The United States’ designation of Saraya al-Mukhtar as a terrorist group is an important reminder of the threat that Iran-backed terrorism continues to pose to Bahrain and the region. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted, “The group has plotted attacks against U.S. personnel in Bahrain and has offered cash rewards for the assassination of Bahraini officials.” The State Department accused Saraya al-Mukhtar of receiving financial and logistical support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The IRGC supports a broad range of terrorist and paramilitary entities throughout the Arabian Gulf region towards its continued goal of “exporting the revolution”. This is in addition to its support for paramilitary groups in states like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Although the threat from extremist groups in Bahrain has receded significantly in recent years, it is well known that Iran continues to retain contacts with extremist elements in order to lay the groundwork for future acts of terrorism against Western and GCC targets. During the 2011-2016 period, Saraya al-Mukhtar was one of a number of groups responsible for numerous acts of terrorism and sabotage, including fatal attacks against policemen.
Several elements affiliated with Saraya al-Mukhtar are based in Iran, from where they use their IRGC connections to mobilize extremist elements in Bahrain. Iran and these Iran-based extremists have repeatedly been caught trying to smuggle weapons and explosives into the Kingdom, and on several occasions large weapons stores and explosives factories have been discovered linked to groups like Saraya al-Mukhtar and Saraya al-Ashtar. In 2018, Saraya al-Ashtar was also designated by the US as a terrorist group.
Many of these extremist elements have received terrorism training overseas, notably in Iraq, provided by Iran backed forces like Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib al-Imam Ali. On many occasions these individuals joined pilgrimage bus tours to Iraq and then remained in Iraq to receive terrorism training. Saraya al-Mukhtar has boasted of its connections to the IRGC and Kataib al-Imam Ali.
When three members of Saraya al-Mukhtar died at sea trying to travel between Bahrain and Iran, funerals were held for them in Qom. Saraya al-Mukhtar was also one of several Bahraini terrorist forces which signed a joint statement condemning the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in early 2020.
These terrorist elements make no attempt to hide the fact that they are Iranian proxies acting at Iran’s behest. The Bahraini authorities have been highly successful at curtailing the actions of these groups. However, as long as Iran remains dedicated to sponsoring terrorist groups throughout the region with the aim of subverting and overthrowing legitimate governments, action will need to be taken to protect citizens and ensure stability.
This is a crucial reminder that Iran’s nuclear activities aren’t the only threat emanating from Tehran, and thus the incoming US Administration in its strategy towards Iran will need to take account of the full spectrum of Iranian terrorist acts if the Middle East region is to enjoy future stability.