Over the past couple of years Qatar has been the subject of hundreds of reports in the Arabic and international media, particularly from outlets like Al-Arabiya and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, producing evidence of Qatari support for radical and extremist groups. This included reports indicating Qatari attempts via third parties to undermine stability in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the region. On one occasion in 2017, Qatari officials turned up at Baghdad Airport with a reported half billion dollars destined for Iran backed militants, including those which had trained GCC-based terrorist groups; with money earmarked for known terrorist figures like Quds Force’s Qassim Soleimani and the Kataib Hezbollah’s Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis. This was part of a deal to secure the release of Qatari royal family members abducted by these elements.
In July 2019 Qatar got in its retaliation for reporting about its links to extremist groups with a feature length documentary on Al-Jazeera trying to allege Bahraini links to Sunni extremists, including one Al-Qaeda linked figure who spent time in detention in Saudi Arabia for terrorist connections and whose current whereabouts are unclear. Much of the documentary was spent interviewing Bahrain opposition-linked figures who engaged in wild conspiracy theories and speculation, with the overall aim of trying to portray the Bahrain leadership as being involved in various Al-Qaeda conspiracies. Indeed, former US Ambassador Adam Ereli said that he was “skeptical” about Al-Jazeera’s claims as said that during his tenure he had witnessed no evidence of support by the Bahraini authorities for extremist elements.
Given the complete lack of context and the many obviously falsified claims in this Al-Jazeera video, here we will set out the facts about Bahrain’s encounters with radical Sunni groups and individuals.
Emergence of Sunni political societies
During the twentieth century Sunni militancy tended to be a relatively marginal phenomenon in Bahrain. The new political phase ushered in by King Hamad’s 2002 National Action Charter allowed Sunni Islamists to organize themselves politically; primarily as the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Minbar Society; and the Salafist Al-Asalah Society. To begin with, these societies appeared to reap the benefits of political participation, gaining 12 seats between them in the 40-seat Parliament in 2002. However, with each passing round of elections, their share of the vote has dwindled, with Minbar and Asalah only gaining three seats collectively in 2014. Minbar’s Muslim Brotherhood connections were certainly a factor in many Bahrainis choosing to distance themselves for Sunni Islamist activism.
Al-Jazeera’s video uses leaked Wikileaks telegrams citing official backing for Minbar and Asalah as evidence of Bahraini funding for extremist groups; despite the fact that these are legal political societies, which like other societies (including legal Shia political entities) do indeed receive limited amounts of organizational funding as part of the government’s support for civil society and pluralistic politics. Indeed, Wikileaks telegrams cite measures taken against small numbers of individuals found to have been associated with Sunni jihadist groups.
The 2011 unrest galvanized these Sunni political societies in support of Bahrain’s leadership and led to the establishment of the Al-Fateh Coalition, which was strongly Sunni and loyalist in orientation, holding large demonstrations in support of the Government and demanding a voice in the National Dialogue. The 2011 unrest thus played a role in leading to an assertion of Sunni identity (“We were asleep before February 14;” is a common assertion by activists).
In the context of this tense period, there were indeed some examples of anti-Shia hate-speech in the social media; which led to the authorities passing new measures which criminalized such inflammatory attacks. Action was also taken against preachers deemed to have used sectarian language. Figures like Sunni MP Jassim al-Saeedi were particularly vocal in attacks against the opposition. The loss of his seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections was a sign that many in the Sunni community believed he had gone too far.
During 2012-13, as Islamist militants became more prominent in Syria, concerns were raised that these events could radicalize Bahrainis. A number of Islamic groups held events in support of humanitarian efforts in Syria, which on the face of it was a laudable initiative. However, concerns were raised about oversight to ensure that money raised couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
In August 2012, two Bahraini MPs and other representatives from the Salafist Asalah party were criticized when they travelled to Syria and met with rebels fighting the government, claiming that they had donated money to these fighters. The Bahrain Foreign Ministry said that this visit had occurred without their knowledge and warned citizens against travel to Syria. Salafist preacher Faisal al-Ghurair, also from Asalah, had been a vocal advocate of sending funds to Syria Islamist rebels.
