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Understanding the terrorist threat in Bahrain

The killing of three policemen on 3 March 2014 marked the apex of a campaign of terrorism against Bahraini targets by a number of militant groups which received training, funding and weapons from outside the Kingdom. Bahrain’s first usage of the death sentence since 2010 against three terrorists convicted of this attack on 15 January 2017 is a suitable moment to look back at the pattern of terrorist incidents over the post-2011 period.

By properly understanding these threats and challenges we can better ensure that citizens are protected from terrorism and also ensure that frustrated young people are not seduced into criminal activities which ultimately destroy their own lives as well as those of their victims.

By mid-2012 it had become clear that the protest movement in Bahrain was struggling to maintain its momentum. Even calls by senior opposition clerics failed to bring out tens of thousands of supporters. Meanwhile, moderates staked their hopes on reforms, dialogue and consensus as the way forward for Bahrain.

In this context, radical elements of the opposition had already sought to continue the unrest; not through the path of civil disobedience, but through acts of terrorism. As tensions increased between Tehran and the GCC states, Iranian leaders on several occasions made their intentions clear for increasing their support for Bahraini militants. Quds Force’s Qassim Soleimani on 19 June 2016 threatened that there would be a "bloody uprising" in Bahrain which would "leave people with no other option but the toppling of the regime in armed resistance".

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 which had rejected all forms of political participation and were responsible for bouts of rioting and tyre-burning since their inception. These two groups broke away from Al-Wefaq Islamic Society after it began to participate in elections from 2006. The BHCR’s Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was also a prominent figure close to these radical fringes. Several leaders of these rejectionist groups, like Hassan al-Mushaima, Abduljalil Singace and Abdulwahab Hussain, 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 Iranian 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.

Hussain 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-Dhafeeri 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. Hussain Sharaf was a key figure behind this and other attacks. Sharaf went on the run and was sentenced in absentia for manufacturing explosive devices and involvement in attacks. 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 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.

2014-2015: A new phase of terrorism in Bahrain

As the Feb 14 movement was broken up, a new generation of militants was being prepared to wage a campaign of terrorism. These successor organizations were of a very different nature.

The Feb 14 movement was a diffuse and wide-ranging entity. Many segments of the opposition associated themselves with it, even if not actively involved in terrorism. These features made Feb 14 somewhat unsuccessful as a terrorist movement. This is because most of those involved knew everybody else in the local branches; there was a lot of contact and coordination with opposition elements based in London and elsewhere; and those involved in militancy lacked the ability to cover their tracks. As a result; when the authorities moved against Feb 14, dozens of militants were detained and sentenced relatively easily. The courts were able to put together a coherent picture of their relationships to each other, patterns of travel abroad and their responsibility for illegal acts.

Although the emerging organizations would suffer from some of the same weaknesses, clearly lessons had been learnt. The names of several new entities began to emerge in early 2014, including Al-Ashtar Brigades, the Resistance Brigades and Al-Mukhtar Brigades. These organizations acted as smaller units, making secrecy easier. There also appears to have been greater investment into sending key individuals abroad for paramilitary training.

According to the Washington Institute: “The importation of roadside bombing equipment and expertise has gradually transformed the level of terrorist threat inside Bahrain. Prior to 2011, the island saw only a smattering of arson bombings and concussion-inducing "sound bombs" which almost never caused fatalities. Since 2012, however, at least 24 terrorist bombings have occurred, killing twelve security personnel and maiming forty others. And whereas the loss of a single police weapon might have prompted the government to turn whole neighborhoods inside out before 2011, at least some militants now possess assault rifles that outgun a typical police patrol.

Al-Ashtar became the most notorious of these new groupings and by the early months of 2014 had already claimed responsibility for around 20 terrorist incidents; some relatively trivial, others including fatal attacks against police. The earliest Al-Ashtar claims of involvement in attacks go back to April 2013. Its early attacks included a bomb detonated outside the Bahrain Exhibition Centre on 17 June, a car bomb outside a mosque in Riffa on the same day; and a blast in Bani Jamra which injured seven policemen on 28 May. Attacks continued through 2014 and into mid-2015, including a bomb on a police bus in Budaiya on 14 February 2014 and other attacks with explosives in Sanabis, Duraz and Budaiya around the same time.

