relationship with the Iraq-based Hezbollah Brigades in an online statement, declaring an “alliance” between the two entities.
Ghasra, was later killed in February 2017 when security forces ambushed the speedboat carrying him and fellow fugitives to Iran, soon after Ghasra escaped from a prison where he was serving a life sentence for terrorism. The US State Department put Sanadi on its proscribed “terrorist” list in March 2017, citing his links to the Ashtar Brigades which “receives funding and support from the Government of Iran.”
Iran actively promotes Sanadi and Al-Ashtar Brigades. Supreme Leader Khamenei’s website published an article by Sanadi in December 2016 accusing the US of helping repress Bahrain’s Shia. Iran’s Al-Alam TV repeatedly hosts Sanadi. In March 2017 on the TV channel Sanadi declared: “I’m proud that America considers me an enemy.”
In September 2016 from Qom, Sanadi delivered a sermon at Iran’s most important mosque. Such an honour is usually only reserved for Iran’s most senior clergy. During this televised sermon, Sanadi stood next to an Iranian flag with a banner saying: “Death to the House of Saud”. Sanadi also took a leading role at a major 2013 conference commemorating Bahrain’s uprising. “We are truly thankful to the Iranians, especially the leader of all Muslims, Ayatollah Khamenei,” Sanadi announced. The event was organized by the Ahlulbayt institution founded by Khamenei.
Following the January 2017 execution of three Bahraini militants; Sanadi appeared in a video urging armed resistance and “martyrdom” while his supporters were heard demanding that the King of Bahrain be executed. Sanadi called on Bahrain’s opposition to abandon peaceful methods of protest and take up arms: “From today and hereafter, the period has changed. We in the Islamic Wafa Movement announce that we have begun a new phase as a tribute to the martyrs: one grip on the squares and one grip on the trigger”.
Prior to this video, Sanadi was relatively unknown to most Bahrainis outside the militant community and his name had only been cited in a few media reports. More than anything, this 2017 video helped cement Sanadi in the Bahraini public consciousness as a serious threat and major militant figurehead.
Bahrain’s worst terrorist atrocity – 3 March 2014
Al-Ashtar Brigades were behind the single worst incident of terrorism on Bahraini soil. On the evening ahead of the attack, three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were placed on the road in the Daih area. Al-Ashtar operatives were assigned a range of tasks, from surveillance, to videoing the explosions, to remotely detonating the devices.
The militants used the standard operational practice of instigating local disturbances and rioting to draw patrols of police into the area and then ambush them. Meanwhile, one group member was positioned on top of a nearby building and as soon as police approached the vicinity of the IEDs, the devices were detonated.
Three policemen were killed and seven others were seriously wounded, including a media cameraman embedded with the patrol. Those killed were Ammar Abdu-Ali al-Dhalei, Mohammed Arslan Ramadhan, and Emirati officer First Lieutenant Tariq al-Shehhi.
Al-Ashtar Brigades immediately posted a statement online claiming responsibility for the attacks. Dubai’s police chief concluded that those behind the 3 March attacks had recently visited Lebanon and received training from Hezbollah. According to official statements, Al-Ashtar’s Iran-based leadership facilitated travel for members of the group to Iraq, for training in weapons use, hostage-taking and bomb-making with Hezbollah.
Immediately after the attack, the Bahrain government added Al-Ashtar, along with the 14 February Coalition to its list of banned terrorist groups. Al-Ashtar Brigades and affiliated groups sought to escalate their activities during early 2014. Another attack against police just two days later failed when the device exploded prematurely, severely injuring the youths carrying it. A few days later on 15 March, policeman Abdulwahid al-Balooshi was killed by a similar explosion in Al-Dair.
Six suspects were ultimately convicted of responsibility for the 3 March attack and a number of other incidents attributed to Al-Ashtar Brigades. Evidence was based on witness testimonies; fingerprints and DNA evidence on the IEDs; and phone records which confirmed the locations of the defendants at the time of the attack. While a number of those involved were given stiff sentences, the three principal figures behind the attacks were handed down death sentences which were ultimately carried out in January 2017.
Haroun al-Zayani from the Public Prosecutor’s office said in a statement on 15 January 2017: “The convicts received fair public trials and all the legal guarantees in the presence of their lawyers who had access to their case before delivering their pleadings.” The trial had already proceeded through a lengthy appeals process before the sentences were carried out.
