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: What was the IFLB?

The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) was announced by its founder Hadi al-Mudarrisi soon after the success of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 “Islamic revolution” in Iran. Hadi al-Mudarrisi was an Iraqi exile who had lived in Bahrain throughout most of the 1970s. He founded a number of religious establishments, through which he advanced the teachings of Ayatollah Mohammed al-Shirazi who advocated the creation of Shia Islamic states across the Muslim world. Hence, those affiliated with Mudarrisi were known as the Shirazi movement, which was particularly popular among urban Bahraini Shia of Iranian origin (known as the Ajam community).

From the outset the IFLB was known to be funded and supported by Tehran and members in Bahrain began organizing political demonstrations and politicizing religious festivals. As tensions between Iran and the Gulf States increased with the commencement of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Tehran used the IFLB to stage a coup attempt in late 1981, including sending Iran-trained commandos from other Arab states to militarily support this enterprise.

Although the coup attempt quickly dissolved into farce and was uncovered before it even began, Hadi al-Mudarrisi and IFLB’s membership would go on to have a long record of seeking to destabilize Bahrain and establish an Islamic state. From 2001 King Hamad’s amnesty allowed many exiles to return and saw others released from jail. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was a prominent Shirazi exile and former member of the IFLB who became active in radicalizing young people over the coming years. The Islamic Amal Society, led by Mohammed al-Mahfoudh, became the formal political framework for the Shirazi movement and Hadi al-Mudarrisi was recognized as Amal’s spiritual leader. However, it proved to be a relatively minor entity which failed to win parliamentary seats in elections. Amal was closed down in 2012 after becoming one of the opposition entities inciting rioting and radical activity to bring down the political system.

Background

The charismatic cleric Ayatollah Muhammad al-Shirazi (1928-2001) was of Iranian origin, but had been based in Karbala until his militant ideas about clerics playing an political role forced him into exile during the 1970s. In Bahrain this “Shirazi movement” gained many supporters among wealthy Shia traders and businessmen, such as the influential Alawi family; and through these gained access to Bahraini elites. However, this tended to attract a very different demographic from Da’wah. The Shirazi trend was most popular among urbanized Shia, particularly the “Ajam” communities who had arrived in Bahrain from Iran in recent times, many of whom had only gained Bahraini nationality in the previous decades.

Bahrain’s Shirazi movement quickly began to become a significant force after Hadi al-Mudarrisi, Ayatollah Shirazi’s nephew, arrived in Bahrain. Mudarrisi quickly attracted a dedicated following, especially among urbanized Shia of Iranian origin. However, Bahrain’s traditional clergy became increasingly concerned about encroachment within their own support base after 1974 when Mudarrisi gained Bahraini citizenship. It became clear that he inspired to play a permanent and dominant role.

In 1972 the Social Hussaini Fund was founded as an expansion of the earlier Islamic Guidance Society and led by Shirazi figures like Jaafar al-Alawi, with support from Hadi al-Mudarrisi. The Social Hussaini Fund recruited from among students, intellectuals and businessmen and built its cadres for its organized secret action. Its aims included both building support and preparing the ground for political revolution in Bahrain. Many activists had travelled to Lebanon and received PLO military training in Palestinian refugee camps. This was facilitated by Hadi al-Mudarrisi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They often passed the Bahrainis off as Iranians from the Khuzestan region, to avoid alienating Gulf supporters of the Palestinian cause. Within existing Shirazi organizations preparations were already being made to use force to confront the Bahraini monarchy:

“Following the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hadi al-Mudarrisi began working along with his elder brother, Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi, to export the Islamic Revolution to the Gulf. In Bahrain, he began what was described by the IFLB as underground activity to lead and bring about the revolution;” Hassan Tariq al-Hassan.

The mid-1970s were distinguished by rivalry between Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim’s Da’wah faction; and the more radical Shirazis. Shirazi gave Mudarrisi the task of collecting religious taxes from Bahraini Shia. When Mudarrisi gained Bahraini citizenship in 1974 this sparked intense rivalry:

“A fierce struggle for the Shi’a khums money erupted between the two factions. Shaikh Qassim and Al-Mudarrisi competed with each other from mosque to mosque and ma’tam to ma’tam to attract the greatest number of followers and greatest amount of khums” – Ali Alfoneh.

The Da’wah and Shirazi rivalry was also reflected in politics. While Shaikh Jamri and his associates served in Parliament, Mudarrisi’s faction were preparing for armed struggle. Mudarrisi had studied under Ayatollah Khomeini and was an early exponent of his radical ideas. This radical trend gained greater momentum after the success of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran.

