As protests flared in Manama in February 2011, Iran quickly saw an opportunity. In this section we look at the various aspects of Iran’s support for militant groups in Bahrain after 2011. The various dynamics of Iran’s involvement at the outset of the protests can be summarized as follows: Propaganda support through Iran’s dense network of media outlets; providing training, funding and logistical support to militants; and the provision of weapons.
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
Iranian and Iran-funded media outlets immediately commenced round-the-clock coverage of events in Bahrain. This included Press TV (English), Al-Alam, Al-Mayadeen, Kawthar and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar (all Arabic language TV channels), TV channels owned by Iraqi proxies, like Al-Ahd (Asaib Ahlulhaq), Al-Ghadeer (Badr Brigades), Al-Ittijah TV (Hezbollah Brigades), Al-Afaq TV (associated with Nouri al-Maliki and Da’wah), Al-Furat (ISCI), Al-Fayhaa, Al-Massar TV networks (Da’wah-Iraq), Ahlulbayt TV, Karbala TV and Biladi TV. This is in addition to numerous domestic and international Iranian channels (Persian and English) and a vast range of Lebanon-based media outlets.
Senior Al-Wefaq leaders and prominent opposition radicals were interviewed by many of these TV channels, which also made copious use of on-the-ground militants who had no scruples about telling complete factual inaccuracies about the death toll, numbers of arrests, use of torture and alleged police brutality.
The influence of these channels can be demonstrated by the regularity with which their questionable reporting was cited by human rights reports and academic writing concerning the Bahrain unrest.
By mid-2011 the protests had died right down as even the most determined demonstrators struggled to venture outside their houses during the heat of the Bahraini summer when even nighttime temperatures could exceed 40 degrees. Despite the fact that nothing was happening in Bahrain, 24-7 coverage continued unabated on these Iran-sponsored channels. They often used archive footage, running endless interviews with local militants by phone or hosting Iran-based Bahrainis and other “experts”. Some of the footage shown on these TV channels was later proven not to have come from Bahrain at all, or canned footage was attributed as new “breaking news”. Given that at the time hundreds of people were losing their lives on any given day in Syria, and earth-shattering events were occurring in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, Al-Alam TV’s determination to devote 80% of its coverage to Bahrain and ignore Syria altogether was telling.
This was to have dangerous and polarizing effects, because in pro-opposition communities, many citizens had long-since stopped listening to the local Bahraini official media, and thus were getting their news almost exclusively from Iranian outlets, sometimes surmounting blocks on these channels and websites in order to access them. The angry and overheated tone of Al-Alam and Al-Manar was perfectly attuned to the anger felt by many within the protest movement, and thus these media outlets non-stop narrative of martyrdom, state brutality and bringing down the regime played an underestimatedly significant role in fermenting the unrest in Bahrain.
Following the death of a Bahraini teenager on 22 October 2013, Press TV issued a report entitled “Bahraini forces kill teenage activist”. They stated that Ali Khalil al-Sabbagh, from the village of Bani Jamra, had been shot in the head by security forces. Numerous other pro-Iranian outlets like Al-Manar carried the same story, reporting that Bahrainis took to the streets condemning the killing. The televised Press TV report featured shocking images of 17-year old Ali’s disfigured and bloodied body. However, Ali Khalil wasn’t shot. He was carrying a homemade bomb which exploded in his arms. Even local militant groups attributed Sabbagh’s death to “technical errors”.
Indeed, there was widespread bemusement in December 2013 when it was reported that Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV had apologized to Bahrain for its biased and dishonest coverage of Bahraini affairs over the previous years. Of course it turned out that Hezbollah hadn’t apologized. However, a statement from Hezbollah later clarified that their delegation to the Arab States Broadcasting Union had made the apology “without referring to the party leadership”! This begs the question of why the Al-Manar delegation felt motivated to apologize and commit itself to “to objectivity in covering Arab news and events and abide by professional standards”.
