In Bahrain, a smoldering insurgency reveals the resilience of Iran’s proxy war
This article was originally published by The Washington Post on May 18, 2018. View it here.
The Trump administration has vowed to crack down on Iran’s support for powerful militias across the Middle East. But a low-level insurgency in the Kingdom of Bahrain represents a different sort of challenge for the United States.
American authorities say insurgent activity in Bahrain, a key hub for U.S. naval operations, has increased over the past year as a handful of Iranian-backed groups armed with smuggled weapons plan attacks against security forces.
Unlike in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, where large forces supported by Iran are equipped with heavy weaponry and wield increasing political clout, insurgents in Bahrain — where the majority of the population is Shiite — are lightly equipped and operate in cloistered cells as they plot small-scale assaults.
U.S. officials characterize the island nation, with its Sunni Arab leadership, heavy police presence and tiny size, as an inhospitable environment for Iranian-linked operatives, who have freer rein in other countries.
But the officials say that providing arms-length, opportunistic support to Bahraini militants offers Shiite Iran a low-cost opportunity to advance its objectives at a time when its main military effort is directed elsewhere.
“What Bahrain shows is that Iran uses different formulas to support its proxies in each operational environment,” said Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iran’s adaptive approaches in each area mean that the U.S. needs to flexibly respond to Tehran’s challenge.”
The White House has put checking Iran, whose external military presence is at a high-water mark across the region, at the center of its Middle East strategy.
“History has shown that the longer we ignore a threat, the more dangerous that threat becomes,” President Trump said in an address last fall announcing his strategy.
Now that the president, whose Iran strategy has been focused chiefly on the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, has withdrawn from that pact, his administration may turn its attention to dealing with Tehran’s network of proxy groups.
In Lebanon, Iran’s largest proxy force, Hezbollah, has eclipsed Lebanon’s armed forces as that country’s most effective fighting force. Hezbollah possesses a massive arsenal of missiles and a full-time army of at least 6,000 soldiers.
In neighboring Syria, Iran’s deployment of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel and its weaponry shipments have helped tip the civil war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have wielded greater political clout since playing a key role in fending off the Islamic State.
In Yemen, an offensive by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab nations has drawn in greater Iranian involvement in support of Shiite Houthi rebels. U.S. officials say a small number of Iranian and Hezbollah advisers are also assisting Houthi forces employ Iranian-made advanced weapons, such as the Qiam missile, against Saudi Arabia.
Iran denies those allegations.
'A blame game'?
The roots of Bahrain’s smoldering insurgency can largely be found in the popular uprising that erupted in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.
The government’s harsh response to protesters, many of them members of the majority-Shiite population demanding greater political rights and economic opportunity, was the beginning of an extended crackdown on opposition figures. Bahraini leaders said they were concerned that Iran would exploit its cultural and religious ties to Bahrain’s Shiites to depose the Sunni monarchy, and they framed a spectrum of opposition activity — as varied as Twitter postings and the burning of tires during protests — as evidence of domestic complicity with Iran.
Former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski, who was in the post from 2011 to 2014, said U.S. officials first detected an Iranian role in the uprising when security forces began to be targeted with isolated attacks initially involving homemade bombs and later, authorities believe, arms smuggled into Bahrain by sea.
In the years since, Bahraini authorities have moved to disrupt suspected militant cells and interdict operatives and weapons. U.S. and Bahraini officials say that more recent seizures have included large amounts of C-4 explosives and sophisticated weapons akin to the type Iranian-backed militias used against U.S. military personnel in Iraq after 2003.
Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, Bahrain’s chief of public security, said that groups such as al-Ashtar Brigades and al-Mukhtar Brigades were responsible for 22 deaths and more than 3,500 injuries to policemen since 2011. The death toll is relatively low for an insurgency, but it represents a significant problem in a country of just 1.4 million people.
The Iranian government has denied involvement in Bahrain’s internal affairs and accuses the Bahraini government of playing a “blame game.”
U.S. and Bahraini officials say Iranian military personnel have not been seen in public in Bahrain as they have been in Syria and Iraq, a reflection of how Iran has adapted its approach to operating in the tightly policed kingdom. Militant operatives are instead trained outside the country, mostly over several days at a time in Iran and Iraq, according to U.S. and Bahraini officials as well as accused militants in Bahrain government custody.