Radicalization of Bahraini theological movements – 1979

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran radicalized Shia factions further. The Shirazis began to spearhead politicized religious processions calling for an Islamic Republic in Bahrain and declaring loyalty to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and his Wilayat al-Faqih doctrine of clerical rule.

In February 1979 thousands of Bahraini Shia demonstrated in support of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Much of the activity was centred around Shia mosques and ma’tams; many of these institutions became social fronts for increasingly radicalized Shia Islamic groups who mobilized supporters against the authorities.

Hadi al-Mudarrisi established the clandestine organization, the “Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain”. The IFLB enjoyed financial and logistical support from the Tehran-based “Office of the Liberation Movements” which had the specific mandate for fermenting revolution across the Arab world. Mudarrisi and the Bahraini Shirazis were seen as the “subcontractors” of this office, for the task of “liberating” Bahrain.

The “Islamic Front” was a new name, but the institutional and ideological framework of the Islamic Front were already several years in the making, through clandestine efforts of figures like Hadi al-Mudarrisi, Mohammed al-Mahfouz, Jaafar al-Alawi and Mohammed al-Alawi, from pre-existing entities, like the Social Hussaini Fund, the Islamic Action Organization and the Islamic Guidance Society. ILFB activist Mohammed al-Alawi stated: “Before the revolution, the leadership of the Front was already formalized, but we were not aware of constituting a political organization, strictly speaking, and our objective was not clear.”

Hadi al-Mudarrisi declared himself to be the representative of Ayatollah Khomeini in Bahrain and staged a number of demonstrations, including the Khomeini-influenced Quds Day rally, during which Mudarrisi publically declared his support for Khomeini and Wilayat al-Faqih”. The Bahrain authorities promptly deported Mudarrisi who fled to Tehran and began using broadcast services to call for the downfall of Arabian Gulf rulers. Ayatollah Saddiq Rohani, who was close to Khomeini, announced that Bahrain was the fourteenth province of Iran and demanded “Islamic government” for Bahrainis, fueling further tensions between Iran and Arabian Gulf states.

On 2 September 1979 Hadi al-Mudarrisi held a press conference from Tehran, formally announcing the “Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain”. According to Mudarrisi the Islamic Front wished to overthrow the ruling regime in Bahrain and replace it with an Islamic Republic.

“[The IFLB’s] long term objectives revolved around three axes, namely: The development of the individual as one educated in Islam… and being prepared to sacrifice himself in its defence; building the believing community through a vanguard capable of leading it to glory; and finally the erection of Islamic civilization which would be the end result of the Islamic Revolution;” Hassan Tariq al-Hassan.

The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain’s Iranian inspiration, affiliations and support were obvious. Iran supported the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and its Tehran office was very active, producing many publications which promoted the Islamic Front and Iran’s philosophy, as well as proclaiming the group’s loyalty to Khomeini:

“The triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is the precursor to the approach of the regime’s end in Bahrain… The people who lacked a committed and aware leadership began fulfilling these factors through the guidance of Islam and under the banner of Imam Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic nation and of the oppressed, and under the leadership of the guided Islamic Front which stood out in the field and led the masses, launching the slogan ‘God is great’ which toppled the buried Shah and shook the throne of Al Khalifa in Bahrain;” from IFLB tract (Masirat al-thawrah al-islamiyah fi al-bahrain)

Shirazi activist Issa Marhoun stated: “We believe that popular revolution is the best choice, and it is the best and quickest road by which to overthrow the reactionary regime in Bahrain.” Iran’s influence was further obvious in the Islamic Front’s call for the “unification of all Islamic forces in the Gulf”. The IFLB stated that its aim was the “uprising of all Muslims under Imam Khomeini”. Radio Tehran and other Iran-based media channels broadcast lectures by Mudarrisi and prominent IFLB figures. In an interview, Mudarrisi explained that violent revolution was permissible, confronting “the sword with the sword… even if this leads to bloodshed and the killing of the believers”.

The Bahraini authorities watched in concern as prominent Shirazi activists engaged in high level coordination with Khomeini’s regime, even visiting Tehran to liaise with senior officials. On 21 August 1979 they stepped in to arrest Muhammad Ali al-Ikri after his return from such a visit to Tehran, sparking a wave of rioting and protests by his supporters.

IFLB coup attempt – 1981

As the Iran-Iraq war gained regional dimensions in the early 1980s, Iran looked for ways to outmanoeuvre Iraq and its regional backers. Iran had always laid claim to Bahrain as its “14th province” and tiny Bahrain was seen as an obvious first step towards making inroads in the Arabian Peninsula.