Training and sponsoring terrorists
Iran’s direct role in training militants after February 2011 apparently commenced in early 2012 when low-level figures involved in the unrest, like Murtaza al-Sanadi, some of whom had served jail time; fled to Iran and began coordinating with Revolutionary Guard figures regarding systematic efforts to train militants in paramilitary activity.
It appears that such activity was initially somewhat ad-hoc, with these Iran-based figures encouraging some of their militant associates back in Bahrain to travel abroad for brief periods of weapons training and motivational support. Some of this early 2012 activity certainly involved smuggling rifles, pistols and primitive materials for explosives back into Bahrain. As well as the option of bringing in such materials via fishing boat; one popular approach was bus trips through Saudi Arabia to Iraq to visit Shia pilgrimage sites.
As well as obtaining some basic weapons training inside Iraq, it wasn’t impossible to bring carefully-concealed materials back across the Saudi-Bahrain causeway, in amongst the thousands of others taking the same routes. Increasingly careful and better-targeted scrutiny on the causeway, began to result in the discovery of smuggled weapons, forcing those involved to become more innovative.
On multiple occasions during 2015, weapons and explosives were impounded on the causeway; some of these were being smuggled in from Iraq. However, it became increasingly clear that in some cases explosives were being manufactured inside Bahrain with the aim of being transported into eastern Saudi Arabia for use by militants there. The 6 June 2015 raid on a sophisticated site in Dar Kulaib showed evidence of explosives being manufactured for export to Saudi Arabia and militants operating at the location were found to have been in contact with Saudi militants.
The initial rather-hasty attempts by Iran to coopt militants and provide cursory training, either directly or via proxies, to some degree backfired, resulting in bomb-makers and explosives handlers who were more likely to kill themselves than their targets. Well into 2013, the most effective weapons used by militants remained the simple, but effective Molotov cocktails.
As we have seen, this gave rise to a second phase of Iran-backed militant activity beginning in early-to-mid-2013, as the 14 February Coalition beefed up their ability to manufacture explosives and use weapons and the Al-Ashtar Brigades escalated their activities, relying on those who had received training abroad, with figures like Murtaza Majid al-Sanadi, Ahmed Yousif Sarhan, Ali Ahmed Mahfoudh al-Mousawi and Qassim Ahmed Abdullah acting as the Iran-based point of contact between the Republican Guards and Bahraini militants on the ground.
Who are the Hezbollah Brigades?
While the Republican Guards and Hezbollah in Lebanon are relatively well known, the third principal provider of training for Bahraini militants, the Hezbollah Brigades, is less well known.
In 2005 and 2006 Iran was stepping up its support for Iraqi militant groups, with the principle aim of killing American occupying troops. These Shia militias would be responsible for the killing of over 500 Americans. Initially, Iran was mainly recruiting paramilitaries who had originally been part of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Iranian weapons, money and training persuaded these personnel that they would be better off operating according to an Iranian agenda. Iran was also bankrolling other militias like the Badr Brigades (formed in Iran by Shia Iraqi militants during the 1980s), and Asaib Ahlulhaq (formed around 2005 by former Sadrists). However, Qassim Soleimani leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force also desired a more elite and directly-controllable force for special operations like kidnappings, assassinations and qualitative attacks.
This took the form of the Hezbollah Brigades which was led by Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, who had been a leading figure in the Badr Brigades and was already deeply involved in running Iran-sponsored terrorist operations. In fact, Muhandis had been elected as an MP in 2005, but when the Americans discovered who he was (Muhandis had been indicted for terrorist bombings in Kuwait during the 1980s) they unsuccessfully attempted to detain him, after which Muhandis fled to Iran; only returning openly to Baghdad after the Americans departed in 2011.
The Hezbollah Brigades is an elite entity that is fully controlled by IRGC Quds Force. The militia is better armed and enjoys greater freedom of action than other paramilitary groups. In July 2011, an Iraqi intelligence official estimated the group’s size at 1,000 fighters, paid around $300-500 per month.
