Post originally appeared at The Henry Jackson Society
Just over a week ago, the major oil pipeline in Bahrain was bombed by operatives the government says were working for the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in an escalating series of terrorist attacks inside Bahrain. Throughout the year, Manama has also been rolling up terrorist cells that have links to Iran’s intelligence services and Bahraini citizens now in Iran that form part of Tehran’s regional terrorist network. The breakdown in Gulf unity is especially worrying in the face of this intensified Iranian aggression and subversion in Bahrain.
THE 10 NOVEMBER PIPELINE ATTACK
The main oil pipeline in Bahrain was attacked on 10 November, causing a serious fire near the site of the explosion in Buri, a small town about ten miles from the capital Manama. The attack temporarily forced the state-run Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) to suspend the flow of oil.
The pipeline that was attacked carries crude oil from Saudi Arabia’s offshore Abu Safa oil field into Saudi Arabia proper, and revenues from this production are an important part of the Bahraini government’s budget. The pipeline protrudes above ground in Buri, a Shi’a-majority town. (Bahrain is a majority-Shi’a country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, the House of Khalifa.) Bahrain also refines the crude at a facility in Sitra, on the east coast of the island.
The Bahraini government immediately blamed the Iranian regime. The attack was “an act of sabotage and a dangerous act of terrorism”, said the Bahraini Interior Ministry. “Terrorist acts witnessed by the country in the recent period are carried out through direct contacts and instructions from Iran”, Interior Minister Shaykh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa added. There has been speculation that the attack was a response to Saudi Arabia pulling the plug on the fig leaf for Iran’s domination of Lebanon on 4 November, which is possible, though Iran’s Huthi allies in Yemen had already sent a missile into the Saudi capital hours after Sa’d al-Hariri resigned to register Tehran’s displeasure at this development.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Bahram Qassemi, said the allegations were “false talk and childish accusations”. In fact, the evidence that the Iranian revolutionary government has been meddling in Bahrain, by sponsoring terrorism and other subversive activities, is now rather overwhelming, and Tehran’s campaign has been escalating in the last few months.
THE MARCH TERRORIST DESIGNATIONS
In March, the U.S. State Department labelled two men, Ahmad Hasan Yusuf (Abu Maryam or Sajjad Hassan Nasir al-Zubaydi) and Murtada Majeed Ramadan Alawi (Murtada Majeed Ramadan al-Sindi or al-Sanadi), Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), and imposed the sanctions associated with that designation. Both Yusuf and Alawi are members of Saraya al-Ashtar, a militant group in Bahrain that adheres to absolute wilayat al-faqih, the ruling ideology of the Iranian theocracy that recognizes Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i as spiritual and temporal leader. The designation noted that Saraya al-Ashtar is funded by Tehran and Alawi—who might be an Iraqi rather than a Bahraini—is actually based in Iran, though he is responsible for significant elements of command and control in Saraya al-Ashtar. Alawi does not disguise his ideological and political closeness to the Iranian regime and its Lebanese department, Hizballah.
The Bahraini government has violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations and arrested and maltreated dissidents. Manama has a habit of claiming that all opposition to its rule is the work of outsiders, particularly Iran, and that all opposition is “terrorist” in nature. Thus, the West did not take seriously Manama’s claims of subversion for a long time. By late 2016, however, this had changed after the Bahraini government cleaned up its act. Bahrain made public stinging reports on the security forces’ conduct during the “Arab spring” and the state of the island’s prisons. These were important steps, though they hardly ended the human rights abuses by the state in Bahrain. And the Bahraini government started making its evidence on Iranian interference available to Western investigators.
Heaps of captured weaponry since 2013 and the forensic examination of explosives discovered at safehouses of various terrorist groups inside Bahrain finally convinced American and European governments that Bahrain was the victim of a consistent campaign by Iran to destabilize its government. What most concerned Bahrain was the discovery of so-called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), which were used by Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq to kill hundreds of British and American soldiers. The EFPs in Bahrain, indeed, have come to the island via networks in Iraq controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
TERRORIST ACTIVITY IN BAHRAIN
Ten terrorists were broken out of jail in Bahrain on New Year’s Day, and four police officers were injured by the bombing of a bus on 26 February. About a fortnight before the designation of Yusuf and Alawi, Bahrain announced that it had uncovered a fifty-four-man terrorist network, with forty-one members inside Bahrain (including the ten who were broken out of prison in January), twelve between Iran and Iraq, and one in Germany. Twenty-five of these people were arrested, a huge stock of weaponry was recovered, as were their plans for terrorism and other destabilizing activity in Bahrain, according to the government.
Since the designation, Bahrain has busted at least another four militant cells it says are linked to Iran, had security forces injured trying to break up a de facto commune harbouring alleged extremists, and has suffered three more terrorist attacks.