In December 1981 the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, with Iranian funding and logistical support, staged a coup attempt, aiming to install Ayatollah Hadi al-Mudarrisi as Bahrain’s supreme leader. The plan was for commandos to arrive via Dubai who would assassinate key officials and take over strategic institutions. They believed that the coup would be followed by a mass popular uprising which would allow them to consolidate their victory; a theory adopted by several other extremist Islamic groups which lacked a sufficiently wide support base to achieve any kind of popular uprising.

Although some IFLB personnel had received training alongside Palestinian militants during the 1970s, there was a lack of Bahraini Shirazi activists with military training. Therefore, many of the “commandos” were Saudis, Omanis, Kuwaitis and Arabs of other nationalities who had flocked to Iran after the revolution. They had been organized as the “Movement of Vanguard Missionaries”. Militants from this Movement also were fighting for Iran against Iraq, making use of their Arabic skills for espionage activities. The Islamic Front’s own military commander was killed in the Iran-Iraq war.

The plot was uncovered in its early stages when suspicions were aroused by a group of men behaving suspiciously at Dubai airport. The coup attempt unravelled as those already in Bahrain were rounded up, and their weapons and uniform stashes were uncovered. The plot had been planned to take place on Bahrain’s national day, 13 December. The plan had been to attack government offices, take ministers as hostages and simultaneously gain control of the building containing the national TV and radio stations. Many members of the IFLB were arrested, 73 individuals of a range of nationalities were jailed, and a number of Iranian diplomats believed to have been linked to these developments were expelled. Many other active members fled abroad. The failure of the coup plot represented a major setback for these radical activists which would take many years to overcome.

Following related attempts to stir up unrest and revolution in other countries in the region, the Arab Gulf states came together and declared that the Iran-linked coup attempt in Bahrain was an attack against them all, giving further momentum to the embryonic Gulf Cooperation Council project (formed just a few months ahead of the coup attempt). The GCC had largely come into being as a result of the threat from Iran and its announcement had reportedly had galvanized Khomeini and Mudarrisi to rush their coup plot into the final stages of implementation.

Shirazi militants after the failed coup – 1981-1990

“It’s an accusation that I do not deny; and an honour that I do not claim;” Hadi al Mudarrisi when asked whether he was the mastermind behind the coup attempt.

Of those elements of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain who fled into exile; many dispersed to more amenable locations across the region, like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The main offices of the Islamic Front came to be based in Damascus, with branches in Tehran and London. The Secretary-General was Muhammad Ali al-Khadhari. Its London office was headed by Abdalhamid al-Radhi. Hadi al-Mudarrisi remained a pivotal figure.

Many chose to base themselves in the West; particularly the younger figures who could use the opportunity to study abroad. Many of these younger figures would play significant roles during unrest in Bahrain in later decades. The Shirazi activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was in Damascus from 1983 to 1989 and ended up in Denmark where he became involved in a succession of human rights organizations which could be used to give a more credible voice to the opposition.

From the mid-1980s onwards, the Shirazis lost much of their influence with the Iranian regime. This was partly as a result of Ayatollah Mohammed al-Shirazi increasingly being perceived as a rival to Ayatollah Khomeini. Shirazi challenged Khomeini on a number of issues, most notably their differing views of the two clerics on the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih. Mohammed al-Shirazi advocated the alternative concept of “Shurat al-Maraji” – rule by a council of the most senior religious authorities; as well as regarding himself as more senior in the clerical heirachy than Khomeini.

Ayatollah Khomeini sought to ensure that the Qom religious authorities spoke with one voice, with Khomeini remaining the ultimate and unchallengeable authority. Mohammed al-Shirazi’s huge charismatic status and religious legitimacy stood as a challenge to this, so it was inevitable that Khomeini sought to reduce his influence and access to financial patronage networks. As a result, from the mid-1980s the Shirazis lost the regional significance they had previously enjoyed.

From then on, the Islamic Republic would seek to wield its influence in Bahrain and the GCC through direct relations with Shia activists and grassroots organizations, not through relatively independent networks like the Shirazis, which didn’t always share the same agenda.

Iranian attention shifted back to Bahraini clerics associated with the Da’wah movement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (after Khomeini’s death in 1989) realized that in Bahrain it was the traditionalist clerics, not the Shirazis, who they could profit most by backing. Figures like Abdulamir al-Jamri and Isa Qassim were followed by tens of thousands of Bahrainis. Only through such respected figures that Iran could hope to enjoy long-term influence. Thus, from the mid-1980s relations were intensively cultivated with the Da’wah leadership.

“Khomeini is… one of the heroes of Islam and Islamic unity…and when we speak of Islamic unity we have to salute Khomeini’s jihad and dedication to the cause… He will remain a champion fighting for the oppressed across the world;” Isa Qassim.

 

 

 

 

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