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Militancy in Bahrain Part 3: Eruption – 2011

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. This chapter relates what happened exactly a decade later on 14 February 2011 when this consensus collapsed and militants who had spent the past decade trying to destabilize the political scene succeeded in wresting back the agenda. Previous segments of this series can be accessed below:

Click on the hyperlinks below to access the complete 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

Tensions prior to 14 February 2011

The 2011 unrest occurred following a long period of escalating activity by opposition militants. As we saw in the previous section, 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. The primary instigators were figures like Hassan al-Mushaima and Abduljalil Singace from Haqq; the Wafa movement led by Abdulwahab Hussein and Abduljalil Miqdad, and the outlawed BCHR led by Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab.

All three movements collaborated closely and engaged in weekly bouts of tyre-burning, rioting and ambushing police as they moved in and sought to restore order and remove roadblocks. Such attacks using Molotov cocktails resulted in numerous police casualties, including the notorious killing of police officer Majid Asghar in Karzakan village on 9 April 2008.

The inflammatory speeches and attention-grabbing tactics of figures like Mushaima and Khawaja were radicalizing increasing numbers of impressionable young people, most of whom were still in their teens and had little understanding of the political issues they were agitating on behalf of. These radicalized youths would be the foot-soldiers of the opposition’s “revolution” after 14 February 2011.

The authorities found themselves in a bind. Each time they arrested those involved in violence and agitation, hundreds more radicalized youngsters came out on the streets and the cycle began all over again. Attempts at compromise and appeasement were little more successful. Negotiating with these radical leaders tended to encourage them to maximize their demands, while simultaneously marginalizing more moderate figures. An April 2009 royal pardon of 178 individuals held on security-related charges, allowed rioters and militants back out onto the streets.

By the time of the October 2010 parliamentary elections, Bahrain was already deeply enmeshed in this cycle of rioting, crackdowns and attempts to resolve these tensions; with militants escalating their activities in an unsuccessful attempt to coerce voters into boycotting the polls. Abduljalil Singace was arrested earlier in the year, while Mushaima fled to London, which had long-since been a hotbed for Bahraini and GCC radicals.

London-based groups like the Islamic Freedom Movement continued to pour oil on troubled waters from abroad with provocative statements. A typical press release was entitled “Thank You: Youth of Molotov;” telling rioters “to prepare for a more decisive confrontation... your choice to take to the streets is what broke the enemy’s backbone… the correct attitude is to smack their mouths, and spit in their faces” (April 2009).

It was thus inevitable that militants would see the revolutionary events in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011 as an opportunity to take their activity to a new level. Radicals exploited the relatively new media of Facebook and Twitter to reach out to thousands of Bahrainis and encourage them to hold demonstrations on 14 February – coinciding with the anniversary of the 2001 National Action Charter referendum.

14 February protests

As is well known, large numbers of Bahrainis did turn out and join rallies, primarily at the Pearl Roundabout location. However, there was a huge disconnect between the very small minority of radicals who had been involved in violence and agitation in the months leading up to 14 February; and the vast majority of demonstrators.

Many of those who turned out on 14 February were ordinary Bahrainis – Sunnis, Shia, middle-classes, academics, professionals. They were primarily calling for rejuvenation of King Hamad’s reform process, support for constitutional monarchy; and believed that demonstrations should be peaceful and civilized. Initially, the most visible manifestations of these rallies were leaderless and spontaneous; with radicals constituting a tiny minority.

Ironically, militants had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in seeing large amounts of Bahrainis coming out onto the streets; at the expense of them temporarily losing control of the agenda and seeing these demonstrations initially taking a more moderate and conciliatory path. The principle story over the next month would be how radicals managed to regain the initiative and appropriate the protest movement for themselves. They did this through four principle mechanisms:

Radicalization of political societies: Radicals affiliated to political societies like Al-Wefaq  persuaded these organizations to walk out of Parliament, abandon the political process and sabotage attempts at dialogue.

