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.
The 14 February Coalition emerged out of the activities of a range of Bahraini oppositionists who sought to trigger unrest in Bahrain during the protests, which began on 14 February 2011. This movement combined online activists; elements of the clerical leadership which had instigated unrest during the 1990s; along with a grassroots network of frustrated young people drawn from Shia neighbourhoods across Bahrain.
By late-2011 – early-2012 this movement had narrowed into a more radicalized hardcore of activists who had already established connections, through Bahraini exiles in Iran and Lebanon, with entities like the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah. Many 14 February activists even travelled abroad for paramilitary training and by early 2012 were putting measures in place for taking the unrest to a more violent level.
Between 2012 and 2014 the 14 February Coalition staged a series of terrorist attacks, which they themselves claimed credit for, against police and civilian targets. However, the relatively unsophisticated nature of 14 February Coalition activities during 2013 and 2014 led to numerous arrests which paralyzed their ability to act as a coherent movement. By mid-2014, it was clear that new and more sophisticated terrorist entities, like the Al-Ashtar Brigades, were beginning to fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of the 14 February Coalition. However the 14 February Coalition continues to have a significant online presence, even though levels of active support are significantly reduced.
Background: What is the 14 February Coalition?
Following bouts of unrest in Tunisia and Egypt during January 2011, a range of Bahraini oppositionist figures began lobbying to exploit the date of 14 February – the tenth anniversary of the 2001 referendum on Bahrain’s constitution – to stage protests.
As the BICI report into these events recalls: “Starting in late January 2011, ideas began to circulate on a number of online forums and social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, which included calls for demonstrations to demand political, economic and social reform in Bahrain. These protests were designed to emulate the popular uprisings that had erupted first in Tunisia… A Facebook page called ‘February 14th Revolution in Bahrain’ was established to call for mass protests throughout Bahrain on 14 February 2011. The page quickly gained popularity and several thousand people joined it.”
At the time of the 14 February protests a number of names had appeared designating relatively unknown groups associated with the protest movement, such as February 14 Youth; February 14 Clerics; February 14 Media Center; February 14 Martyrs; Youth of Martyrs Square; and 14 February Youth Movement. The “Coalition Youth of 14 Feb Revolution” first appeared on the Bahrain Online forum whose Facebook page started in April 2011. One of these groups, calling itself the February 14 Youth, was prominent in promoting the 14 February demonstrations. However, by mid-2011 the “14 February Coalition” was the main brand being used when publishing schedules for protests; although other names like the “February 14 Movement” also appear.
In this manner, “14 February” rapidly became a brand which brought together a range of agendas; from secularist moderates seeking reform, to those with a militant and sectarian agenda. At the beginning of 2011, the most militant segments of the opposition tended to be rooted in the illegal Haqq and Wafa movements. Several leaders of these rejectionist groups, like Hassan al-Mushaima, Abduljalil Singace and Abdulwahab Hussein, were jailed in early 2011 after inciting violence and establishing the “Coalition for a Republic” with the aim of establishing of an Islamic Republic in Bahrain.
The arrests of many of these veteran figures led radical elements of the opposition to unite as the “February 14 Coalition”. The February 14 Coalition became an umbrella movement for a range of opposition elements which sought to radicalize young people, instigate riots and attacks against police and take the unrest down a more confrontational path. The Coalition also served as a useful vehicle for distancing traditional opposition movements like Al-Wefaq Islamic Society from militant activities.
In its online propaganda, the Coalition adopted a hardline posture, rejecting any kind of dialogue with the Bahraini authorities: “There is no way for us to accept a non-balanced dialogue that lacks all guarantees, we see this dialogue as a media tool which the regime aims to reduce the severity of popular and international pressures”. While many parts of the mainstream opposition called for reform or an elected government, the Coalition called for the violent bringing-down of the Monarchy: “Overthrowing the Al-Khalifa regime, which has lost its legitimacy, and bringing its heads and officials to trial, for the crimes against humanity that they have committed against our people.”
Radicalization & Iran connections
By late 2011 the “14 February Coalition” was increasingly coming to be identified with the most radical elements of the Bahrain opposition. Sunnis, moderates and the middle classes had long since distanced themselves from opposition activity, meaning that the movement came to represent a cross-section of radicalized young people who looked to a previous generation of local theological leaders for ideological leadership, many of whom were now in jail.
Already, many of these disenfranchised youths were turning to more radical methods of demonstrating their opposition to Bahrain’s governing system. Bouts of rioting became increasingly violent through the use of firebombs and improvised weapons. Evidence shows that by late-2011 Iran was already reaching out to these militant fringes of the opposition. Before their detention, figures like Hassan al-Mushaima had sought to coordinate their activities with Tehran. For example; before returning to Bahrain from London, Mushaima acknowledges stopping in Beirut for discussions with the highest levels of Hezbollah’s leadership. However, the arrest of many of those with closest ties to Tehran posed an obstacle.
During 2011 and early 2012, many radicalized youths fled to Iran after getting into trouble with the police for violent activities. Some left Bahrain after spending brief periods in detention and others were sentenced in absentia for violent activities. Murtada al-Sanadi was at the hub of a group of radical exiles who ended up in Qom. Having established connections with personnel from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, these exiles were active in recruiting from their communities back in Bahrain. They took advantage of the thousands of Bahraini Shia who visited holy sites in Iraq and Iran each year; recruiting from amongst these and using these pilgrimage tours as a cover for bringing militants to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon for paramilitary training.
