by Bernd Debusmann Jr.
Over the past several years, Shia militants have waged a low-intensity insurgency against the Sunni rulers of the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, an important frontline in the proxy war between Iran and its rivals in the region. The Iranian-backed insurgency is rooted largely in a problem that has long plagued Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifah dynasty: how to govern over a majority Shia population that for decades has been seething with hostility.
Hostility first turned into action in 1981, when the Tehran-backed Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) launched a failed coup attempt. US-American and Bahraini intelligence services maintain that Bahraini militants were being trained in Iran throughout the 1980s and 1990s, an assertion backed up by the occasional discovery of weapons caches throughout the kingdom.
However, a report on Bahrain’s security by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes that “Shi’a militancy in Bahrain was a largely indigenous phenomenon until 2011. Before then, young Shi’a men from slums such as Sanabis, Daih, and Bani Jamra regularly mounted riots against the security forces, barricading of their streets, burning tires, and throwing Molotov cocktails at security force vehicles and riot police of foot.”
The relatively haphazard nature of this anti-government activity, which lacked training, direction or even weapons, changed dramatically in 2011. It was then that peaceful protests inspired by the “Arab Spring” were crushed by the government, backed by Saudi and Emirati intervention forces that were bolstered by the ample deployment of armoured units. They didn’t have to travel far – a short causeway is all the separates Bahrain from its much larger, and more powerful, Saudi neighbor. By the time the protests subsided, several protesters lay dead and thousands wounded.
This lopsided crackdown pushed the anti-government movement in Bahrain towards militancy, and it was not long before IED attacks began taking place against a variety of government and economic targets in the country.
Although some attempts had been made prior, the insurgency hit a milestone in March 2014 when an IED attack killed two Bahraini police officers and an Emirati advisor. According to the Washington Institute report, the attackers in that incident utilised a “daisy-chain” of Claymore-type explosive devices against the officers, who were lured into the kill-zone by a staged protest.
Since then, although remaining small in numbers, the insurgents have become better armed and increasingly sophisticated, a byproduct, according to US and Bahraini officials, of encouragement and training conducted by instructors from Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, including Hezbollah.
A captured Bahraini militant interviewed by the Washington Post earlier this year alleged that he had been trained in Iran in 2011 and again in 2017, when an Iranian contact urged him to take action after the Bahraini government reinstated capital punishment.
According to the militant, who asked to be identified as Ibrahim, he was trained in the use of small arms, RPGs and a variety of other weapons in Iran, before returning to establish a bomb-making operation at a flat in Bahrain. The bomb components – which included C-4, batteries, wires and a remote trigger – were retrieved from dead drops after communication with a handler in Iran.
A number of other militants interviewed by the newspaper had similar stories of being recruited in-country in Bahrain, before being sent for training in Iran itself or in Iraq by what the US military described as “Iranian-backed special groups” such as Kata’ib Hezbollah.
Ample evidence suggests that Iranian support for Bahraini insurgents has been going on for quite some time, particularly in the form of maritime resupply missions from Iran to Bahrain. In December 2013, for example, Bahraini authorities intercepted a speedboat carrying large quantities of advanced bomb components, including 31 Claymore-type antipersonnel fragmentation mines and 12 EFP warheads, plus the electronics to arm and fire the devices, destined for a safe house in a Bahraini village. Two years later, in July 2015, another vessel was intercepted carrying 43 kilograms of C-4 type explosive, as well as eight AK-47s and ammunition. (Michael Knights, “Iranian EFPs in the Gulf: An Emerging Strategic Risk“, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 23rd, 2016).
Despite the threat that Iranian-backed Bahraini militants could pose to the US military presence in Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, some analysts have speculated that Iran’s influence over the groups may be what prevents them from striking US targets. “There was a sense that the Iranians acted as a brake for these groups, saying ‘we’re not going to cross that line’,” the Washington Post quoted former US ambassador to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski as saying.
Looking to the future, however, it seems likely that the insurgency in Bahrain will continue, and may well pick up pace despite the effectiveness of Bahrain’s security forces. For one, Bahrain continues to be harsh in how it deals with opponents. Harsh government methods, in turn, create easy recruitment opportunities for Bahraini militant groups. Second, the conflict in Bahrain must be seen within the broader context of rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is currently driving other conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
“Iran might be trying to deter Bahraini crackdowns or develop leverage over the Gulf States more generally,” the Washington Institute report notes. “Indicators of a more ambitious Iranian strategy in Bahrain might include assassinations of Bahraini security leaders, stockpiling of larger stores of small arms and ammunition, further prison breaks or weapons thefts, and an expansion in the manpower pool of trained Bahraini militants available for use in a future uprising.”