Several Bahrainis are known to have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq; around eight have been killed there and another preacher is documented calling on Bahrainis to go and fight in Syria during their summer break. On May 30 2013, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa told Bahrainis to “stay away from regional and international conflicts and instead focus on developing yourselves, your country and your society.” Measures have subsequently been taken restricting travel to locations like Syria and to criminalize membership of extremist groups.
Threats against Bahrain by extremist groups
In September 2014, Bahraini members of Daesh prepared a video message said to be targeted at the “Sunnis of Bahrain”. The message urged Bahrainis to join ISIS; called for attacks against Bahrain’s leadership (because it had joined the anti-ISIS coalition); and incited attacks against Bahraini Shia.
This was followed over the next couple of years by a succession of attacks against mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as against security targets. In November 2014 eight people were killed in an attack by ISIS-linked gunmen against a community centre in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority Eastern Province near Bahrain. A number of other attacks followed in the same region: On May 22 2015 a suicide bomber killed 23 and injured over 100 in an attack against a Shia mosque in Qatif; this was followed a week later on May 31 by an attack on another mosque in nearby Dammam which killed three people.
It was furthermore reported that approximately 150 Bahraini Shia militants were fighting as part of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq under the name “Ahrar Al-Manama”. It is understood that many of these fighters were trained at the hands of the Hezbollah Brigades, before being provided with combat experience. 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 were expected to make use of in Bahrain.
The most notable response in Bahrain to threats by Sunni extremists was a succession of joint prayers by Sunnis and Shia at major mosques. Meanwhile, Bahraini police beefed up mosque security in anticipation that attacks could be staged. The well-known Bahraini militant Turki Binali in mid-2015 threatened that there were to be attacks in Bahrain. This threat was also echoed in a number of other extremist social media accounts. However, vigilance by the security services seems to have seen off these threats.
Social media accounts for those who travelled to join ISIS announced the deaths of several Bahraini extremists: Ali Yousif was killed in Syria in May 2014. In September 2014, the deaths of Yousif Jamil al-Bahraini and Ibrahim al-Awadhi (in Iraq) were announced (the same social media user, Abu-Isa al-Silmi, also mentioned the “martyrdom” of two others: Abu-Zubair al-Bahraini and Abu-Hamzah al-Bahraini). In May 2017 Mohammed al-Binali announced the death of Abdulaziz al-Jowdar. A further video issued in December 2016 threatened attacks in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The vast majority of Bahrainis are strongly opposed to the objectives and methods of ISIS, particularly ISIS’s hatred of all those who think differently, including other Muslim sects; ISIS’s intolerant ideology; and the harm ISIS has caused to the region. However, it is clear that the group has succeeded in reaching out to a tiny proportion of misled and disturbed individuals.
Action against militants
From mid-2014 Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, made a number of media appearances announcing Bahrain’s inclusion in the coalition against ISIS. He emphasized the need to rid the world of this “deviated cult”.
In January 2015 the Bahraini government revoked the citizenship of a list of individuals associated with terrorist entities; including many of those who had gone to fight with ISIS. The majority of those who had their citizenship revoked were based overseas, but have the right to appeal through legal channels.
It is understood that around 20 of these figures are associated with foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Many of the names on this list come from well-known Bahraini Sunni families: Turki al-Binali is a prominent extremist preacher and propagandist from ISIS. Mohammed Mubarak al-Binali, Mohammed Isa al-Binali and Ayoub al-Murbati all featured in the notorious Youtube video which threatened attacks against Bahrain. Abdulaziz al-Jowdar was reportedly involved in a suicide operation just a few days previously in Diyala in Iraq.
The Bahraini Government is right to use the powers available to it to prevent the return of terrorists who have travelled abroad, to target those who plan to engage in acts of terrorism inside Bahrain and other states, and to dissuade others from associating themselves with ISIS and other terrorist groups. These are all charges of a highly serious nature and few would disagree that those guilty of such charges are highly dangerous individuals who pose a severe threat to the safety of the public. However, it is the authorities’ responsibility to demonstrate that tangible evidence exists for each of these individuals and that the charges are justified, particularly as many are likely to appeal.
In April 2016 the Bahrain Government designated 68 groups as being terrorist entities; this included both groupings associated with Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. Also on the list were Shia entities active in Bahrain, like Al-Ashtar Brigades and the Resistance Brigades.