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Militancy in Bahrain 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 numerous 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:

Previous sections

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

 

Militancy reined in

The Global Terrorism Database indicates that terrorism in Bahrain peaked during 2014, with 41 recorded attacks resulting in nine fatalities (five of whom were police). In 2013 52 attacks resulted in three deaths, while in 2012 26 attacks killed four people (including five police killed 2012-13). The 2015 statistics report 18 attacks and five fatalities, four of whom were police. August 2016 statistics by the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies found there to have been 142 terrorist attacks in Bahrain over five years., resulting in the deaths of 22 police officers, with 2,500 injured “185 of these resulting in disabilities including loss of extremities and blindness”.

On 28 July 2015 Bahrain endured the single worst terrorist attack for over a year, with two policemen dead and several seriously injured, following an explosion in Sitra. The same month, another large boatload of weapons from Iran was discovered and another militant was killed trying to plant a bomb to target police in Al-Eker. On 28 August 2015 in Karranah one policeman was killed in a bomb blast.

For the most part, 2016 was relatively quiet with fewer serious security incidents following successful operations against terrorist entities during 2014 and 2015. There were two notable fatalities from terrorism: On 16 April 2016 an explosion in Karbabad killed a policeman and on 30 June 2016 a roadside bomb exploded killing woman driver Fakhriyah Ahmed and injuring her three children.

This demonstrates the continual problem faced by militants in that their numbers are relatively small and few have significant training and experience. Therefore every wave of detentions and crackdowns by the authorities has proved devastating for these groups and their Iranian handlers.

Just a few days after the Al-Eker attack, on 12 July police announced the indictment of three figures believed to have been behind the blasts. Reports said that all three had received weapons training inside Iran at the hands of the Revolutionary Guard. Two were detained; the third, Ahmed Abdullah Ahmed, was reported to have fled to Iran. He was said to have received training in bomb manufacture and his name was associated with a string of explosives incidents.

Just a few days after this (21 July 2016), police announced a further string of what they described as “pre-emptive arrests” of figures who had used a car repairs garage in Hamad Town as a front for a weapons manufacture and storage site. Detainees acknowledged receiving training from the IRGC in Iran and the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq. For example; Ali Ahmed al-Musawi had lived for a period in Iran where he coordinated training and logistical support. When he returned to Bahrain, he oversaw the use of the Hamad Town car repair workshop to store bomb-making materials and weapons. His accomplice Mohammed Abduljalil received military training in Iran, including manufacturing bombs and the use of pistols and automatic weapons, such as Kalashnikov and PKG.

In August 2016, among a number of terrorism indictments, 35 men were cited by the court as being members of a militant group calling itself the “Dhu-al-Fiqr Brigades”. Three key figures were being tried in absentia for leading this group and colluding with Iran’s IRGC to recruit personnel and provide weapons training in preparation for attacks against police. Out of 86 defendants who had actually been detained, 40 of these were accused of receiving training by the IRGC in Iran or the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq. They were accused of involvement in a number of attacks from 2012 onwards, including a 19 July 2015 attack in Al-Eker against police officers and a 9 October 2015 attack in Juffair, also against police targets.

In December 2016, a gang armed with AK-47s fled security forces after being dropped off in Bahrain by boat. Their escape car was traced to an address where a new workshop was discovered containing bomb-making equipment. The gang was in possession of a boat whose GPS device indicated continual visits into Iranian waters and two gang members had recently visited Iran.

On 26 February 2017, five police were injured in Jau when a bus they were travelling in was targeted by an explosive device. One off-duty policeman, Ahmed Busharar, was killed in a vehicle collision resulting from the blast. This followed two other blasts in the preceding days in Sanabis and Shakhura, the first seriously injuring a woman driver.

Intense surveillance has made it very difficult for operatives to clandestinely slip out of the country to receive training overseas. Tight supervision of Bahrain’s borders has made smuggling operations a highly erratic enterprise. In contrast to Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Bahrain’s small size and close communities makes it impossible for entities like Hezbollah to send operatives to train militants and facilitate terrorist attacks.

