America Pushes Back Against Iranian Subversion on the Gulf

Originally posted at The Henry Jackson Society

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 17 March 2017

Protesters march through Manama, Bahrain in March 2011 (Photo from Al-Jazeera)

The U.S. State Department today imposed sanctions on two men, Ahmad Hasan Yusuf (Abu Maryam, Sajjad Hassan Nasir al-Zubaydi) and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi (Murtadha Majeed Ramadan al-Sindi), labelling them Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT). Both men are members of a group, Saraya al-Ashtar or al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB) that has conducted terrorism in Bahrain and is part of the Iranian revolution’s long reach in the region.


What is most notable about these designations is that they are framed squarely as a counter to “Iran’s destabilizing and terrorism-related activities” in the Middle East. Tied to “a recent increase in militant attacks in Bahrain,” the State Department notes that this is because “Iran has provided weapons, funding, and training to militants.”

Saraya al-Ashtar “receives funding and support from the Government of Iran—a state sponsor of terrorism,” the State Department reports, and has “claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks,” particularly against security targets such as the March 2014 bomb attack that killed two local police officers and an officer from the United Arab Emirates. Saraya al-Ashtar also “targets the security services of Gulf countries,” State adds.

Alawi, born in Bahrain on 27 March 1983, is identified by the State Department as “affiliated” with Saraya al-Ashtar, and Yusuf, born in 1986 either in Bahrain or Iraq, is a “senior member” of Saraya al-Ashtar and is actually based in Iran.

In June 2015, the Bahraini government announced that it had broken up a terrorism cell manufacturing explosives in the village of Bani Kulaib in western Bahrain. The bomb-making materials matched those found at other locales over the preceding few years. The Bahrainis named Alawi (by his pseudonym), and another man, Qassem Abdullah Ali, as the parties responsible for smuggling the material into Bahrain.

Alawi was identified as working closely with the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is led by Major-General Qassem Sulaymani. Ali was said to “often” travel to Iraq, where the Quds Force runs numerous viciously sectarian militias like Kataib Hizballah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which are now a legal part of the Iraqi state under the banner of al-Hashd al-Shabi, and which are also deployed as part of Iran’s Shi’a jihad in Syria which rescued the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2013.

This integration of Iran’s imperial architecture across the region, based on a network of locally-raised, globally-focused proxies, is a dangerous trend that the U.S. under President Barack Obama not only ignored but facilitated as part of its attempt to rebalance the Middle East in anticipation of an American drawdown. In its later stages this policy was often advanced as part of the war against the Islamic State (IS), where it was (dubiously) held U.S. and Iranian interests aligned, and a “template“ developed of Iraqi cities being cleared of IS by the U.S. providing direct air support to Iran’s proxies.


Bahrain has a population of about 1.3 million, the majority Shi’a, ruled by a Sunni monarchy, the Khalifa family. The government is a longstanding Western ally and the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based on the island.

During the “Arab Spring” revolts, protests broke out in Bahrain on 14 February 2011. The state responded brutally: security forces made wide use of tear gas and arbitrary detention, with an especially sinister focus on arresting doctors who treated wounded protesters; there were credible allegations of systemic torture of detainees, some of whom died in custody; and there were several cases of police using live fire against unarmed demonstrators, including Hani Abd al-Aziz Jumaa, who was killed by a shotgun blast. (The policeman responsible was prosecuted, though minimally.)

On 14 March 2011, Saudi and Emirati troops, under the flag of the Gulf Co-operation Council, crossed the causeway and swiftly put down the uprising. By this time, nine people had been killed, according to opposition activists; by the end of April, more than thirty people had been killed, and the total was above fifty by the end of 2011. By now, ninety-seven people have been killed in the government crackdown, backed by its allies on the Gulf.

At every stage, Manama has falsely insisted that all of its opponents were terrorists supported from outside. This posture has damaged the Bahraini government’s credibility with the West, and is what lies behind the State Department’s warning that while the U.S. will “continue to stand with Bahrain in addressing these threats [from Iran],” the U.S. simultaneously demands that “the government … clearly differentiate its response to violent militia groups from its engagement with peaceful political opposition.” And this is where it gets complicated.