The Hezbollah Brigades in 2013 sent forces to fight the cause of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but returned after June 2014 to become part of the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella coalition of militia forces for fighting Daesh, with numbers of Hezbollah Brigades personnel expanding to around 10,000 fighters. Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, along with Hadi al-Amiri, was one of the dominant figures in Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, and therefore became one of the most powerful people in Iraq. The Hezbollah Brigades have been accused of widespread human rights violations in Iraq, including mass detentions and torture of Sunni civilians, summary executions and sectarian cleansing of Sunni areas of central Iraq.
Ease of travel between Bahrain and Iraq for hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims each year, made the Hezbollah Brigades an ideal partner for training Bahraini militants. Estimates are in the range of a few hundred Bahrainis who have received various forms of training. The most common specific kinds of training cited are: Firearms training, paramilitary techniques, and manufacture and handling of explosives. For example; in detentions and court indictments of dozens of terrorism suspects during July 2016, August 2016 and March 2017, a significant proportion confessed to receiving training in Iraq at the hands of the Hezbollah Brigades. Many others had spent time in Iran in IRGC training camps.
In February 2017 it was reported that approximately 150 Bahraini militants were fighting as part of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq under the name “Ahrar Manama”. In the same manner in which Iran used Arab militants during the 1980s war with Iraq, we see here Bahraini militants who are benefitting Iran by fighting on behalf of one of its proxies, but also are gaining battlefield experience which they expect to take back and make use of in Bahrain.
Funding and arming terrorists
Although during 2011 and 2012, weapons tended to be smuggled into Bahrain in an ad-hoc and low level manner, with heavy firearms not initially being a significant weapon used by militants, by mid-2012 significant quantities of explosives and bomb-making materials were arriving in Bahrain, which evidence shows was for the most part sources directly or indirectly by Iran. Over the coming years, similar bomb-making factories and weapons storage facilities would be discovered. Some of these discoveries were relatively minor, others would have been sufficient to start a small war.
In July 2012 police discovered more than five tonnes of explosives and 110 litres of high grade explosives in warehouses in Salmabad and Hamad Town, in one of the first such large-scale seizures. Such materials were thought to have been brought in from Iran by boat. These suspicions were apparently confirmed when in December 2013 boats were seized off the Bahrain loaded with Iranian weapons and explosives bound for opposition militants. Materials seized included: bomb-making equipment, 38 C4 explosive devices, 50 Iranian-made hand bombs, 295 detonators labeled as coming from Syria, and large quantities of machine gun bullets.
Raids during mid-2015 resulted in the capture of significant quantities of military materials, particularly the 6 June raid on a site in Dar Kulaib and a 27 September raid on a facility in Nuwaidrat. The Bahrain Interior Ministry: said of materials found in Dar Kulaib: “Some detonators and electronic circuits matched items confiscated in the smuggling attempts on King Fahad Causeway on March 15, through the sea on December 28, 2013 and inside a warehouse in Al-Qurayyah on December 29, 2013. Analysis and comparison of lab results from those previous cases pointed to Iran and Iraq as the source of the materials.”
In the underground bomb factory in Nuwaidrat expensive hydraulic presses and metal lathes were found for crafting explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a sophisticated bomb used for blasting through military armour. These complex devices are identical to those used by Iranian-proxies in Iraq for attacking American troops. According to an analysis of these discoveries: “This dramatically upgrades Bahraini terrorist capabilities to conduct more lethal and effective attacks… This level of advancement is highly unlikely to have been reached without outside support, guidance and training.”
A Washington Post report on these findings described the discovery of such items as “deeply puzzling,” given that EFPs are far more complex and lethal than anything used in Bahrain to date: “One plausible use for the EFPs would be to destroy tanks and troop carriers dispatched from neighboring Gulf countries in the event of a future conflict. Or perhaps the bomb-makers and their sponsors had an entirely different goal in mind, the report said: to ‘inflict grave damage to US forces and facilities.’”
Since 2015, there has been a significant upgrade in the lethality and quality of weapons and explosives found in sites in Bahrain. This includes tonnes of C4 and TNT explosives; Claymore-type warheads; mortars, rocket launchers, AK-47s and hand grenades.