Exploitation of “martyrs”: In the turbulent events of February and March 2011, a small number of individuals lost their lives, some as a result of police actions and some as a result of violence by rioters. Radicals ruthlessly exploited every one of these “martyrs” in order to exacerbate street-level anger. Similarly, allegations of human rights abuses were used in propaganda efforts to skew foreign media coverage of events. In particular, Iranian media outlets like Press TV and Al-Alam began round-the-clock coverage of events in Bahrain. Much of their coverage was blatantly untruthful.

Radicalization of objectives: Haqq’s Hassan al-Mushaima returned to Bahrain as fast as he could (stopping via Lebanon to discuss tactics with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah), where he and the most radical opposition leadership declared a “Coalition for the Republic”. During a 7 March speech, Mushaima declared: “Haqq, Wafa and the Bahrain Freedom Movement have established The Coalition for the Republic, which endeavours to topple the monarchy in Bahrain and establish a republic. This has become necessary in light of the ‘oppressive and corrupt’ rule of the Al Khalifa family…”

This took the objectives of the protest movement in a totally different and more radical direction than had previously been the case. As the agenda shifted from “reform” to “revolution”; tens of thousands of moderate Bahrainis abandoned the protest movement.

Sectarianization of the protest movement: In the earliest days, the protests had an inclusive ethos which was hijacked by the radicals, who focused entirely on Shia grievances and introduced explicitly sectarian slogans, even using banners of Hezbollah and the Iranian leadership. Attacks against Sunni areas, such as Hassan al-Mushaima’s attempt to lead supporters against the Sunnis of Riffa, by mid-March created the real risk of wide scale sectarian conflict. By this point the proportion of Sunnis supporting the protests had dwindled away almost to nothing.

The BICI report demonstrated how by the middle of March 2011, the protests had become anything but peaceful and events had taken a highly sectarian turn:

13 March: “Groups of vandals and gangs of individuals armed with knives, swords and other weapons were reported in many of Bahrain’s cities and villages. A number of assaults against expatriate workers were also recorded, as well as several attacks against police officers. Fearing for their lives and property, more citizens organized checkpoints to monitor activity and traffic in their neighbourhoods. Groups of unidentified individuals carrying light weapons of various types, such as knives, swords, metal rods and wooden planks, were reported… A large gathering of persons near Roundabout 5 set up a checkpoint and reportedly attacked and assaulted passers-by who they thought were Sunni… gangs of armed individuals prevented government and private sector employees from entering their workplaces…”

“A number of cases of assault against unarmed police were recorded. Among these was an attack at 10:00 by approximately 10 individuals on a police officer in Mutanabbi Street in the vicinity of the NSA headquarters. A similar incident was reported at the same time when unidentified individuals attacked a police officer on patrol in the Salmaniya district. The victims of both these attacks were hospitalized. At 16:28, a police patrol reported being attacked in Sehla by a group of individuals armed with knives and swords… a number of police officers and employees of security agencies reported that their homes had been the target of attacks and incidents of vandalism…”

14 March: “The crippling of traffic in Manama due to the blocking of the King Faisal Highway, the presence of gangs of armed vandals throughout Bahrain, the inability and, according to some claims, the unwillingness of the police to impose order and confront these armed groups, and the targeting of expatriate workers, inevitably led to a sense of complete loss of security in the country. Residents in many neighbourhoods, including those of mixed composition and those having either Shia or Sunni majorities, were compelled to fend for themselves and organize committees to maintain security. This led Bahrainis and foreign residents to feel that the Government of Bahrain was no longer capable of ensuring their safety and that Bahrain was on the verge of a total breakdown of law and order...”

Patterns of casualties during the 2011 unrest

Given the reliance of opposition militants on exploiting the deaths of “martyrs” to radicalize and mobilize supporters, it is important to look at the fatalities from the height of the unrest, in order to separate the truth from the propaganda. The following information is primarily based on the accounts cited in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report:

1)    First fatality: Ali al-Mushaima

Mushaima died on the first major day of protests as police struggled to disperse a protest in Daih. According to the BICI: “Six police officers were surrounded and attacked by approximately 500 demonstrators. Police officers used rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd. The demonstrators were aggressive and were throwing rocks towards the police officers. The police officers exhausted their supply of rubber bullets and tear gas. They then resorted to shotguns.”