Increasing Iranian support for terrorism
From late 2013, there was a sharp rise in evidence of Iranian involvement in terrorism inside Bahrain. In the last days of 2013, boats were seized loaded with Iranian weapons and explosives bound for opposition militants. Among the arms documented in this seizure were bomb-making equipment, thirty-eight C4 explosive devices, fifty Iranian-made hand bombs, 295 detonators labeled as coming from Syria and large quantities of machine gun bullets. At the same time the Coast Guard impounded a boat containing 13 wanted individuals trying to flee to Iran.
In linked operations a couple of days later a sizeable warehouse for storing explosives and ammunition was discovered in Qurrayah. Other sites were located during the same series of raids. Over the coming months, explosives factories and large caches of weapons and materials of Iranian origin were discovered.
The Bahraini authorities singled out the Iran-based Bahraini national, Ali Ahmed Mafoudh al-Mousawi, as having overseen some of these smuggling operations. He was accused of “planning to commit terrorist acts and plant explosives targeting vital installations and sovereign and security locations in the Kingdom of Bahrain”. Surveillance of associates of Al-Mousawi led to the above operations in late 2013-early 2014. According to the Public Prosecution, those detained “confessed that they had travelled to Iran and received training by Iranian personnel at Iranian Revolutionary Guard camps.”
Groups like Al-Ashtar, Al-Mukhtar and the Resistance Brigades were found to have been far more directly overseen by Iranian based entities and several leading figures from these groups were either based in Iran or spent significant amounts of time in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. By mid-2015 many of the key figures behind Al-Ashtar had already been detained. However, the group’s two leaders, Ahmed Yousif Sarhan, and Qassim Ahmed Abdullah remained safely in Iran from where they had been coordinated training and weapons smuggling operations.
Cracking down against terrorist entities
New intelligence led to notable successes by the Bahraini authorities in cracking down on weapons smuggling operations. On 15 March 2015 a suitcase of explosives being transported from Iraq, headed for Bahrain, were impounded on the Saudi causeway. Disturbingly, these explosives were carried on a bus loaded with women and children. A month later more explosives were confiscated on the same causeway, this time headed from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. In both cases evidence linked back to Iran, such as the Iranian phone chips found in the possession of those arrested. The explosives were similar to materials impounded in late 2013.
Raids during mid-2015 resulted in the capture of significant quantities of military materials. For example; a 6 June raid in Dar Kulaib resulted in the seizure of large quantities of C4 explosives, detonators and advanced circuitry. The location contained sophisticated equipment for fabricating EFPs (Explosively Formed Penetrators), which Iran and Hezbollah had previously provided to Iraqi insurgents for attacking American troops: “The shop’s main function was to fabricate six-, eight- and twelve-inch EFP liners, the shaped dishes that give the devices their armor-piercing effect. At the time of its discovery, it was producing very accurate EFPs with passive infrared sensors (used to initiate a device as vehicles pass) and radio-controlled arming switches (to turn on the sensors).”
The Bahrain authorities blamed Murtaza al-Sanadi and Qassim Abdullah Ali as the masterminds behind this terrorist cell. Both are based in Qom in Iran and by 2015-16 were becoming increasingly prominent as propagandists for Bahraini militants. Evidence indicated that at least some of the bomb-making materials discovered had been destined for being smuggled into Saudi Arabia for the staging of terrorist attacks there.
An industrial scale forge for manufacturing EFP components was also discovered during a 27 September raid on a facility in Nuwaidrat. “The underground complex had been hewed, foot by foot, beneath the floor of a suburban villa, with no visible traces at street level and only a single entrance, hidden behind a kitchen cabinet”. The site contained 1.4 tons of C4 and TNT explosives plus materials for manufacturing ammonium nitrate-based explosives. Also found were six large pipe bombs, Claymore-type warheads, a bomb disguised as a fire extinguisher, mortars and rocket launchers, AK-47s and 20 hand grenades.
“In one room, police found $20,000 lathes and hydraulic presses for making armor-piercing projectiles capable of slicing through a tank. Another held box upon box of the military explosive C-4, all of foreign origin, in quantities that could sink a battleship. ‘Most of these items have never been seen in Bahrain,’ the country’s investigators said in a confidential technical assessment provided to US and European officials… In sheer firepower, the report said, the caches were both a ‘game-changer’ and — matched against lightly armed police — ‘overkill.’” Washington Post
On July 15, 2015, authorities impounded a boat which had just taken possession of 44 tons of C4 explosives 50 detonators, AK-47 assault rifles and other materials from a ship just inside Bahrain’s territorial waters.