“Chemical tests cited by the report showed that all the C-4 — recovered from six locations over three years — came from two manufacturing lines that previous forensic analyses linked to Iran. One of the six caches ‘involved C-4 in its original Iranian military packaging,’” Washington Post.
From 2016, automatic weapons have been increasingly commonly used in attacks, including occasions where police have been ambushed and fired upon, and most notoriously; the 1 January 2017 attack on Jau Prison where AK47s were used with lethal intent.
Threats against Bahrain by senior Iranian officials
In the context of heightened US-Iranian tensions, Tehran is once again making threats against Bahrain, this time threatening to launch missile attacks in which sovereign Bahraini port facilities will be “raised to the ground”. Such aggressive language falls within a pattern of consistent incitement against Bahrain by Iranian leadership figures. Below we look at the broader context of these attacks against Bahrain in recent years:
“Iran has allowed resistance leaders to operate openly in Tehran and has expressed solidarity with opposition calls for ending Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy. In March 2016, senior Revolutionary Guard commander Saeed Qassimi publicly called Bahrain an ‘Iranian province separated from Iran as a result of colonialism,’ adding that Iran is now a base ‘for the support of revolution in Bahrain.’ Increasingly, “there are words to go along with the deeds, which indicates that they are trying to signal something: ‘Don’t mess with us, or we can hurt you,” said Michael Knights, an analyst on Middle Eastern military and security affairs for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.” Washington Post
1 – US base in Bahrain to be “raised to the ground”
Prominent Iranian MP and member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Mojtaba Zonour, warned on 6 February 2017 that if America took measures against Iran, Iran would retaliate against US assets in Bahrain:
“The US Army’s Fifth Fleet has occupied a part of Bahrain, and the enemy’s farthest military base is in the Indian Ocean, but these points are all within the range of Iran’s missile systems and they will be razed to the ground if the enemy makes a mistake… Only seven minutes is needed for the Iranian missile to hit Tel Aviv.”
2 – Deploying proxies against Bahrain & Yemen
As proxy Iranian militias completed their bloody assault on the Syrian city of Aleppo in late 2016; several Iranian paramilitary leaders threatened that these forces (including Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Lebanese and Syrian militias) could be deployed as an “expeditionary force” elsewhere in the region, including Bahrain and Yemen. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hussein Salami declared:
“It is now time for the Islamic conquests. After the liberation of Aleppo, Bahrain’s hopes will be realized and Yemen will be happy with the defeat of the enemies of Islam.”
IRGC Brig-Gen Mohammad Ali Falaki, serving with the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division in Syria said:
“We will go to south Lebanon and support the Shias over there. We will also go to Bahrain and Yemen.”
Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani, in 2015 made similar threats:
“We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.”
3 – Calls to annex Bahrain
General Saeed Qassimi, an IRGC and Ansar Hezbollah commander, close to Ayatollah Khamenei in March 2016 falsely claimed Iranian sovereignty over Bahrain. Qassimi stated that “a front for the support of revolutionary groups in Bahrain has been established in Bushehr”:
“Bahrain is an Iranian province that was separated from Iran as a result of colonialism… Iran must exert effort to restore Bahrain as Iranian territory and make it a part of Bushehr province.”
In 2012 Iranian former ambassador to France Sadeq Kharrazi made threats about how easily Iran could invade Bahrain:
“If Iran wanted, it could take control of Bahrain in a few hours by using its rapid reaction forces.”
4 – New threats over Isa Qassim’s trial
During 2016 Bahrain put senior cleric Isa Qassim on trial for a number of charges including improper use of religious taxes and money laundering. Iranian leaders responded with unusually strong attacks against Bahrain. Head of Quds Force Qassim Soleimani viciously attacked Bahrain’s ruling family and warned that there would be a “bloody Intifadah in Bahrain:
“The Al Khalifa surely know their aggression against Sheikh Isa Qassim is a red line that crossing it would set Bahrain and the whole region on fire, and it would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance… Al Khalifa will definitely pay the price for that and their bloodthirsty regime will be toppled.”
Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, also issued a number of threatening statements:
“This pushes the Bahraini people to difficult choices which will have severe consequences for this corrupt dictatorial regime.”
5 – False claims: “Bahrain is an Iranian province”
There has been a pattern of senior hardliners from Supreme Leader Khamenei’s inner circle falsely claiming that Bahrain should be part of Iran. In 2012 Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, called for Bahrain’s “incorporation” into Iran. Hardline Iranian newspapers like Kayhan, which are close to the Supreme Leader have often written editorials inciting action against Bahrain and claiming Bahrain to be Iran’s “fourteenth province”. In 2007 Hussein Shariatmadari, Kayhan’s editor and advisor to the Supreme Leader, said that the “province” of Bahrain needed to be reunified with its “motherland” Iran.
Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the Inspector General in the office of the Supreme Leader in 2009 notoriously described Bahrain as Iran’s fourteenth province:
“Bahrain was the 14th province of Iran until 1970.”
MP Darioush Ghanbari in 2009 falsely claimed that if Bahrainis were to vote in a referendum they would choose to be part of Iran. In 1971 Iran formally renounced any grounds for historic claims which it made upon Bahrain. This followed a UN referendum ahead of Bahrain’s independence which concluded that “the overwhelming majority of the people of Bahrain wish to gain recognition of their identity in a full independent and sovereign State free to decide for itself its relations with other States“.
An analysis by the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies found that over a two-year period (1024-16) more than 160 “antagonistic statements” were issued by Iranian officials against Bahrain; including at least six hostile statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in 2015 described Bahrain’s leadership as a “tyrant minority” and said:
“The people of Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine are oppressed and Iran will support them with all its strength.”
6 – Inciting revolution in Bahrain
After the unrest in February 2011, Iranian leaders escalated their rhetoric against Bahrain. Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, chairman of the Guardian Council announced:
“Brothers and sisters [in Bahrain]. Resist against the enemy until you die or win.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared:
“Bitter events are taking place against the people in certain countries – against the dear people of Bahrain, in Yemen and in Libya… We hope that God almighty provides them with hasty relief and punishes the enemies of the nations.”
Iranian threats against Saudi Arabia
In May 2003 the US received intelligence that Al-Qaeda fighters based in Iran were preparing an attack in Saudi Arabia: “They were there, under Iranian protection, planning operations,” US diplomat Ryan Crocker recalls. He flew to Geneva and warned the Iranians to no avail; militants bombed residential compounds in Riyadh killing 35 people, including nine Americans. Saudi Foreign Minister Adil al-Jubair (in 2016) recalled that Al-Qaeda’s chief of operations “Saif al-Adel placed a call from Iran in May 2003 giving orders for the Riyadh bombings that claimed more than 30 lives, including eight Americans. Yet he still benefits from Iranian protection”.
In 2011 Quds Force’s Qassim Soleimani oversaw a plot to hire a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Adil al-Jubair, who was then the Saudi Ambassador to the US, at a restaurant in Washington. The cartel member recruited by Soleimani’s agent turned out to be an American informant.
Following 2011, the main torch-bearer for Shia radicalism in the Kingdom was the cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a follower of Mohammed Taqi al-Mudarrisi. Much of Nimr’s support came from radical youths and he called for Wilayat al-Faqih to be adopted in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. After Nimr’s arrest on terrorism charges Iran and its proxies issued threats to the Saudis. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the Saudis would suffer “divine revenge” after Nimr’s execution. Iranian mobs ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
These examples show a consistent pattern of Iranian threats and incitement, twinned with actual support for terrorism and unrest in Bahrain. The US Administration’s readiness to take specific steps in response to Iran’s aggressive interference in the region is thus welcome and necessary. The fact that Iran is threatening attacks against US facilities in Bahrain reinforces the solidarity of our two nations against such threats which deserve to be treated seriously and receive an appropriate response.