The numbers of those who received training abroad, based on court testimonies and later evidence, appears to have been initially relatively low. The kinds of weapons and bomb-building materials they were given access to were also rather crude, and skill levels of militants were also very limited. Between 2012 and 2014 many militants were injured and killed when bombs detonated mistakenly, either during manufacture or transport.
Hussein Abdulkarim was one of the opposition militants to receive training in bomb manufacture. He was killed when the explosive device he was working on exploded in his face in the workshop at his home in Saar in June 2013. On 19 April 2014, two youths were killed and another was seriously injured while transporting a homemade bomb in their car. Two young boys were seriously injured the month before after being forced by militants to carry an explosive device.
Terrorist attacks in Bahrain 2011-2013
During early 2012, crude explosive devices were being planted in areas where rioting was ongoing, usually with the apparent aim of targeting security forces. Although in the early days there were few fatalities, the rapidly increasing numbers of police injured during bouts of rioting attested to growing efforts to cause harm. The 14 February Coalition often claimed responsibility for attacks through its social media channels, while also seeking to mobilize supporters to engage in violent activities.
The discovery of large weapons stores and explosives manufacturing factories show that by early 2012 14 February activists were already smuggling significant volumes of weaponry and equipment into Bahrain. Much of this originated in Iran and Iraq. In July 2012 police discovered more than five tonnes of explosives in warehouses in Salmabad and Hamad Town. This was part of numerous seizures of terrorist materials at ad hoc explosives factories. The British authorities provided assistance in investigating bomb-making materials.
In April 2012 18 year-old Ahmed al-Dhafiri was fatally injured when trying to clear tyres placed by protesters near his home in Hamad Town. The tyres contained an explosive device, which exploded in his face. Ahmed aroused sympathy amongst loyalists because he died trying to prevent acts of vandalism and sabotage.
In October 2012 in Al-Eker, an explosive device was thrown at 19 year-old police officer Imran Mohammed, killing him and causing serious injury to others. Hussein Sharaf was a key figure behind this and other attacks. He was later killed in his hideout in Al-Eker while trying to assemble another explosive device.
Also during October 2012 there was a series of coordinated bomb attacks which killed two expatriate workers. Among the unsuccessful bombing attempts, devices were left in cars outside a shopping mall, a mosque and near a children’s play area. A number of ATM machines were bombed in early 2013, as well a bout of arson attacks against school premises. Coinciding with the 14 February rioting that year, a 2 kg bomb was defused on the Saudi Causeway.
On 20 February 2013, the Head of Public Security announced that a terror cell had targeted sensitive locations and public figures. This armed group was associated with Feb 14 Coalition and used the name “Army of the Imam”. Members received training in Iran and by Hezbollah in the use of weapons, explosives and surveillance. The Feb 14 Coalition claimed responsibility for these terrorist attacks on social media and incited violence and civil disobedience. Bomb attacks against police continued; a blast in Bilad al-Qadeem led to the serious injury of one policeman.
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. With the 14 February Coalition and Al-Ashtar Brigades now formally designated as terrorist organizations, operations against the Coalition during 2013-14 diminished the movement’s operational capabilities.
The end of the 14 February Coalition?
A series of arrests during 2013 and 2014 effectively dismantled the February 14 Coalition as a cohesive movement able to perpetrate acts of terrorism. The major hammer blow came in June 2013 with the naming of around 50 individuals, identified as part of the 14 February network, some of whom were based overseas. This was accompanied by a wave of arrests, many of whom were sentenced over the following months. As well as involvement in the incidents cited above, the defendants were found to have devised plots to plant a bomb during the 2013 Grand Prix; carried out arson attacks against car showrooms; as well as staging a car bombing at the Bahrain Financial Harbour.
The June 2013 list of 14 February affiliates included overseas patrons like the Iraqi cleric Hadi al-Mudarrisi and the London-based oppositionist Saeed al-Shehabi, who links to Tehran were previously documented by the British media.
By 2014, the 14 February Coalition appeared to be something of a spent force, with most attacks now attributable to groups like Al-Ashtar Brigades. However, even during 2017, a number of those put on trial for terrorist incidents continued to be identified as having links to this network. In reality, attempts to clearly distinguish between a range of smaller Bahraini militant groups with common agendas may not be particularly meaningful, given that these names are often used as an attempt to confuse security forces.
In reality, most of these terrorist entities are closely linked through common connections with Tehran and militant networks, although for operational purposes, after the wave of arrests in mid-2013 these militants increasingly came to utilize a more sophisticated cellular structure in order to prevent dozens of militants being unmasked at the same time.
Even after 2014, the 14 February Coalition has continued to be active online, calling for the staging of rallies and riots and seeking to keep its supporters mobilized. However, it is clear that the number of figures actively linked to the grouping has reduced dramatically. When the movement called for protests on the 14 February 2018 anniversary, the response was notably weak.
The “14 February Coalition” name served as a useful brand for unifying the efforts of a broad range of oppositionists with varying agendas. From mid-2011 onwards, this movement almost exclusively became associated with Iran-backed militancy. However, it continued to serve as a convenient umbrella for providing a semblance of unity to militant activists in various different parts of the Kingdom, while also allowing Iran to establish an embryonic network of connections with which to wage a terrorist campaign against Bahrain’s leaders.
Getting to know Iran’s proxies in the region: Previous reports
Militancy in Bahrain 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