Ali’s death was widely publicized by militants. Mushaima’s funeral, the following day in Jidhafs attracted a crowd of 1,000. As militants attending the funeral passed two police cars, they focused their rage on the policemen, at first with verbal abuse, then by throwing rocks and assault with metal rods.

According to the BICI: “The seven police personnel at the location began responding to the mourners using sound bombs, tear gas and rubber bullets. Then, according to MoI [Ministry of Interior] reports, the mourners became aggressive and came within metres of the police patrol and managed to seize and destroy one of the police’s tear gas launchers. At this point, after all other ammunition had been exhausted, police are reported to have fired two shotgun rounds at the mourners, after which they evacuated the location.” During this battle Fadel Matrouk was also killed, his “martyrdom” being used to further escalate anger.

2)    Deaths as Pearl Roundabout is cleared

After several days of occupation of Pearl Roundabout by protesters, the decision was taken on 17 February to restore order. The operation was planned for early morning to minimize the need for force. After calls by megaphone to leave the roundabout, security forces moved in and removed demonstrators. Once the majority had departed, a hardcore refused to leave.

According to the BICI: Protesters “began resisting and assaulting the police, using stones, rocks, metal rods, swords, and sharp objects. Reports indicate that a number of protestors attempted to run over police officers with cars. Police responded by firing tear gas, rubber bullets and shotgun rounds.” During this chaos police fatally shot Mahmood Abutaki, Ali Khudair; and Ali Ahmed - the largest loss of life during the disturbances. Interior Ministry personnel faced charges and prison sentences over these incidents.

3)    Targeting South Asian workers

Expat workers tragically fell victims to the violence by both being caught up in disturbances and being specifically targeted. There is evidence that extremist elements within the opposition saw forcing an exodus of foreign workers as a means of further pressuring the Government. Bahrain Human Rights Watch documented hundreds of such attacks, blaming an “organised group within the anti-government movement”.

Regarding the murder of Abdul Malik Rasool, a Pakistani national on 13 March 2011, the BICI report cites the finding that “a gang carrying metal bars and knives attacked a group of Pakistanis living in a building in Naeem. One group surrounded the entrance to the building, while a second group broke down the door, entered the building and assaulted the residents. The residents who managed to escape the building were met by the group waiting at the entrance to the building. This group beat the deceased to death.” The case of Fareed Maqbul on 19 March is very similar. In total, four South Asians were killed.

4)    Attacks against security forces

Hundreds of security forces personnel were injured during the months after 14 February, many as a result of assault by iron bars, rocks, or firebombs. Ahmed Al Muraysi, Kashif Mandhour and Mohammed Abdulsamad were killed within 24 hours of each other (15-16 March 2011) all intentionally killed by cars driven by protesters, as the protests took an increasingly violent and sectarian turn. All three incidents were judged by the BICI report to be intentional killings by protesters. One of the protesters who confessed to the killing of the latter two officers claimed that it was in retaliation to the death of a relative. The killings of police officers from 2012 onwards was increasingly as a result of explosive devices (see below).

5)  Hit by tear gas canister

Ali Jawad al-Sheikh died following a protest in Sitra on 31 August 2011. The cause of his death was disputed, but BICI investigators judged that his death was attributable to being hit in the head by a tear gas canister. His family circulated a video of Ali’s dead body. The video was described by opposition leader Nabeel Rajab as “a gift to the people”, and his funeral was followed by widespread rioting. Fadel al-Obeidi died in similar circumstances, during a 9 March 2012 mass protest called for by Ayatollah Issa Qassim.

6)    Deaths from torture

There were five deaths attributed by the BICI report to torture and several security forces personnel have subsequently been put on trial and sentenced. According to the BICI report: “The MoI investigation into the death of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer has resulted in the prosecution of five individuals. On 25 May 2011, the MoI referred charges of manslaughter against two MoI personnel to a military court. A further three MoI personnel have been charged with failing to report this crime. The Commission concludes that this death is attributable to Mr Saqar’s mistreatment while in custody.” Zakariya al-Ashiri worked for a local blog news website in Al-Dair. He was killed on April 9, 2011 while in custody of the Bahraini Government. The BICI report attributed his death to torture and the investigation his death resulted in the prosecution of five individuals. In early 2012 a new police Code of Conduct was issued, reiterating the absolute prohibition of torture.