Waiting for instructions
In a response to a request to Bahraini authorities, a Washington Post reporter was permitted to interview a dozen prisoners suspected of militant activity. The prisoners, who were selected by the government, were made available to The Post for interviews in two state facilities this spring.
The interviews took place without government personnel or lawyers present. Some of the detainees had been convicted; others had not.
One of the detainees, who asked to be identified by his middle name, Ibrahim, told a story that attests to an opportunistic approach to Bahrain by Iran.
Ibrahim, who cited the treatment of Bahraini Shiites as his reason for taking up arms against the Sunni monarchy, said he was recruited by a friend in 2011 and traveled to Iran for four days of training.
When he returned to Bahrain, he was instructed to wait. Six years passed.
When the government of Bahrain resumed capital punishment in 2017 after a seven-year hiatus, Ibrahim said, a contact in Iran urged him to fight. He planned a family vacation to Iran, where he spent part of his days at a small training facility learning to assemble explosives and use AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
After returning to Bahrain, he set up a small bombmaking operation in an empty apartment, with materials — C-4, a remote trigger, batteries, wires and money — he picked up at dead drops after exchanging messages with his contact in Iran.
Several weeks after renting the apartment, Ibrahim conducted the first in a series of attacks on police patrols, directed as always, he said, by his contact. At least one Bahraini police officer died as a result of those attacks.
“I did it because people on our side were killed as well,” he said.
Other detainees reported similar stories: recruitment by contacts outside Bahrain followed by training in Iran or Iraq, often during trips that coincided with annual pilgrimages that draw Shiites from across the region. One detainee said he was trained by an Iraqi militia, Kataib Hezbollah, in the holy city of Karbala in 2016.
Most of the detainees said the men who trained them did not fully identify themselves. It was not clear whether they were linked to the Iranian government or IRGC.
Another detainee said the men who trained him in Iran laid out a vision for Bahrain as a piece in a larger Shiite uprising: “They spoke about Bahrain and told us, ‘You have to fight against these oppressors.’ They said we would have to fight the oppression everywhere. They spoke about Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine.”
The Post was not able to verify the detainees’ accounts or obtain access to other prisoners who may have had different experiences.
Most of the detainees said they carried out nonlethal tasks, such as delivering equipment, weapons, money or messages. Those who admitted to planning attacks described them as involving small, improvised bombs or small arms, which was consistent with the charges brought by Bahraini authorities.
All of that points to Iran’s long game in Bahrain, a bid to position trusted allies who could be activated should another uprising occur, Knights said.
“They’re trying to develop a tie to this person,” he said. “They’re not trying to turn him into Jason Bourne.”
'We're not going to cross that line'
American officials describe a “loose command and control relationship” between Bahraini militants and Iran. “The control only goes so far,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments.
But U.S. officials say Iranian guidance might have helped ensure that no attacks have directly targeted U.S. interests in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and thousands of American service members, a possible indication of Iran’s desire to avoid direct confrontation with the United States.
“There was a sense that the Iranians acted as a brake for these groups, saying, ‘We’re not going to cross that line,’ ” Krajeski said.
While American officials remain concerned about the threat from Bahrain’s insurgency, they say the government’s heavy-handed attempts to quash political opposition have stoked disaffection.
Advocacy groups report that the human rights situation has deteriorated sharply in the past year as Bahrain has taken steps, including resuming the trials of civilians in military courts, that contradict recommendations from an independent panel set up after 2011.
According to Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch, the Bahraini government has embarked on an unprecedented clampdown on opponents, conducting mass arrests, deporting some activists and stripping others of their citizenship, often using the threat of terrorism as a pretext for silencing dissidents and critics, who include many Shiites.
“The current government is very clearly laying down the law, and there’s no space for dissent in this country,” Salah said.
Authorities are also accused of mistreating prisoners and failing to provide due process. Several detainees interviewed by The Post said they were tortured and sexually abused in government custody. The Post reported those allegations to a government watchdog, which is investigating.