Jamiyat al-Wefaq al-Watani al-Islamiya, usually known simply as al-Wefaq, is the largest opposition party in Bahrain. Last July, Bahrain dissolved al-Wefaq on the grounds of inciting terrorism and stripped its “spiritual leader,” Ayatollah Shaykh Isa Ahmed Qassim, of citizenship, and put him on trial for serving foreign interests and inciting sectarian violence.[1] The U.S. responded by pausing the sale of nineteen new F-16 jets and spare parts to repair Bahrain’s existing fleet until Bahrain’s human rights record, specifically the space for opposition, was improved.

Al-Wefaq is a Shi’a Islamist bloc; it is not a puppet of Tehran’s, though there is certainly a current that adheres to absolute wilayat al-faqih (the rulership of the jurist), the ruling ideology in Iran that requires loyalty to Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i. Ayatollah Qassim has been steadily moving into Iran’s orbit and is a student of Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, the first person to publicly issue a fatwa saying Shi’is should do jihad in Syria in defence of Assad.

Aside from the Iranian influence over the political opposition, there really are violent, foreign-directed terrorist groups operating against Bahrain’s government. Saraya al-Ashtar is one of them.

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, was the first to examine Saraya al-Ashtar in English back in March 2014, and its emergence was followed by the announcement of similar groups—Saraya al-Mukhtar, Saraya al-Muqawama al-Shabiya, Asaib al-Muqawama al-Bahrainia, and Saraya al-Karar—that represent proliferation to some degree, but also a web of deliberately confusing relationships to obfuscate who is doing what, why, and for whom.

Smyth noted three years ago that Saraya al-Ashtar’s self-definition in its messaging included violent intent, expressed in practice by a wave of bombings beginning in the summer of 2013, and the use of symbolism and themes that closely resembled other Shi’a Islamist proxies of Iran’s. Though Saraya al-Ashtar had not explicitly given allegiance to absolute wilayat al-faqih, this, too, is a common pattern of Iran’s proxies, as is the attempt to tap into nationalist themes while emitting Shi’a-centric sub rosa messaging. The evidence would soon accumulate on Saraya al-Ashtar’s close links with the Islamic Republic of Iran.


In addition to the physical reach through cutouts like Saraya al-Ashtar, the Iranian revolution is expanding its influence ideologically. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are intimately intertwined as states and societies, and that includes their Shi’a communities, which are discriminated against. This disenfranchisement and repression provides Iran a chance to weaponize these minorities by claiming to be a guardian, and Tehran is expert at co-opting events for use in political warfare toward this end. The most notable recent case was after the 2 January 2016 execution of the Saudi Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Al-Nimr had long overstepped the boundaries of the Saudi government, advocating at one point for secession of the Eastern Province where most of the Shi’a (and the oil) are located and calling for absolute wilayat al-faqih to be instituted in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iraq. It should be noted, though, that al-Nimr was not uncritically pro-Iran: he had condemned Assad as a tyrant. This did not stop Iran appropriating his image and legacy.

Al-Nimr’s execution came after a year in which Saudi Arabia had begun a more assertive foreign policy in reaction to the U.S. pull-back and tilt to Iran. First, the Saudis intervened to try to reverse the coup by the Iran-backed Huthis in Yemen and then formed an “Islamic Alliance” to combat terrorism of all kinds, particularly IS. These moves, internally and externally, were part of the House of Saud shoring-up its own position to show the population that there was an alternative to IS and al-Qaeda in containing Iran’s expansionism. The case of al-Nimr was also specifically intended to show that the Saudi government would not be deterred from pursuing its own interests and enforcing its own laws by the protests of outsiders.

This last point was especially applicable to Iran, which tried to claim a right to arbitrate on behalf of all Shi’is, making the Saudis more firm in their determination to show that they were sovereign. That al-Nimr was executed alongside 46 others, 44 of them Sunnis, mostly jihadists, and came at the same time as Riyadh was repairing relations with the Shi’a-led government in Iraq made no difference to Tehran’s messaging: al-Nimr’s execution was treated as a willful sectarian provocation; Saudi diplomatic facilities in Iran were sacked and the event was used to legitimize Iran’s radical and aggressive foreign policy among Shi’a populations throughout the region.


How much success Tehran will have in destabilizing Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is open to debate, though it should be noted that this is not totally contingent on Iran. For example, it is said that Sulaymani believes that an IS insurgency inside Saudi Arabia is likely within the next half-decade and the chaos would allow Iran to move into the Eastern Province. The notion that IS is more powerful in Saudi Arabia than is currently known, even to the Saudis, is plausible: the security forces failed to lay hands on al-Nimr for some time after he went underground and Juhayman al-Utaybi likewise escaped authorities in the desert for several years before the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979. Iran has consistently shown a symbiotic relationship with IS.

