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 is Murtada al-Sanadi?
Murtada al-Sanadi is a Bahraini militant responsible for facilitating terrorist attacks inside Bahrain. Since 2012 Sanadi has been based in the Iranian city of Qom, liaising with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to coordinate terrorist attacks in Bahrain. Sanadi is described as the official spokesman for Bahrain’s Wafa Movement; as well as the Al-Ashtar Brigades, a terrorist entity responsible for dozens of attacks on Bahraini soil. Britain and the US State Department have also designated Sanadi and Al-Ashtar Brigades for their involvement in terrorism.
Al-Ashtar Brigades since early 2013 has been responsible for many of the most deadly attacks against police and other targets in Bahrain. This organization was organized and directed by Iran-based Bahraini militants 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 Sanadi.
See here for a link to the full Citizens for Bahrain profile on the Al-Ashtar Brigades
The illegal political movements Wafa and Haqq broke away from the Shia political society Al-Wefaq over the latter’s decision to register as a legitimate political organization and participate in the 2006 elections. Haqq was formed in 2006, led by Hassan Mushaima; and Wafa was established in 2009 by Abdulwahab Hussein and cleric Abduljalil Maqdad. Wafa and Haqq are thus rejectionist groups which sought to mobilize their supporters on the streets in acts of rioting and fighting against the police.
Many leaders of Wafa and Haqq ended up in prison after seeking to establish a “Coalition for the Republic” during the February 2011 unrest, which sought to violently depose Bahrain’s leadership and establish an Islamic Republic along Iranian lines. Subsequently, the membership of these movements, like Murtada al-Sanadi, became even further radicalized and many played a role in establishing new militant entities like the Al-Ashtar Brigades and the 14 February Coalition.
Murtada al-Sanadi was born on 27 March 1983. Sanadi (whose name appears elsewhere as Al-Sayed Murtada Majeed Ramadhan Alawi), is a militant affiliated with the Wafa movement. He spent six months in prison in Bahrain during 2011 on charges of involvement in violence. After his release, Sanadi departed Bahrain, never to return – he has subsequently had his Bahraini nationality cancelled. In his absence he has been convicted on seven counts of terrorism related charges, amounting to an 84-year jail sentence.
Establishing Al-Ashtar Brigades
After leaving Bahrain, Sanadi reportedly briefly spent time in London, before travelling to Iran. From 2012 Sanadi enrolled in religious studies in Qom, receiving funding from the Iranian authorities. Sanadi collaborated with IRGC officers to establish the Al-Ashtar Brigades inside Bahrain over the course of 2013. 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.
From 2013, bombing attacks by Al-Ashtar Brigades and affiliated groups have resulted in the killing of around 20 policemen, as well as civilian casualties and damage to property.
Sanadi commissioned fellow militant Reda al-Ghasra to organize the training of radicalized Bahrainis 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.
Reda al-Ghasra was later killed in February 2017 when security forces ambushed the speedboat carrying him and fellow fugitives to Iran. This followed a 1 January 2017 prison escape, during which Jaw prison was attacked by armed militants and one policeman was killed. Sanadi is understood to have played a coordinating role in the attack. Ghasra was one of those freed from Jaw prison where he was serving a life sentence for terrorism.
Reuters reported on how Murtada presided over a funeral wake in Qom for Ghasra and other militants killed in these incidents. In the weeks after these incidents, security forces successfully dismantled a number of terrorist cells associated with Sanadi, as a result of intelligence collected during the foiled attempt to escape by sea.
Iran’s media promotes Bahraini terrorists
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.
International measures against Sanadi and Al-Ashtar Brigades
On March 17 2017, the US State Department imposed sanctions against Murtada 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 designated the Al-Ashtar Brigades and Al-Mukhtar Brigades as terrorist groups. Many GCC and Arab states had already designated Sanadi and Al-Ashtar as terrorists.