 

Moves against Al-Wefaq & Ayatollah Qassim

In 14 June 2016 it was announced that Al-Wefaq Islamic Society would be closed down. The Ministry of Justice said that organizations like Al-Wefaq had “worked for decades on diverting from the concept of the state, securing legal cover for acts associated with extremism and terrorism and worked to create a new generation that carries the spirit of hatred… this is out of the culture of exclusion, intolerance and linking opposition political organizations in countries of the region with sectarian and extremist political parties that adopt terrorism.”

For many Bahrainis, Al-Wefaq is the main entity responsible for stirring up sectarian tensions and fuelling the 2011 unrest. To them, this is a long-overdue move which will silence the clerical figures who have done so much to incite instability and undermine Bahrain internally and externally. Others view this move against Al-Wefaq Islamic Society in the context of the King’s ratification of a law banning clerics from involvement in politics. Should a movement dominated by clerics have a place in a political system committed to the separation of religion and politics, democratization and a progressive constitution?

On the same day, Ayatollah Qassim’s Islamic Enlightenment Society was closed down which was shortly followed by an announcement of the discovery of BD 10 million in Qassim’s private bank accounts, accompanied by claims by the authorities that additional funds under Qassim’s control were laundered and passed to anti-Bahrain groups abroad. A week later on 20 June, it was announced that Ayatollah Qassim’s citizenship would be withdrawn. Announcing this move, the Interior Ministry said:

“Ever since he received Bahraini nationality Qassim established organisations that followed an external religious political authority, played a major role in creating an extremist sectarian environment and worked to divide society along sectarian lines… Qassim adopted theocracy and emphasized absolute allegiance to religious clerics. Through his sermons and fatwas, he exploited the religious pulpit for political purposes serving foreign interests… He collected funds without complying with the law.”

Since the announcement, Iranian figures and the Iranian media have condemned the move against Qassim sought to incite violence and instability in Bahrain. TV channels like Al-Alam were calling on Bahrainis to take to the streets in protest and a statement by Hezbollah called on people “to express their anger and rage decisively”:

“The Al Khalifa surely know their aggression against Sheikh Isa Qassim is a red line that crossing it would set Bahrain and the whole region on fire, and it would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance… Al Khalifa will definitely pay the price for that and their bloodthirsty regime will be toppled;” Qassim Soleimani, head of Quds Force.

 

Prison attack – 1 January 2017

The 1 January 2017 attack against Jaw Prison by armed militants, in which ten prisoners were freed and policeman Abdulsalam Saif Ahmed was killed, shows the need to remain vigilant in the face of determined efforts by radical groups to stage terrorist attacks against civilians and the security services.

According to the Interior Ministry, the assailants conducted drone reconnaissance of the jail and bribed prison staff. The attackers fought guards with AK-type assault rifles. They killed one guard and attempted to execute another.

The Washington Institute reported: “The sophistication of the breakout and the value of the prisoners to Tehran-backed networks make it plausible that the operation was an Iranian-coordinated effort. Bahraini authorities point to the December incident in which two wanted militants were smuggled back into the country by boat from Iran, fearing that it may be connected to the prison escape. More broadly, such a high-profile breakout carries considerable cost and risk, so if Tehran was involved, it sends a strong message to Shiite militants that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) looks after its own. This kind of success also makes Iranian networks more resilient and motivated, increasing their recruitment potential.”

The ten individuals freed were all prominent figures with a history of involvement in some of the most notorious terrorist operations of the past five years. For example, Mohammed Ibrahim Mulla Reza al-Touq was a principle protagonist in the 28 July 2015 bombing which killed two policemen and injured several others outside a girls’ school in Sitra.

Events took a dramatic turn on 9 February, when several of the Jau prison fugitives and their accomplices tried to escape to Iran by boat. They were intercepted and opened fire on a police boat after being given warnings to hand themselves over. The police returned fire and three of the fugitives were killed. Seven others were arrested.

 

Breaking up new terrorist cells

In the days after these incidents, a funeral wake was held in Qom for one of those killed in the sea battle; 29-year-old Redha al-Ghasra, who prior to his escape had been serving a life sentence for terrorism. Two of those attending the wake were Ghasra’s brothers, also wanted in Bahrain on terrorism charges. They played a recorded phone call of Redha saying his boat was on its way to Iran. Presiding over the occasion was the cleric, Murtadha al-Sanadi, the leading figure from Al-Ashtar Brigades and Wafa, and recently designated by the US as a “global terrorist”.