The Iranian revolution has evinced a capacity the West often lacks: thinking long-term. Tehran seeks to abolish the borders of the region and install a transnational Islamist polity as surely as does IS or al-Qaeda, but it has different methods and greater patience in getting there. Interdicting Iran’s meddling at an early stage, with actions like today’s against Bahraini proxies or the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, can help prevent a repeat of Lebanon and other places where a seemingly insignificant presence became domination over time, threatening the local inhabitants, regional states, and Western interests across the globe.


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[1] The closure of al-Wefaq was in many ways the concluding blow by the Bahraini government against the organized opposition. Al-Wefaq itself had already lost its formal leader to prison: Shaykh Ali Salman was arrested in December 2014 and sentenced to nine years in prison for inciting hatred.

The second largest opposition body, Jamiyyat al-Amal al-Islami (The Islamic Action Front), generally known as the Amal Party or Shirazi faction, was dissolved in 2012 and its leader, Muhammad Ali al-Mahfouz, is in jail. The Shiraziyyin are named for their ideological mentor, Muhammad al-Shirazi, a radical Shi’i cleric born to a Persian family in Karbala in the late nineteenth century. Al-Shirazi, like the rulers in Iran, gathered a following around ideas—on clerical involvement in politics and especially about his own station—that were in defiance of the traditional Shi’a hierarchy in the hawza in Najaf. Al-Shirazi was personally close to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the latter’s exile in Iraq and they clearly shared ideas on organizing a transnational Islamist polity. Al-Shirazi would play a role in the Iranian revolution, but believed his role in the revolutionary government should have been larger, leading to clashes with Khomeini—and even more so Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i—that saw al-Shirazi sidelined.

In March and April 2011, the Khalifa regime arrested “The Bahraini Thirteen,” essentially decapitating all of the smaller opposition groups.

Among those arrested were Hasan Mushayma and Abduljalil al-Singace of the Haq (Truth) Movement for Liberty and Democracy. Mushaym, Haq’s general-secretary, was a founding member of al-Wefaq and took part in the 1994 uprising against the Bahraini regime. Haq was created in 2005 as a radical, rejectionist alternative to al-Wefaq, refusing to participate in elections while the Khalifa family remained in power, arguing that such polls could never be free or fair. The party had been banned even before the 2011 uprising. Haq is majority-Shi’i and generally messages within a Shi’a Islamist framework, but it does have some purchase within the Bahraini Sunni community and has included Sunnis at senior levels, such as the cleric Isa al-Jowder, who died in late 2011.

In February 2009, when the government briefly arrested Haq’s leaders, a vacuum opened up for rejectionist Shi’is and into the breach stepped Abdulwahab Husayn and the cleric Abduljalil al-Miqdad to found the Wafa (Fidelity or Loyalty) Movement. Wafa had been prohibited as a terrorist group, and Husayn, al-Miqdad, and another Wafa cleric, Saeed al-Nuri, were taken into custody as part of The Bahraini Thirteen. Husayn is seen as an ideologue, where Mushayma is often viewed as an opportunist, and Wafa pointedly only recruits among the Shi’a. This gives Wafa greater access than Haq to the religiously-inspired rejectionist base that the two compete for. Wafa’s greater credibility also comes from al-Miqdad, the leading cleric to break with Ayatollah Qassim when Qassim encouraged electoral participation in 2006.

The removal of opposition-supporting clerics has been a long-standing practice by the Bahraini government. Muhammad Habib al-Miqdad, a cleric who heads the Zahra charity, was among The Thirteen, and had previously been temporarily arrested in August 2010 alongside al-Nuri. He is now serving a lengthy prison sentence.

The March-April 2011 raids also crippled the Left opposition, throwing Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni, into jail. Sharif was the de facto leader of Wa’ad or the National Democratic Action (NDA) Society, which was formally led by Abdulrahman al-Nuaymi (not to be confused with the Qatari citizen of the same name whom the U.S. has sanctioned for supporting al-Qaeda in Syria). Al-Nuaymi’s party participated in the 2006 election, but soon after he fell into a coma and did not reawaken before he died in September 2011. Wa’ad as a whole will soon be dissolved by the authorities.