Exploitation of children
One of the most disturbing aspects of opposition propaganda has been the exploitation of children and their cult of martyrs. During opposition demonstrations, small children were exhorted to wear martyr headbands or be covered in fake blood for photo opportunities. Sometimes the slogans on these headbands or t-shirts – worn by children barely old enough to walk – were along the lines of “I will be the next martyr”.
The opposition stands accused of radicalizing and politicizing a generation of children too young to understand the issues they are protesting about. Pre-teens have been widely used in rioting activity for building barricades, preparing and transporting Molotov cocktails and other explosive materials, and being put in the front line in confrontational situations with the police, with the intention of putting the security forces in a morally challenging position.
The serious injury of children being used to carry explosives and firebombs is a damning indictment of a movement which has lost its moral compass.
Examples of Bahraini terrorist groups which appeared after 2011
Al-Ashtar Brigades (Saraya al-Ashtar)
Appeared early 2013
Al-Ashtar has been linked to many of the most high profile attacks in Bahrain, including the killings of numerous policemen. It is also the group which seems to enjoy the closest ties to Iran through Murtaza al-Sanadi and overseas training of several of its personnel. However, measures against the group over the past three years have blunted its impact.
February 14 Coalition
(AKA: Saraya al-Muqawamah al-Sha’biyah / Popular Resistance Brigades) Came together around 14 Feb 2014 events.
A January 2012 statement announced the group’s readiness to resort to terrorist methods, saying: “We have so far preserved our right to use force for self-defence…Our people have decided to bring an end to the illegitimate regime”. In Aug 2012 the group planted explosive devices in the food court of a mall. In Feb 2013 it targeted a bank. During late 2013 – early 2014, the group claimed to have planted a number of car bombs. This group claimed joint responsibility for the March 2014 attack which killed three policemen and it appears to be closely linked to the Al-Ashtar Brigades. Operations against 14 Feb during 2013-14 diminished the group’s operational capabilities.
Saraya al-Mukhtar (Brigades of the Chosen one)
Announced its establishment Sep 2013
The group has been very active in recording its activities online, such as videos of relatively minor attacks. The group praised the killing of 3 police on 3 March 2014. The group attacked ATMs during spring 2014. Facebook post: “The cause of the people in the Eastern Region [of Saudi Arabia] and our defense is one…Resistance against Saudi occupation, our duty, and our fate are united.”
Asa’ib al-Muqawamah al-Bahrainiyah (Leagues of the Bahraini Resistance)
Announced its establishment Feb 2014.
However, after a flurry of announcements of attacks and minor activities, the group went quiet. The group followed the familiar pattern of social media activity and YouTube videos. It could be linked to a similar entity (Asa’ib al-Muqawamah) which was active Feb-April 2012. It has also been suggested that the group may be connected to the Iraqi entity, Asa’ib Ahlulhaq, which also publicized the Bahraini group’s materials. This would strongly suggest an Iranian connection.
Active since 2012
Figures linked to this group were accused of involvement in a number of attacks from 2012 onwards, including a 19 July 2015 attack in Al-Eker against police officers and a 9 October 2015 attack in Juffair against police targets. In August 2016, 35 men were cited by the Bahraini courts for links to this entity. Three key figures were being tried in absentia for leading this group and colluding with IRGC. Several were accused of receiving training by in Iran or by the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq.
Abis Brigade (Liwa Abis)
Declared its existence April 2014. Soon after its appearance in early 2014, the group attacked a factory and police targets. One of these attacks was claimed to be revenge for the treatment of Hassan Mushaima, jailed leader of the Haqq Movement. The group has been particularly active around Sitra and was associated with firebomb attacks against police. The nature of its rhetoric and imagery suggests Iranian links.
Saraya al-Karrar (Karrar Brigades)
Appeared in early 2014
The group has used improvised explosives, mainly against police targets.
Analyzing Sunni militant trends
Sunni Islamist political currents
In past decades, Sunni militancy has tended to be a relatively marginal phenomenon. The new political phase ushered in by King Hamad’s 2002 National Action Charter allowed Sunni Islamists to organize themselves politically; primarily as the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Minbar Society; and the Salafist Al-Asalah Society. To begin with, these societies appeared to reap the benefits of political participation, gaining 12 seats between them in the 40-seat Parliament in 2002. However, with each passing round of elections, their share of the vote has dwindled, with them only gaining three seats collectively in 2014.