On 4 March Bahrain’s Public Prosecutor announced the uncovering a 54-member Iranian-linked militant group suspected of involvement in attacks on security forces, including the recent prison break. During a series of operations security forces arrested 25 members and seized numerous weapons, including “large quantities of explosives, detonators and hand grenades”. The announcement revealed the involvement of a Germany-based leader of the group had helped organize trips for members from Bahrain to Iran and Iraq for training. Among other attacks blamed on this same group were the killing of a police officer at his farm in Bilad al-Qadim on 28 January; and a 14 January 2017 attack during which assailants opened fire on a police patrol in Bani Jamra; as well as the unsuccessful attempt to smuggle the escaped inmates abroad.

On 26 March there was a further announcement about the breaking up of a 14-member “Iranian-linked terrorist cell” blamed for the bus attack a month previously and plotting to assassinate senior officials. It was also reported that the same cell had been monitoring the movements of US naval personnel. The statement said that the cell was being financed and directed from Iran by Qassim Abdullah Ali and Murtadha al-Sanadi. Once again, those detained were found to have received military training in Iran and Iraq. The US State Department a few days before had labelled Sanadi and another Bahraini identified as Ahmed Hassan Yusuf as “specially designated global terrorists”.

Six of those detained had reportedly received military training in camps inside Iran under IRGC supervision, five had been trained by the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and three received training in Bahrain.

In mid-May, Ayatollah Isa Qassim’s trial culminated n the cleric being given a one-year suspended sentence for illegal fundraising and money laundering; along with serving “foreign interests” and promoting “sectarianism and violence.” Hundreds of opposition militants immediately descended on the area around Qassim’s home in Diraz and violence broke out as they attacked the police with Molotovs. In one of the most serious bouts of unrest for several years on 23 May, five individuals died and numerous arrests were made. However, Diraz remained a flashpoint and on 18 June the Interior Ministry announced the killing of a policeman in the vicinity of Qassim’s home, killed by an explosive device. Several other police were also reportedly injured in these disturbances.

A few days later on 28 June, the Interior Ministry announced the results of an ongoing operation to target terrorists associated with Al-Ashtar Brigades. As well as making a number of arrests, a weapons and explosives storage site was also discovered at Al-Dair. Evdence showed that militants had been filming explosives manufacturing processes and sending these films back to Iran with a view to improving bomb-making techniques. Around “52 KG of high-grade TNT explosives, including C4, urea nitrate, ammonium nitrate and raw materials, were discovered at the scene. Explosives experts estimated that the equipment had a potential to impact a 600 metre radius, posing a significant threat to the surrounding residential area”.

 

International acknowledgment of the terrorist threat

The 2014 US National Intelligence Worldwide Threat Assessment, concluded:

"Iran will continue to provide arms and other aid to Palestinian groups, rebels in Yemen and Shia militants in Bahrain to expand Iranian influence and to counter perceived foreign threats."

On March 17 2017, the State Department — finalizing an initiative begun during the final months of the Obama administration — imposed sanctions against two leaders of the Bahraini terrorist group Al-Ashtar Brigades, formally designating them as “global terrorists.” The announcement specifically accused Iran of backing the group as part of its “destabilizing and terrorism-related activities in the region.”

In its sanctions announcement, the State Department said: “Iran has provided weapons, funding and training” to Bahraini militants. The State Department clarified that the “global terrorist” designation was reserved for individuals and groups that threaten the “national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.”

“Documents and interviews with current and former intelligence officials describe an elaborate training program, orchestrated by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to school Bahraini militants in the techniques of advanced bomb-making and guerrilla warfare. A wide variety of increasingly sophisticated weaponry — much of it forensically linked to Iran — has been discovered in Bahrain over the past three years, including hundreds of pounds of military-grade explosives that almost certainly originated in Iran, U.S. and European intelligence officials say. The efforts appear to mirror similar ongoing operations to build a network of pro-Tehran militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria;” Washington Post

On March 16 2017, German authorities ordered the arrest of a Bahraini man — a 27-year-old asylum seeker living in Berlin — under international warrants accusing him of being a terrorist operative for the Al-Ashtar Brigades.

This change of approach from the US Government and other Western states comes after five years during which there was a reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat of terrorism in Bahrain – or Iran’s role in financing and inciting terrorism.

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