The changing nature of the unrest in Bahrain over this period was illustrated by the fact that between April 2013 and April 2014, no protestors had died as a result of clashes with police, showing the degree to which civil tensions had cooled and Bahrain was returning to normality. However, over this same period, six police died in terrorist attacks, demonstrating that elements within the opposition had redefined their strategy towards a focus on militancy.

Bahrain’s worst terrorist atrocity - 3 March 2014

Al-Ashtar Brigades were behind the single worst incident of terrorism on Bahraini soil. On the evening ahead of the attack, three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were placed on the road in the Daih area. Al-Ashtar operatives were assigned a range of tasks, from surveillance, to videoing the explosions, to remotely detonating the devices.

The militants used the standard operational practice of instigating local disturbances and rioting to draw patrols of police into the area and then ambush them. Meanwhile, one group member was positioned on top of a nearby building and as soon as police approached the vicinity of the IEDs, the devices were detonated.

Three policemen were killed and seven others were seriously wounded, including a media cameraman embedded with the patrol. Those killed were Ammar Abdu-Ali al-Dhalei, Mohammed Arslan Ramadhan, and Emirati officer First Lieutenant Tariq al-Shehhi.

Al-Ashtar Brigades immediately posted a statement online claiming responsibility for the attacks. Dubai’s police chief concluded that those behind the 3 March attacks had recently visited Lebanon and received training from Hezbollah. According to official statements, Al-Ashtar’s Iran-based leadership facilitated travel for members of the group to Iraq, for training in weapons use, hostage-taking and bomb-making with Hezbollah.

Al-Ashtar Brigades and affiliated groups sought to escalate their activities during early 2014. Another attack against police just two days later failed when the device exploded prematurely, severely injuring the youths carrying it. A few days later on 15 March, policeman Abdulwahid al-Balooshi was killed by a similar explosion in Al-Dair.

Six suspects were ultimately convicted of responsibility for the 3 March attack and a number of other incidents attributed to Al-Ashtar Brigades. Evidence was based on witness testimonies; fingerprints and DNA evidence on the IEDs; and phone records which confirmed the locations of the defendants at the time of the attack. While a number of those involved were given stiff sentences, the three principal figures behind the attacks were handed down death sentences which were ultimately carried out in January 2017.

Haroun al-Zayani from the Public Prosecutor’s office said in a statement on 15 January 2017: “The convicts received fair public trials and all the legal guarantees in the presence of their lawyers who had access to their case before delivering their pleadings.” The trial had already proceeded through a lengthy appeals process before the sentences were carried out.

Increasing Iranian support for terrorism

From late 2013, there was a sharp rise in evidence of Iranian involvement in terrorism inside Bahrain. In the last days of 2013, boats were seized loaded with Iranian weapons and explosives bound for opposition militants. Among the arms documented in this seizure were bomb-making equipment, thirty-eight C4 explosive devices, fifty Iranian-made hand bombs, 295 detonators labeled as coming from Syria and large quantities of machine gun bullets. At the same time the Coast Guard impounded a boat containing 13 wanted individuals trying to flee to Iran.

In linked operations a couple of days later a sizeable warehouse for storing explosives and ammunition was discovered in Qurrayah. Other sites were located during the same series of raids. Over the coming months, explosives factories and large caches of weapons and materials of Iranian origin were discovered.

The Bahraini authorities singled out the Iran-based Bahraini national, Ali Ahmed Mafoudh al-Mousawi, as having overseen some of these smuggling operations. He was accused of “planning to commit terrorist acts and plant explosives targeting vital installations and sovereign and security locations in the Kingdom of Bahrain”. Surveillance of associates of Al-Mousawi led to the above operations in late 2013-early 2014. According to the Public Prosecution, those detained “confessed that they had travelled to Iran and received training by Iranian personnel at Iranian Revolutionary Guard camps.”