Separate to The Bahrain Thirteen raids, Manama has listed the February 14 Youth Coalition, among the largest organizers of the anti-government protests in 2011 and probably the largest underground youth opposition movement, as a terrorist organization. The Coalition has an affiliated armed wing, Saraya al-Muqawama al-Shabiya (The Popular Resistance Brigades or SMS), sometimes also called Saraya al-Muqawama (The Resistance Brigades), which has also been banned. SMS has claimed credit for lethal attacks in Bahrain and describes its mission as a “jihad against the infidel Khalifas”.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) defines itself as a human rights advocacy non-government organization (NGO), rather than an opposition group, strictly speaking. The reality is a bit more complicated, and not just because upholding human rights in Bahrain means a collision with the government almost by definition. BCHR has links to the Haq Movement, and one of the founders of BCHR, Hasan Moosa Shafaei, who heads the Bahrain Human Rights Monitor (BHRM) in London and is undoubtedly aligned with and even paid by the Bahraini government, claims that BCHR is tied to the Bahrain Freedom Movement (BFM), which is also based in London. BFM is led by Saeed al-Shehabi, who has very questionable ties to the Iranian government. Wafa, Haq, BCHR, and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights were assessed by the U.S. as having stoked sectarian violence that culminated in the lynching of a Pakistani policeman, Kashif Mehmood, in Bahrain in March 2011.

The president of BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, became essentially the symbol of the peaceful protests against the Khalifa despotism, and is on trial for “offending a foreign country” and making “false or malicious” statements during wartime related to Twitter comments against the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, and “offending national institutions,” based on comments about unrest that broke out in Jaw Prison in March 2015. Rajab’s deputy and BCHR co-founder Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is more radical, associated with the Shiraziyyin, and has, for example, publicly advocated for the removal of the Khalifa family and the installation of a republic. Al-Khawaja was convicted in 2011 on charges of organizing a terrorist organization and trying to overthrow the government, and working with a foreign power in both activities; he was given life in prison.

UPDATE (26 March 2017): Bahrain reported that it had broken up an Iranian-linked terrorist cell connected to the bomb attack on a police bus in February and plotting to assassinate senior officials. Alawi and Ali were again named as the orchestrators of this cell.

UPDATE (29 March 2017): President Donald Trump’s administration lifted the restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain, allowing the Lockheed Martin Corp. sale to go ahead.

UPDATE (1 April 2017): The Washington Post reported that after a year of increased openness and willingness to share evidence for scientific examination in the West, in late 2016 the Bahraini government provided a technical intelligence assessment to the Americans and Europeans:

The dossier … contains extensive technical reports assessing a small mountain of weaponry seized from Bahraini militants since 2013, including small arms, grenades and ammunition bearing distinctive Iranian markings, as well as Iranian-made electronics found inside improvised explosive devices. The report catalogues staggering quantities of military-grade explosives, including 418 pounds of C-4, an amount comparable to the quantity used by al-Qaeda to blast a 40-foot hole in the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Chemical tests cited by the report showed that all the C-4—recovered from six locations over three years—came from two manufacturing lines that previous forensic analyses linked to Iran. …

But Bahraini investigators were more troubled by the discovery [on 30 September 2015] of the expensive hydraulic presses and metal lathes in the underground bomb factory in the village of Nuwaidrat. At least $35,000 worth of Chinese- and Italian-made metalworking equipment had been smuggled into the house to craft expertly made “explosively formed projectiles,” or EFPs … [that] bore designs identical to those used by Iranian-supplied Shiite insurgents to attack U.S. troops in Iraq …

The report called the existence of such devices in Bahrain “deeply puzzling,” noting that the firepower far exceeded what would be required to blow up the ordinary police cruisers and unarmored transports used by Bahraini patrols. One plausible use for the EFPs would be to destroy tanks and troop carriers dispatched from neighboring Gulf countries in the event of a future conflict. Or perhaps the bombmakers and their sponsors had an entirely different goal in mind, the report said: to “inflict grave damage to U.S. forces and facilities.”

The assessment has removed doubts for most Western governments about the Iranian revolution’s meddling in Bahrain. “Western intelligence agencies are seeing a new boldness by Iran in supporting armed insurgents in the kingdom,” The Post reported. The “elaborate training program, orchestrated by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to school Bahraini militants in the techniques of advanced bombmaking and guerrilla warfare,” is now acknowledged as a significant driver of the instability in Bahrain, and the similarities to—and connections with—Iran’s operations in Iraq are now unmissable.

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