The Bahraini government reported on 26 March that it has broken up a fourteen-man terrorist cell, which was believed to be behind the 26 February bus bombing and to be planning assassinations against senior Bahraini officials. After interrogations and examination of the captured documents, it was added that the cell also intended to attack the U.S. base in Bahrain. According to Manama, eleven of the fourteen men arrested had been trained by Iran: six were trained directly at camps run by IRGC; five had been trained by IRGC’s Iraqi proxy, Kataib Hizballah, a U.S.-registered Foreign Terrorist Organization; and three had been trained by Iran’s agents inside Bahrain. Alawi and another IRGC agent, Qassem Abdullah Ali Ahmed, are said to have financed and directed the cell. Ahmed, who is also known as “Qassem the Believer”, fled Bahrain earlier this year and is now sheltered in Iran.
Bahrain’s security forces raided the village of Diraz, home to Ayatollah Issa Qassem, on 23 May. Ayatollah Qassem was the spiritual leader of al-Wefaq, the largest Shi’a opposition group. Qassem was stripped of his citizenship last year and convicted of money laundering and other charges in May, ordered to pay a fine, and given a one-year suspended sentence. Al-Wefaq was dissolved in June, accused of incubating extremism and violence. Police have encircled Qassem’s village for months and now moved in to “remove a series of illegal road blocks and barricades”, according to the Interior Ministry, after the area became a “haven for wanted fugitives from justice”. Five people were killed and 286 were arrested, accused of being “terrorists and convicted felons”. Nineteen security forces were injured in the clashes.
Al-Wefaq was an Islamist bloc and certainly had important sections that were pro-Iran, if not actually under Tehran’s control. This trend within al-Wefaq came to include Qassem, a student of Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, the first person to issue a public fatwa calling on Shi’is to join the Iranian-orchestrated jihad to defend Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria. Iran’s messaging also reflected this alignment, giving a prominent place to Qassem’s struggle with the Bahraini state. Qassem Sulaymani, the ubiquitous, telegenic commander of the Quds Force, the IRGC branch charged with exporting the Islamic revolution, said that any insult to Ayatollah Qassem would result in “armed resistance” and the overthrow of the Bahraini government. Iran’s vast propaganda apparatus seeks to co-opt the travails of all Shi’a figures, including some who are ideologically opposed to absolute wilayat al-faqih, into a “martyrdom” narrative of a region-wide anti-Shi’a conspiracy against which Tehran is the bulwark—not unlike what the Islamic State does with respect to Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.
A bombing in Diraz on 18 June killed a policeman and injured two others. Bahrain arrested an individual for involvement in this terrorist attack and reported that the cell he was part of “operated, in terms of financing, planning and execution, under the direct supervision of Hussain Ali Ahmed Dawood, 31, a fugitive in Iran whose nationality has been revoked, and Sayed Mohammed Qassim Mohammed Hassan Fadhel, 25, a fugitive sentenced to life imprisonment in a terrorist case and was involved in a bomb blast in Diraz in February 2016”.
Bahrain rolled up a five-man Saraya al-Ashtar cell on 29 June in the Deir district. The five men were named as: (1) Ahmed Mahdi Kazem, 20, a sports education student at the University of Bahrain, who had a criminal record for arson and assaulting a police officer, and who is alleged to have travelled to Iran several times; (2) Issa Hassan Issa Ali, 20, also a student, is said to have been involved in various terrorism-related activities, including repeated trips to Syria as part of Iran’s Shi’a jihad to keep Asad in power; (3) Ali Dawud al-Aradi, 19, alleged to be a recipient of training in explosives and firearms at a camp run by Kataib Hizballah; (4) Hassan Shaker Hassan Ali, 21, a scholarship student, also said to have trained in Iraq in firearms and explosives; and (5) Haytham Ali Hassan Ali Hassan, 20, alleged to be involved in unspecified terrorist cases. The five are accused of being behind at least three terrorist incidents: the 4 February 2017 bombing near the village of Abu Saiba that damaged a truck and a civilian vehicle that happened to be in the area; the 23 February bombing in Sanabis that injured the driver of a civilian vehicle; and the throwing of a grenade at a security outpost in Samaheej on 7 April.
Another Saraya al-Ashtar terrorist cell was closed down by the Bahraini government on 24 August. Seven people were arrested: Hassan Maki Abas Hassan, 27, Mahmood Mohammed Ali Mulla Salem Al Bahrani, 33, Zainab Maki Abas, 34, Ameen Habeeb Ali Jassim, 32, Hussain Mohammed Hussain Khamees, 39, Hassan Atiyah Mohammed Saleh, 37, and Hussain Ibrahim Mohammed Hassan Dhaif, 27. The full cell consisted of ten people, according to Manama, which seized nearly three-hundred pounds of high-grade explosives, plus chemicals, automatic weapons, detonators, grenades, and ammunition from houses spanning four villages. The search continues for the other three men. This cell, according to the Bahraini government, was controlled by the above-mentioned Hussain Ali Ahmed Dawood, who is in Iran and acts at the behest of IRGC. Dawood has been convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison for his terrorist activities against Bahrain. Dawood’s key link was with Hassan Maki Abas Hassan, the ringleader, it seems, through whom Dawood transmitted instructions and weapons. Hassan was arrested as he returned to Bahrain from Lebanon, where he almost certainly had contact with Hizballah. Hassan’s sister, Zaynab, was also soon arrested, accused of storing explosives for her brother.