7)    Sunni victim of protests

Zahra Saleh died on 7 December 2011, three weeks after an iron rod became embedded in her skull during a protest in Al-Daih. Because of her Shia-sounding name, she was initially hailed by the opposition as a victim of police brutality. However, Zahra – actually a Sunni woman – was able to confirm that she was returning from work, trying to avoid the rioting near her home, when hit by the iron bar hurled by protestors.

From protests to militancy

As the protests took an increasingly sectarian and violent turn from mid-March 2011 and moderates and Sunnis rapidly deserted the protest movement, this left militants and hardliners as an increasingly dominant force within the opposition. Likewise as the aims of protesters evolved from seeking reform to demanding revolution, this left the radicals setting the agenda.

Although Al-Wefaq’s formal demands emphasized seeking an elected government, in the public rhetoric of its leaders, this demand frequently mutated into a call for “bringing down the regime”. For example, Khalil Marzouq demanding “the people want the regime to go” and “the people oppose the police and the state”.

By the second half of 2011, there were fewer and fewer set-piece mass rallies led by the opposition and granted licenses by the authorities; increasingly even these were marred by violence as radicals broke away from agreed protest routes and attacked the security forces.

Figures like Nabeel Rajab gave speeches which were disdainful of protestors limiting themselves to legally-permitted rallies. He encouraged his supporters to break away and paralyze key business sectors of Manama and other sensitive and central areas of Bahrain. Militants believed that through strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience they could bring Bahrain economically to a halt and force a radical solution to the crisis.

Although it became obvious that militants weren’t sufficiently well-organized or numerous to have an impact outside of militant hotspots, long-suffering local businesses were forced by threats and intimidation to close up on regular “days of rage”. Tragically, many small businesses went into terminal decline and were forced to lock their doors permanently as a result of nightly rioting and closures almost every weekend. An environment had been created where these localities became no-go areas for outsiders, even after roadblocks made of fallen palm trees, rocks and piles of rubbish were cleared.

Seeking to copy events of Egypt, the Bahraini opposition in mid-2013 tried to strike up a “Rebellion” (Tamarod) campaign. Despite around six months of preparation, the events that August were something of a farce. Demonstration locations where altered at the last minute because of low turnouts, conventional opposition groups seemed to keep changing their minds about whether or not they supported the Rebellion; and the security forces hardly needed to bother to turn out to manage the tiny groups which eventually gathered outside the US Embassy. It was by now abundantly clear that the protests as a mass movement had long since fizzled out, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Al-Wefaq – Triumph of the hardliners

The February 2011 unrest put Al-Wefaq Islamic Society in a quandary. It had only just celebrated its success in winning 18 seats in Parliament, and although members had supported calls for protests, abandoning the parliamentary route would mean a major about-turn for an organization which as recently as 2006 had nearly torn itself apart over the issue of whether to participate in elections. However, Al-Wefaq’s decision to walk out of Parliament came around 15-17 February – right at the beginning of the protests.

When the Crown Prince first tried to bring all sides into the National Dialogue in 2011, Al-Wefaq boycotted the process, making maximalist demands such as dissolving the Government as a condition for even starting talks (they briefly participated in Summer 2011 and then withdrew in response to provocative comments by the MP Jassim al-Saeedi). International observers complained that Al-Wefaq Secretary-General Ali Salman continually shifted his position in formal and informal talks with senior officials and foreign interlocutors.

For example, in talks with the Crown Prince’s representative on 28 February, Ali Salman declared that Al-Wefaq had changed its mind and instead of seeking to revise the 2002 Constitution, wanted to write a new constitution from scratch, explaining that “expectations of the youth had risen, which meant that the ceiling for demands had risen”.

Since the beginning of the 2011 unrest, the slogan “La hiwar hatta yasqut al-nadham” (no Dialogue until the regime falls) has been one of the most consistent slogans of the opposition – visible on banners, on walls, chanted at protests and used by opposition leaders. While Al-Wefaq wanted to show a moderate and consolatory face to the world, its decision-making process was often being driven by radicals and hardliners who shunned making concessions, believing that - having seen events play out in Tunisia and Egypt - time was on their side.

