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Militancy in Bahrain

This series of articles is the first attempt of its kind to definitively document the history of militancy in Bahrain over more than sixty years – looking both at Sunni and Shia militant trends, as well as examining the role of external powers like Iran in influencing and fueling these radical tendencies. These articles also examine the ideological and theological currents which have underpinned Islamist activism in Bahrain.

By examining these developments in historical context it becomes easier to see how militancy has evolved, as well as better understanding how to address these challenges and prevent young people from becoming radicalized in the future.

Click on the hyperlinks below to access the complete articles:

Part 1: Beginnings of militancy – 1950-1990

Militant groups first began to emerge in Bahrain around the time of independence in 1971. Many Shia figures began to become politically active around that time, influenced by Islamist currents from Iraq, particularly the Da’wah and Shirazi trends. Many Shia clerics learnt about these new ideas directly when they travelled to the Iraqi holy cities of Karbala and Najaf for theological study during the 1960s.

Bahraini Islamists were galvanized by the radicalizing effects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. This first phase of militancy culminated in a Tehran-sponsored coup attempt in Bahrain in 1981, which some observers saw as an attempt to abort the new Gulf Cooperation Council that had only been announced that same year. For the first time, the circumstances of this coup attempt are discussed in full here, including the events leading up to it and the principal actors.

Part 2: Evolution of militancy – 1990-2011

Militants embarked on a period of unrest during the 1990s. Many of the militant leaders during the post-2011 unrest first became politically active during the turmoil of the 1990s. This difficult period in Bahrain’s history only came to a definitive end with the ascendance to the throne of King Hamad in 1999 and his amnesty for releasing political detainees and allowing exiles to return. This is another phase of Bahrain’s history which has rarely been extensively written about, so this is an exploratory attempt to set these events in context.

On 14 February 2001, over 98 percent of Bahrainis voted in favour of King Hamad’s new constitution, the National Action Charter, which ushered in a new phase of political participation; allowing oppositionists to return from exile, establish political parties and stand for Parliament.

Between 2001 and 2006, militants and moderates within the opposition achieved a fragile consensus. However, Al-Wefaq Islamic Society’s participation in the 2006 elections caused its most radical elements to secede and sowed the seeds for renewed militancy which would come to fruition after 2011. the establishment of the Haqq movement in 2006 as a splinter group from Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, resulted in a steadily escalating pattern of rioting and violence against the security forces by militants opposed to Bahrain’s parliamentary system. 

Part 3: Eruption of militancy – 2011

The 2011 unrest followed a long period of escalating activity by opposition militants. Although the 14 February 2011 protests were initially joined by large numbers of moderates, professionals and Sunnis, calling for a continuation of King Hamad’s reform initiatives – these rallies were quickly hijacked by radicals with a revolutionary agenda; many of whom had been involved in militancy for many years.

From March onwards, these protests increasingly took as sectarian and radical direction and mutated from being a mass movement, to being driven by a hardcore of militants who were willing to use violent methods, such as lethal attacks against police, vandalism and rioting.

Part 4: Expansion of militancy – 2012-2016

The 2011 unrest in Bahrain galvanized militant groups which quickly gained control over the protest movement; taking it in a more sectarian and revolutionary direction. By 2012, militant groups were importing weapons and were receiving paramilitary training in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. These terrorist cells became increasingly well-organized and deadly, launching a series of lethal attacks against police and other targets.

In the second half of this section we look at Sunni militancy; in particular the radicalizing effect of ISIS in Iraq and Syria after 2014, which inspired a small but significant number of Bahrainis to associate themselves with this jihadist movement. After threats were made against mosques and institutions the authorities introduced measures to crack down on these militants. Previous sections of the Militancy in Bahrain series can be found below:

Part 5: Exporting militancy – Iran’s role

As protests flared in Manama in February 2011, Iran quickly saw an opportunity. Iran began cultivating militant entities with the aim of engineering regime change and expanding its influence inside the GCC. The result was a growing pattern of terrorist activity targeted mainly against the police, but also against civilian targets.

The various dynamics of Iran’s involvement at the outset of the protests can be summarized as follows: Propaganda support through Iran’s dense network of media outlets; providing training, funding and logistical support to militants; and the provision of weapons.

It gradually became obvious that many Bahrain-based militant groups were being directed by an Iran-based radical leadership working hand-in-hand with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Part 6: Confronting militancy – 2015-2017

Between 2012 and 2016, the capabilities of Bahraini militants to embark on terrorist attacks expanded to a worrying degree, resulting in fatal attacks against security and civilian targets and the killing of several policeman.

However, there was also a corresponding growth in the readiness of Bahraini authorities to confront this threat, meaning that terrorist groups were broken up and detained almost as rapidly as they were able to organize themselves. In this section we evaluate these efforts to counter militancy

Part 7: Conclusions & recommendations

During the previous chapters we examined how militant trends evolved in Bahrain throughout more than sixty years. Here we look at the various factors which have fueled radicalization and militancy, as well as examining the complex relationship between radicalization and sectarianism.

This discussion helps us to arrive at a number of recommendations for how militancy can be countered in the GCC region, in order to arrive at a society which is more tolerant, coherent and at peace with itself.

"We must use all resources to hold accountable those who place themselves above other ordinary human beings who claim they have divine right to rule. These are people who try to govern us, here on earth, and in the hereafter. We are not only fighting terrorists, we are fighting theocrats;” HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince.

Militancy and sectarianism are foreign imports to Bahrain and are traditionally not deeply-rooted within Bahrain’s society. Most Bahrainis are open-minded and tolerant towards other faiths and nationalities meaning that the likes of ISIS and Iran have only been able to attract a small hardcore of supporters – who are nevertheless a threat to our security and civil peace.

We must take action to ensure that our young people do not become radicalized and that sectarian views are challenged – to ensure that Bahrain retains its position as a progressive, tolerant and welcoming society.

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