Unlike many other states across the Arab world, it is not thought that significant numbers of Bahrainis associated themselves with radical groups like Al-Qaeda, although, prior to 2014 measures were taken against small numbers of individuals found to have been associated with Sunni jihadist groups.
The 2011 unrest galvanized these Sunni political societies in support of Bahrain’s leadership and led to the establishment of the Al-Fateh Coalition, which was strongly Sunni and loyalist in orientation, holding large demonstrations in support of the Government and demanding a voice in the National Dialogue. The 2011 unrest thus played a role in leading to an assertion of Sunni identity (“We were asleep before February 14;” is a common assertion by activists). This sometimes took a sectarian form and led to anti-Shia hate-speech in the social media; which led to the authorities passing new measures which criminalized such inflammatory attacks. Action was also taken against preachers deemed to have used sectarian language. Figures like Sunni MP Jassim Saeedi were particularly vocal in attacks against the opposition. The loss of his seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections was a sign that many in the Sunni community believed he had gone too far.
Between 2006 and 2011, the majority of elected MPs were from either Sunni or Shia religious societies. This meant that Islamists had an automatic veto on all legislation and socially-progressive laws had little chance of success, such as efforts over that period to draft a unified Family Law. During that period the Government frequently sought support from the Shura Council in lobbying in favour of important legislation and preventing proposals drafted by Islamists making it into law.
Although Islamists MPs are a small minority in the 2014 Parliament, they can be disproportionately influential in gaining support from conservative deputies for socially-conservative legislation. In recent years there have been proposals for banning tattoos, pork and alcohol; initiatives for dissuading women from working and a bill for forcing the government to only use Islamic banking. The Shura Council has frequently acted as a check on such socially retrogressive legislation which limits the rights and freedoms of people of all religions and would make Bahrain a less desirable destination for tourism.
Bahraini militants in Syria
During 2012-13, as Islamist militants became more prominent in Syria, concerns were raised that these events could radicalize Bahrainis. A number of Islamic groups held events in support of humanitarian efforts in Syria, which on the face of it was a laudable initiative. However, concerns were raised about oversight to ensure that money raised couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
In August 2012, two Bahraini MPs and other representatives from the Salafist Asalah party were criticized when they travelled to Syria and met with rebels fighting the government, claiming that they had donated money to these fighters. The Bahrain Foreign Ministry said that this visit had occurred without their knowledge and warned citizens against travel to Syria. Salafist preacher Faisal al-Ghurair, also from Asalah, had been a vocal advocate of sending funds to Syria Islamist rebels, through the fund-raising “Ghazi project”. In one video by Syrian jihadists it was claimed: “Bahraini financiers have paid for anti-aircraft guns which were the reasons behind the change in the course of the fighting on the ground.”
Several Bahrainis are known to have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq; around eight have been killed there and another preacher is documented calling on Bahrainis to go and fight in Syria during their summer break. On May 30 2013, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa told Bahrainis to “stay away from regional and international conflicts and instead focus on developing yourselves, your country and your society.” Measures have subsequently been taken restricting travel to locations like Syria and to criminalize membership of extremist groups.
Bahraini militants join ISIS
In September 2014, Bahraini members of Daesh prepared a video message said to be targeted at the “Sunnis of Bahrain”. The message urged Bahrainis to join ISIS; called for attacks against Bahrainis leadership (because it had joined the anti-ISIS coalition); and incited attacks against Bahraini Shia.
This was followed over the next couple of years by a succession of attacks against mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as against security targets. In November 2014 eight people were killed in an attack by ISIS-linked gunmen against a community centre in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority Eastern Province near Bahrain. A number of other attacks followed in the same region: On May 22 2015 a suicide bomber killed 23 and injured over 100 in an attack against a Shia mosque in Qatif; this was followed a week later on May 31 by an attack on another mosque in nearby Dammam which killed three people.
The most notable response in Bahrain was a succession of joint prayers by Sunnis and Shia at major mosques. Meanwhile, Bahraini police beefed up mosque security in anticipation that attacks could be staged. The well-known Bahraini militant Turki Binali in mid-2015 threatened that there were to be attacks in Bahrain. This threat was also echoed in a number of other extremist social media accounts. However, vigilance by the security services seems to have seen off these threats.