Finally Al-Wefaq was drawn into the Dialogue process in 2013, although these discussions which included many political societies made little progress and Al-Wefaq eventually withdrew in protest at the temporary detention of senior member Khalil Marzouq.

In early 2014, the Crown Prince made another effort to re-energize the Dialogue by meeting personally with Al-Wefaq’s Shaikh Ali Salman. The process continued behind the scenes for much of 2014, but came to a halt after Al-Wefaq rejected the Government’s five point plan (election boundary reform; more powers for elected MPs; wider consultation over ministerial appointments; judicial reforms and security sector reform) which aimed to meet the opposition half way on a number of issues. Al-Wefaq was widely criticized by the EU, Britain, US officials and others when it refused to rejoin the political process for the 2014 parliamentary elections.

 “Crush them!” – Ayatollah Qassim incites violence against police

Al-Wefaq’s leadership were mostly smart enough to avoid publically inciting violence. However sermons and statements by leading figures were often thinly-veiled calls for mobilizing supporters against the state.

Sermons by Sheikh Ali Salman came very close to openly inciting violence. Sheikh Salman on several occasions hinted at the option of taking a more “forceful” approach; sometimes appearing to implicitly threaten the authorities, and sometimes signalling to supporters that the option of escalating the protest movement was on the table. His speeches consistently pushed the boundaries of what he could get away with without facing legal measures. According to the authorities, speeches by Ali Salman “incited hatred against the government and promoted rioting and vandalism”. Shaikh Ali Salman in 2015 was jailed for inciting violence.

In early 2012 Ayatollah Isa Qassim gave a notorious sermon in which he incited his supporters to “crush” the police. Videos circulated widely of the cleric with his fist in the air leading a chant of “Crush them!”

Some observers argue that Qassim’s “Crush them” sermon did more than anything else to legitimize resorting to violence by radicalized and impressionable young people. Some described this statement as having the strength of a fatwa in ordering militants to deliberately attack the police using lethal violence. This is exactly what happened over the coming months.

During 2012, as protest leaders like Nabeel Rajab found it increasingly difficult to bring out their supporters in significant numbers, a call by Isa Qassim could guarantee the appearance of up to tens of thousands of his devotees, such as in major protests in mid-March 2012.

February 14 Coalition

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 disappearance of these figures led radical elements of the opposition to unite as the “February 14 Coalition”. The February 14 Coalition was the 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. A number of affiliates received weapons and explosives training outside Bahrain, primarily in Lebanon and Iraq; others made visits to Iran over this period.

This period up until mid-2013 marks the first phase of Iran-sponsored attempts to build a relationship with elements of the radical opposition and provide weapons and 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 the 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. 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

In December 2011 an explosive device was detonated from under a minibus near the British Embassy. A spokesman said: "Given the strength of the explosion and the debris it scattered, it was a highly-explosive substance that was used." The incident occurred a week after the British Embassy in Tehran was attacked. Thus, this attack should probably be seen in a different context to terrorism by opposition militants.

Already by early 2012, primitive explosive devices were being placed as a means of ambushing security forces. 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 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 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. As we will see below, 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.

A series of arrests during 2013 effectively dismantled the February 14 Coalition as a cohesive movement able to perpetrate acts of terrorism. In September 2013 a Bahraini court handed out sentences to around 50 individuals, some of whom were based overseas. 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; and staging a car bombing at the Bahrain Financial Harbour.

During 2011 Quds Force agents plotted an assassination attempt against Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adil al-Jubeir, which was thwarted because a key party to the plot turned out to be a US Drug Enforcement Administration official. The key figure coordinating this was senior Quds Force Commander Ghulam Shakuri who was already under close observation by the Bahraini authorities for his attempts to support militants during the unrest. Some observers believe that the Iranians saw the assassination attempt as revenge against Saudi Arabia for its intervention in Bahrain that March.