Five policemen were injured on 2 October in a bombing in Manama. The policemen were securing an area near the village of al-Daih, on the Budaiya Highway, during the annual Ashura procession.
A policeman was murdered and eight were injured by the bombing of a bus “at 5:26pm on Friday [27 October] when it was passing through Khalifa bin Salman street heading towards Manama”, as the Bahraini Interior Ministry explained. The attack, a remote-detonated improvised explosive device (IED) that struck near the Shi’a-majority town of Jidhafs, was claimed by Saraya Waad Allah, which gives every sign of being an Iranian-sponsored organization. Indeed, Bahrain has said it is simply a front for Saraya al-Ashtar.
Alongside Saraya al-Ashtar, there are a number of militant groups operating in Bahrain that have Iranian support to one degree or another: the February 14 Youth Coalition; Saraya al-Muqawama al-Shabiya (The Popular Resistance Brigades or SMS) or sometimes more simply Saraya al-Muqawama (The Resistance Brigades); Hizballah Bahrain or Bahraini Hizballah; and Saraya al-Mukhtar. There are other more obscure groups, such as Harakat Ahrar Bahrain, which has been named a terrorist group inside Bahrain. The distinction between these groups is not always clear. The Youth Coalition, for example, is a broad-based organization that formally eschews violence, but it is affiliated to SMS, which has claimed credit for several deadly attacks in Bahrain as part of a “jihad against the infidel Khalifas”. This confusion—with overlapping organizations that merge and split in opaque ways—is deliberate, meant to foster the appearance of a widespread opposition movement, and conceal Iran’s hand. “What appears to be atomization within the ranks is instead more reminiscent of cell replication, with new groups simply expanding the size and influence of a broader IRGC-created network and model”, explains Phillip Smyth.
One member of the cell that brought off the October bus attack was arrested. After a month of investigation, the Bahraini government was able to conclude that the killers had “received extensive training in Iranian Revolutionary Guard camps on the use and manufacture of explosives and firearms, as well as material and logistical support”. The cell behind the bombing is believed to have been led by Qassem Abdullah Ali Ahmed, who stands accused of the February bus bombing, too. Working with Ahmed were: Sadek Jaafar Mohammed Abdullah al-Touk, 36; Mahdi Ibrahim Jassem Abdullah, 28, who has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in absentia; Mohammed Mahdi Mohammad Hassan, 39; and Zuhair Ibrahim Jassem Abdullah Abbas, 27. Abbas is in Bahraini custody; the others have fled to Iran.
The 27 October bus bombing occurred just over a week after the Bahraini government said IRGC had caused the deaths of twenty-five members of the security forces, injured 3,000 more, and was harbouring 160 terrorist fugitives. And two weeks later was the pipeline was attacked.
The Bahraini government claimed on 16 November that it uncovered a five-man an IRGC-controlled cell involved in the 10 November pipeline attack, arresting one member of it. The cell was directed by Qassim al-Muamen, a convicted fugitive from Bahrain who is based in Iran. The terrorists had planned to attack three more oil pipelines and to assassinate senior officials, according to Manama.
The interest Bahrain has in presenting the internal attacks as the work of Tehran, especially since Donald Trump became President and committed—rhetorically—to confronting the Iranian revolution, is obvious. This does not mean that it is not true. The escalation in the scale and sophistication of these attacks is suggestive of external assistance—which Iran has sometimes been caught in the act of providing—and the evidence passed to Western governments previously has largely vindicated Manama’s claims of Iranian subversion.
Looking through the Iranian prism, the re-appearance in public of the intra-Gulf differences in early June is a worrying development. The basic problem is Qatar’s divergent policies from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), specifically instrumentalizing Islamist groups and not only harbouring wanted extremists (which it calls “dissidents”) from the neighbouring states, but allowing them a platform in its media to preach hatred and subversion against other Gulf states. Qatar has even been accused of supporting elements of the Shi’a opposition in Bahrain. The evidence for this is inconclusive, but there is no doubt that Iran is increasing its activities in Bahrain. The idea from the Saudi-led bloc was to rein Qatar in and create a united front against Iran. This has not been the result so far. Stunts like Qatar restoring diplomatic relations with Iran are mostly designed to affront its Gulf adversaries, it is true. Doha knows the reality of Iran’s behaviour toward its neighbours, and will not, therefore, draw too close. Nonetheless, the GCC boycott of Qatar produced greater disunity to this point in the face of escalating Iranian belligerence, creating more space for Tehran—which is ideologically committed to the idea that Bahrain is a lost province of Iran—to move and make mischief. This is a concern.