Getting to know Iran’s proxies in the region: This series looks at radical Iran-linked organizations and militants in order to better understand the threat they pose.
See here for a link to the entire series of Citizens for Bahrain dossiers on Militancy in Bahrain.
Summary: Who are Al-Ashtar Brigades?
Al-Ashtar Brigades are a Bahrain-based terrorist group with known connections to Iran, responsible for numerous terrorist attacks, several of which resulted in the deaths of policemen. They first appeared during 2013, two years after the 2011 unrest, at first claiming responsibility for a number of minor acts of vandalism and terrorism.
However it quickly became obvious that Al-Ashtar were better organized and better trained than other violent militants who had been active over the previous couple of years. Indeed, many Al-Ashtar personnel had received paramilitary training overseas – namely in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
On 3 March 2014 they claimed responsibility for the single worst terrorist incident in Bahrain, during which three policemen were killed by an explosive blast. Al-Ashtar Brigades have also been held responsible for a number of other police fatalities. Over the following two years a security crackdown against Al-Ashtar and related groups significantly reduced their insurgent capabilities. However, an armed assault against Jaw Prison at the beginning of 2017 led to the escape of some of the most notorious Al-Ashtar militants – several of whom were later recaptured or killed.
Al-Ashtar’s capabilities were enhanced by the presence of leading Bahraini militants inside Iran, coordinating directly with Revolutionary Guard personnel to wage attacks inside Bahrain. These individuals, like Murtaza al-Sanadi, recruited young men travelling overseas for pilgrimages or study, provided them with training, and then smuggled funds and weapons into Bahrain in order to stage attacks. During 2017 both the US and Britain designated Al-Ashtar as a terrorist organization, acknowledging its links to Tehran.
After the February 2011 unrest in Bahrain, many militant oppositionists became increasingly radicalized, resulting in attacks against the security forces and more violent protests and bouts of rioting. However, initial attempts at terrorist attacks were often unsuccessful, sometimes simply resulting in the killing or injury of the individuals manufacturing and transporting explosives. It was furthermore relatively easy for the security forces to identify and detain militants who had made the transition into terrorist activity, because they weren’t well organized and failed to take the necessary measures to hide their activities.
Over the course of 2013, it became clear that a new generation of militants were beginning to emerge who had not only learnt from recent failures, but had also benefitted from paramilitary and terrorist training overseas. The most notable examples included Al-Ashtar Brigades, the Resistance Brigades and Al-Mukhtar Brigades. These organizations acted as smaller units, making secrecy easier:
“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 neighbourhoods inside out before 2011, at least some militants now possess assault rifles that outgun a typical police patrol;” Washington Institute.
Like many Bahraini militants, Al-Ashtar from an early stage was active on social media, documenting its activities and posting videos of attacks. Although it often claimed involvement in terrorist incidents, Al-Ashtar tended to be highly secretive about its organizational infrastructure and sources of funding and support.
From mid-2013 onwards, there was greater investment into sending key personnel abroad for paramilitary training. Some militants visited Iran and received training by the IRGC, and many young men visiting Iran for academic, religious or family reasons were singled out for recruitment, radicalization and training.
However, because of the Arabic-Persian language barrier – and because the Bahraini authorities began limiting travel to Iran and monitoring those travelling there – for many potential militants it proved easier to join overland bus trips to Iraq for Shia pilgrims and stop off for training with the Hezbollah Brigades. The Hezbollah Brigades (Kata’ib Hezbollah) are an extremist Iraqi group led by Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis who gained notoriety for involvement in terrorist attacks in Kuwait during the 1980s and attacks against US troops in Iraq after 2003. The Hezbollah Brigades are now part of the Iran-backed Al-Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary movement.
Reza al-Ghasra was appointed by the Qom-based militant leader Murtaza al-Sanadi to organize the training of Bahraini militants by the IRGC and by Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq. Ghasra was later detained by the Bahraini authorities, but escaped during a prison break at the beginning of 2017. He was killed in February 2017 when security forces ambushed the speedboat carrying him and fellow fugitives to Iran. In early 2017, the Al-Ashtar Brigades formalized their relationship with the Hezbollah Brigades in an online statement, declaring an “alliance” between the two entities.
Other militants travelled to Lebanon and received training from Hezbollah, with Beirut becoming a regional centre for anti-Bahrain and anti-GCC incitement, largely as a result of the plethora of Iran-sponsored media entities based there.
“Documents and interviews with current and former intelligence officials describe an elaborate training program, orchestrated by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to school Bahraini militants in the techniques of advanced bomb-making and guerrilla warfare. A wide variety of increasingly sophisticated weaponry — much of it forensically linked to Iran — has been discovered in Bahrain over the past three years, including hundreds of pounds of military-grade explosives that almost certainly originated in Iran, U.S. and European intelligence officials say. The efforts appear to mirror similar ongoing operations to build a network of pro-Tehran militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria;” Washington Post
Al-Ashtar activities & links to Iran
Al-Ashtar became the most notorious of the new groupings which emerged during 2013. By the early months of 2014 Al-Ashtar had already claimed responsibility for around 20 terrorist incidents; some relatively trivial, others included fatal attacks against policemen.