How militants exploited social media

The BICI report explains how social media outlets were used at the beginning of the protests:

“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. “

The BICI account details how Twitter and Facebook, along with SMS messages were crucial for organizing rallies and encouraging people to attend.

For the first three weeks of the protests, there was little in social media of an explicitly sectarian nature. The protest movement at the time was by far the most effective user of social media.

Until that time, social media had been used by young and more progressive segments of society for non-political purposes. As a result, much of social media correspondence from non-opposition segments of society was rather moderate in its response, calling for calm, tolerance and compromise.

However, tensions gradually rose and over that period both sides were using social media to spread rumours and calls for action. This gradually created a more toxic and polarized atmosphere across social media applications.

The BICI illustrates how social media could magnify the impact of a single incident to heighten sectarian tensions:

“A further confrontation took place on 7 March between members of the Sunni and Shia communities. Individuals who had gathered at the Financial Harbour began to interfere with traffic on the King Faisal Road. A female member of the Sunni community was stopped by protesters while driving her vehicle. The protesters then attacked her vehicle with sticks and knives. The car was surrounded by a large number of demonstrators, who began pounding on the vehicle and chanting anti-government slogans… In an attempt to get away, the car struck and injured one of the protesters, who was subsequently hospitalized. This incident caused mass anger among the demonstrators who vowed to retaliate against the woman and her family. Later that evening, the woman’s address was circulated via SMS messages and on internet social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and there were calls for people to attack her residence. In response, hundreds of Sunni men wielding swords, knives, sticks and other weapons assembled at the woman’s house to protect her from possible assault by Shia groups. This incident intensified sectarian tensions and contributed to a heightened sense of a deterioration of security in Bahrain.”

Through mid-March, this pattern of incitement and growing sectarian tensions continued, with social media being used as a tool for magnifying what was taking place in the streets:

“The Commission also received statements reporting that red marks were painted on houses to identify them as homes of military personnel or as employees of the MoI. This was allegedly done to facilitate attacks by Shia groups. The Commission received photographic evidence showing residences marked in this way. In addition, one individual stated that protesters put a sign on the building in which he resided to indicate that both civilians and police personnel working for the MoI resided there. Another individual claimed that she was so scared that she and her family left their residence and relocated to another district. Yet another individual reported receiving threats through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Several other complainants stated that their lives were threatened over the telephone and by SMS. Such threats concerned their relationship to the regime”

As the BICI report illustrates, both Sunni and Shia extremists were guilty of incitement via social media:

“The Commission examined some of the “tweets” that were “re-tweeted” repeatedly and which appear to have been influential in Bahrain. The Commission found numerous examples of exaggeration and misinformation, some highly inflammatory, that were disseminated through social media. The Commission also identified numerous examples of defamation, harassment and, in some cases, incitement through social media websites. The Harghum Twitter account targeted anti-government protesters and even disclosed their whereabouts and personal details. Harghum openly harassed, threatened and defamed certain individuals, and in some cases placed them in immediate danger...  A number of pro- and anti-government journalists were targeted through social media. In particular, the Commission finds that accusations accompanying the ‘List of Shame’, which targeted pro-government journalists and which were circulated online, could be considered defamatory.”

The BICI report concluded: “The Commission is aware of the impact that the use of social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, has had on some major social and political events in the contemporary world. Their influence has been acknowledged in the recent unrest in the Middle East and in the United Kingdom. The sharing of information may be liberating, but exaggeration and even misinformation disseminated through social media may inflame reactions to events and even provoke violence.”

By mid-2011, the unrest had given rise to a very polarized social media scene. As from mid-March, more liberal voices often found themselves under attack, for not being sufficiently vocal in “denouncing traitors”; for calling for dialogue and reconciliation; and for their ability to see both sides. As a result, most of the moderate and middle ground figures either quickly withdrew to lick their wounds; or more firmly attached themselves to one side or the other.

Salafists and Sunni religious figures had previously not troubled themselves much with politics and so any social media they engaged in was exclusively of a religious nature, along with a few platitudes about support for the “rightly-guided” leadership. However, the unrest drew many of these figures into the political mainstream and many of these figures were the most outspoken in denouncing the opposition and condemning Shia beliefs and practices.