Groups like Al-Ashtar, Al-Mukhtar and the Resistance Brigades were found to have been far more directly overseen by Iranian based entities and several leading figures from these groups were either based in Iran or spent significant amounts of time in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. By mid-2015 many of the key figures behind Al-Ashtar had already been detained. However, the group’s two leaders, Ahmed Yousif Sarhan, and Jassim Ahmed Abdullah remained safely in Iran from where they had reportedly coordinated training and weapons smuggling operations.

Cracking down against terrorist entities

New intelligence led to notable successes by the Bahraini authorities in cracking down on weapons smuggling operations. On 15 March 2015 a suitcase of explosives being transported from Iraq, headed for Bahrain, were impounded on the Saudi causeway. Disturbingly, these explosives were carried on a bus loaded with women and children. A month later more explosives were confiscated on the same causeway, this time headed from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. In both cases evidence linked back to Iran, such as the Iranian phone chips found in the possession of those arrested. The explosives were similar to materials impounded in late 2013.

Raidsduring mid-2015 resulted in the capture of significant quantities of military materials. For example; a 6 June raid in Dar Kulaib resulted in the seizure of large quantities of C4 explosives, detonators and advanced circuitry. The location contained sophisticated equipment for fabricating EFPs (Explosively Formed Penetrators), which Iran and Hezbollah had previously provided to Iraqi insurgents for attacking American troops: “The shop's main function was to fabricate six-, eight- and twelve-inch EFP liners, the shaped dishes that give the devices their armor-piercing effect. At the time of its discovery, it was producing very accurate EFPs with passive infrared sensors (used to initiate a device as vehicles pass) and radio-controlled arming switches (to turn on the sensors).”

An industrial scale forge for manufacturing EFP components was also discovered during a 27 September raid on a facility in Nuwaidrat. The site contained 1.4 tons of C4 and TNT explosives plus materials for manufacturing ammonium nitrate-based explosives. Also found were six large pipe bombs, Claymore-type warheads, a bomb disguised as a fire extinguisher, mortars and rocket launchers, AK-47s and 20 hand grenades.

On July 15, 2015, authorities impounded a boat which had just taken possession of 44 tons of C4 explosives 50 detonators, AK-47 assault rifles and other materials from a ship just inside Bahrain's territorial waters.

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 and 16 April 2016 there were further incidents in Karranah and Karbabad where explosions led to the deaths of policemen.

For the most part, 2016 was relatively quiet with few serious security incidents following successful operations against terrorist entities during 2014 and 2015. 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 have proved devastating for these groups and their Iranian handlers.

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.

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.

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 Redhi 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.

Learning lessons

One of the principle things we learnt from the growth in militancy in the post-2011 period was how relatively easy it was for frustrated youths to cross the line from participating in rioting, to involvement in acts of violence and terrorism.

During the worst of the unrest in 2011 and 2012, we saw boys as young as twelve being used to carry Molotov cocktails and build roadblocks. These young people are too young to properly comprehend the political cause they were supposedly fighting for; let alone the moral consequences of throwing firebombs designed to wound and kill. From this, it was just a small step away to helping build complex devices which were far more efficient at killing their targets. In this radicalized climate, involvement in militant activity was a means to impress peers and even earn money.

There is a generation of young people who have been exposed to radical ideas, with active experience of being involved in rioting, vandalism and criminal acts. The social consequences of failing to reintegrate them back in to society will be dangerous for us all.

Several of the most notorious militants like Hussain Sharaf who killed a policeman and died on the run while building new explosive devices were widely lauded as “martyrs” within pro-opposition communities. The normalization and celebration of such terrorist acts is a dangerous precedent. There must be greater efforts by the authorities and within such communities to demonstrate why terrorism can never be condoned.

These threats aren’t just limited to pro-opposition communities. Groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda have actively sought to recruit supporters in Bahrain. Although the numbers of those who have travelled abroad or affiliated themselves with these entities is very small, we should not ignore the threat of radicalization across Bahraini society as a whole and more should be done to inoculate young people from this threat of radicalization.

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