Social media accounts for those who travelled to join ISIS announced the deaths of several Bahraini extremists: Ali Yousif was killed in Syria in May 2014. In September 2014, the deaths of Yousif Jamil al-Bahraini and Ibrahim al-Awadhi (in Iraq) were announced (the same social media user, Abu-Isa al-Silmi, also mentioned the “martyrdom” of two others: Abu-Zubair al-Bahraini and Abu-Hamzah al-Bahraini). In May 2017 Mohammed Binali announced the death of Abdulaziz al-Jowder. A further video issued in December 2016 threatened attacks in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The vast majority of Bahrainis are strongly opposed to the objectives and methods of ISIS, particularly ISIS’s hatred of all those who think differently, including other Muslim sects; ISIS’s intolerant ideology; and the harm ISIS has caused to the region. However, it is clear that the group has succeeded in reaching out to a tiny proportion of misled and disturbed individuals.
Action against militants
From mid-2014 Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin-Ahmed Al Khalifa, made a number of media appearances announcing Bahrain’s inclusion in the coalition against ISIS. He emphasized the need to rid the world of this “deviated cult”.
In January 2015 the Bahraini government revoked the citizenship of a list of individuals associated with terrorist entities; including many of those who had gone to fight with ISIS. The majority of those who had their citizenship revoked were based overseas, but have the right to appeal through legal channels.
It is understood that around 20 of these figures are associated with foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Many of the names on this list come from well-known Bahraini Sunni families: Turki al-Binali is a prominent extremist preacher and propagandist from ISIS. Mohammed Mubarak al-Binali, Mohammed Isa al-Binali and Ayoub al-Murbati all featured in the notorious Youtube video which threatened attacks against Bahrain. Abdulaziz Al-Jowder was reportedly involved in a suicide operation just a few days previously in Diyala in Iraq.
The principle reasons for withdrawing citizenship included the following:
- Membership of terrorist organizations fighting abroad
- Perpetrating terrorist bombings
- Smuggling weapons for terrorist aims
- Financing organizations with the aim of carrying out terrorist operations
- Joining terrorist cells to attack the interests of the Kingdom, undermine stability and kill Bahraini citizens
- Working to establish a terrorist group and providing weapons training with the aim of engaging in terrorist acts
- Incitement of the use of force to undermine stability and violently bring down the state
The Bahraini Government is right to use the powers available to it to prevent the return of terrorists who have travelled abroad, to target those who plan to engage in acts of terrorism inside Bahrain and other states, and to dissuade others from associating themselves with ISIS and other terrorist groups.
These are all charges of a highly serious nature and few would disagree that those guilty of such charges are highly dangerous individuals who pose a severe threat to the safety of the public. However, it is the authorities’ responsibility to demonstrate that tangible evidence exists for each of these individuals and that the charges are justified, particularly as many are likely to appeal.
Meanwhile, many of those on this list are closely associated with militant groups linked to the Bahraini opposition, including the 14 February Coalition which claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist bombings. Around eight of those on the list are reportedly based in London, a stronghold for the Islamic Freedom Movement, which has been proved to have been funded by Iran.
In April 2016 the Bahrain Government designated 68 groups as being terrorist entities; this included both groupings associated with Al-Qaeda, and the likes of Hezbollah. Also on the list were entities active in Bahrain, like Al-Ashtar Brigades and the Resistance Brigades.
Currents of Sunni and Shia militancy in Bahrain have very different trajectories and strongly-contrasting objectives; however, they both pose a significant long-term threat.
The most obvious threat from Sunni militancy is the possibility of the ISIS worldview gaining a hold within society. Just a few militant individuals who are determined to cause trouble or stage attacks can have a disproportionately dangerous effect in society. There is little to indicate that such a threat currently exists, but society shouldn’t be complacent and action is required now to address the challenge of radicalism in Sunni communities and to ensure that the threat is properly understood.
The second major threat comes from the propagation of a militant and intolerant worldview which is entirely at odds with the tolerant and diverse social model of Bahrain. The danger is that Islamists can have a disproportionate influence by convincing those willing to listen that the imposition of strict Islamic practices (as they interpret them) is desirable and necessary for society.
In reality, such traditions have never been the norm in Bahrain which has always been a pluralistic mix of different sects, religions and cultures. It is thus important that Bahrain’s political system continually acts to protect the rights and freedoms enshrined in King Hamad’s Constitution.