Across social media, slogans against the ruling family were often framed as being against Sunnis in their entirety. For many Shia who had grown up in their villages largely isolated from Sunnis, when they shouted “irhalu” (go away), they were certainly thinking of a wider class of Sunnis who they believed wider power and influence than the Shia citizens.

The result was that through much of 2012 and 2013 the social media scene took a poisonous turn, with both sides escalating their narratives and attacking each other on both political and religious grounds.

Social media was used to amplify and promote videos of TV programmes on several of the explicitly sectarian satellite channels from across the region, either Iran’s Al-Alam TV, Press TV and Al-Mayadin TV; Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, or the Salafist Al-Wisal TV. Dozens of websites and chat-rooms play a similarly poisonous role.

Islamists are well organized in the social media. This can frequently be seen following online content of a sensitive cultural or social nature. For example, in December 2015 online tweets promoted a forthcoming youth camp in Bahrain. Islamists hijacked the hash tag with hundreds of tweets warning of all the abominable acts which would result from boys and girls being allowed to mix and stressing how alien such an initiative was to Bahraini culture. Hash tags for events around Bahrain’s national day in December were similarly deluged with hundreds of comments by Islamist bloggers, condemning the mingling of men and women and critiquing the “non-Islamic” nature of these celebrations.

Opposition, English language: There is a consistently high level of social media activity by the Bahrain opposition and prominent figures can usually expect tens of retweets and shares from their close network of followers. Much of the activity is generated by a small group of well-known figures such as Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja (or possibly others tweeting in their names).

There is also a tier of “human rights activists” with a transparently pro-opposition agenda, such as those associated with the BCHR, BIRD, ADHRB and others. These often have social media networks which enjoy high levels of interaction. However, a simple Twitter audit procedure indicates that many of these online activists have a high proportion of fake or bought followers (between 50 and 75%).

The Bahrain opposition on the human rights fringe has close relations with global human rights organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. By promoting each other’s social media activity, this allows the opposition to reach a very wide global audience, but also adds to the perception that some of these international NGOs are uncomfortably close to the opposition.

Opposition, Arabic language: There is a large diversity of voices and outlets among the Bahraini opposition. Some of these are figures based outside Bahrain, like Saeed Shehabi and other members of the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement; while some of these are opposition activists operating at a localized level, concerned with rallies and rioting planned within their own villages.

There is a continuing drive to try and keep opposition supporters active and networked. One way of doing this is through sporadic campaigns, such as recent campaigns on the naturalization issue, scholarships and protesting against the detention of well-known figures. These campaigns will see high levels of usage of particular hashtags and slogans, with coordinating figures trying to get all their supporters online discussing a particular issue at a particular time; or trying to mobilize foot-soldiers for rallies and riots.

There is an astonishing array of grassroots-level social media accounts by militants from different areas of Bahrain. Each village in pro-opposition areas has a range of accounts, promoting rallies and rioting and attacking Bahrain’s leadership. After even very minor scuffles with police, photos and descriptions of events are uploaded and these are widely circulated among these dozens of opposition accounts. This high level of interactivity gives rise to a very dense and substantial amount of internet activity.

Opposition activists tend to target different messages towards different audiences. For example, human rights issues are more visible in English than Arabic and while an institution like Al-Wefaq may condemn a bombing or atrocity; supporters often tweet condoning such bombings or questioning whether they really happened.

Even politically neutral segments of society resent the manner in which the opposition has damaged Bahrain’s international reputation, particularly in calls for boycotting major events and repeatedly bringing up old issues. The opposition must do more to reach beyond its core support base and give ordinary Bahrainis the confidence that it supports a national agenda.

A Twitter audit on all of the top opposition Twitter accounts demonstrates that a very high proportion of followers are fake, inactive and bought, which artificially inflates the apparent numbers of followers of these accounts.

English language pro-opposition voices: There is a small group of figures, mainly academics and those in the human rights field who spend a significant proportion of their time interacting on social media with a pro-opposition voice, particularly on Twitter. 

Most of these figures also take a similarly hostile line towards other GCC monarchies, although rarely criticize Iran. They are all closely networked with core opposition social media users.

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