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 operating from Qom in Iran. Several sources describe Sanadi as the leader of Al-Ashtar Brigades, although it is unclear whether this is his formal designation. At different times other names have been given for Ashtar leadership figures. Given the clandestine cellular structure of the organization, Ashtar personnel may not be aware of the hierarchy of the organization beyond their own local leaders.
A number of aliases and related names were reportedly associated with the Al-Ashtar Brigades (Saraya al-Ashtar) including the Wa’ad Allah Brigades, the Islamic Allah Brigades, the Imam al-Mahdi Brigades and Al-Haydariyah Brigades.
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.
Iran actively promotes Al-Ashtar Brigades and its Qom-based representative Murtaza al-Sanadi. Supreme Leader Khamenei’s website published an article by Sanadi in December 2016 accusing the US of helping repress Bahraini 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.
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 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 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.
Prison attack – 1 January 2017
Al-Ashtar Brigades have consistently acknowledged responsibility for some of the most serious terrorist incidents in Bahrain between 2014 and 2017, and many of those arrested for these incidents admitted their connections to Al-Ashtar, arguably leading to a decline in the group’s capabilities as more of their personnel ended up in jail.
Entities like Al-Ashtar, Al-Mukhtar and the Resistance Brigades were found to have been directly overseen by their Iranian based leaderships. By mid-2015 many key figures behind Al-Ashtar had already been detained following a series of successful security forces operations. At the time, two additional individuals, Ahmed Yousif Sarhan and Qassim Ahmed Abdullah, were reported as coordinating training and weapons smuggling operations from Iran.
A 1 January 2017 attack against Jaw Prison by armed militants was linked to Al-Ashtar brigades. Ten prisoners of the most notorious terrorist detainees were freed and policeman Abdulsalam Saif Ahmed was killed. According to the Interior Ministry, the assailants conducted drone reconnaissance of the jail and bribed prison staff. The attackers fought guards with AK-type assault rifles. They killed one guard and attempted to execute another.
“The sophistication of the breakout and the value of the prisoners to Tehran-backed networks make it plausible that the operation was an Iranian-coordinated effort. Bahraini authorities point to the December incident in which two wanted militants were smuggled back into the country by boat from Iran, fearing that it may be connected to the prison escape. More broadly, such a high-profile breakout carries considerable cost and risk, so if Tehran was involved, it sends a strong message to Shiite militants that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) looks after its own. This kind of success also makes Iranian networks more resilient and motivated, increasing their recruitment potential;” Washington Institute
The ten individuals freed were all prominent figures with a history of involvement in some of the most notorious terrorist operations of the past five years. For example, Mohammed Ibrahim Mulla Reza al-Touq was a principle protagonist in the 28 July 2015 bombing which killed two policemen and injured several others outside a girls’ school in Sitra.
Events took a dramatic turn on 9 February, when several of the Jau prison fugitives and their accomplices tried to escape to Iran by boat. They were intercepted and opened fire on a police boat after being given warnings to hand themselves over. The police returned fire and three of the fugitives were killed. Seven others were arrested.
International acknowledgment of Al-Ashtar’s terrorist status
On March 17 2017, the US State Department imposed sanctions against two leading figures from Al-Ashtar Brigades, Murtaza [Alawi] al-Sanadi and Ahmad Hassan Yousif, formally designating them as “global terrorists.” The announcement specifically accused Iran of backing the group as part of its “destabilizing and terrorism-related activities in the region.”
In its sanctions announcement, the State Department said: “Iran has provided weapons, funding and training” to Bahraini militants. The State Department clarified that the “global terrorist” designation was reserved for individuals and groups that threaten the “national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.” The statement added: “Alawi [al-Sanadi] is affiliated with the Bahrain-based Al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB). Yousuf is an Iran-based AAB senior member. AAB receives funding and support from the Government of Iran – a state sponsor of terrorism. AAB has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks – some of which have resulted in casualties – mainly against police and security targets in Bahrain. In March 2014, AAB conducted a bomb attack that killed two local police officers and an officer from the United Arab Emirates. AAB targets the security services of Gulf countries, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”
On 22 December 2017 the British Government also designated the Bahraini entities, Al-Ashtar and Al-Mukhtar Brigades as terrorist groups. According to the Home Office statement explaining this decision:
“The al-Ashtar Brigades is a Bahrain-based Shia militant organisation that was established in 2013. Its aim is to overthrow the Bahraini al-Khalifa ruling family through violent militant operations. It lists the ruling al-Khalifa family, Bahrain security forces and Saudi Arabia as targets for attack. The group has been responsible for numerous attacks in Bahrain for which it has claimed responsibility, including a jail-break of 10 convicted terrorists which led to the death of a police officer in January this year; an IED attack in a bus station in Sitra, which was claimed by the group under the name Wa’ad Allah Brigades in February; and an attack on a police vehicle near the village of Al-Qadeem in July. More generally, the group has promoted violent activity against the Bahraini Government, as well as the British, American and Saudi Arabian Governments on social media.”
Other Bahraini terrorist groups:
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.