November 25, 2020 | Insight

Iranian Proxies in Bahrain Determined to Sabotage Peace With Israel

November 25, 2020 Insight

Iranian Proxies in Bahrain Determined to Sabotage Peace With Israel

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani made history on Wednesday, becoming the first-ever minister from the island kingdom to conduct an official visit to Israel. The visit marked the second meeting between Bahraini and Israeli delegations after the official establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries last month. The pace of bilateral visits and agreements reveals the genuine momentum undergirding Israel and Bahrain’s rapprochement, but Iranian-backed extremist groups in Bahrain are angling to play spoiler.

Bahrain has a long history of Iran fomenting unrest in the kingdom, stoking the grievances of Bahrain’s Shiite-majority population against the kingdom’s Sunni ruling family. In addition to locally motivated protests or violence, an umbrella of Iran-backed militias has staged attacks in the kingdom in recent years. While none of these militias has conducted a successful attack in retaliation for Bahrain’s normalization with Israel, the possibility cannot be discounted. This serious, if limited, threat means that Bahrain, and Washington, must craft a delicate balance in forging Manama’s ties with Jerusalem: one that accounts for the potential of these militias to play spoiler, while not allowing them to hold progress on normalization hostage.

Iran has already begun working through proxy militias such as Saraya Wa’ad Allah to reverse the trend of warming ties. The group called the peace accord a “false normalization with the Zionist enemy” and a “cancerous gland” on the worldwide Islamic community. The group also announced the creation of a “Martyrs of Jerusalem” unit, dedicated to targeting Israeli interests in Bahrain.

Since the Arab Spring began in early 2011, Bahrain’s Sunni royal family has faced massive protests and limited violence from its primarily Shiite populace over decades of societal marginalization and state abuses, such as torture, arbitrary detentions, and other human rights violations. Bahraini authorities’ heavy-handed security response – aided by Saudi Arabia – led to the creation of several armed militias on the island. These include domestic opposition movements, such as the February 14th Youth Coalition and its various neighborhood and street militias, and more organized Iranian-backed outfits that espouse a more Khomeinist ideology. Seeking to exploit these grievances, Iran has supported a number of militias that have claimed hundreds of small-scale attacks across the island since 2012.

By August 2012, several Iranian-backed groups began to publicly claim attacks against the Bahraini government with the establishment of the Popular Resistance Companies. Between April 2012 and March 2019 (the date of the last claimed attack on the island), at least 21 pro-Iran militias, some of which were likely fronts for larger groups, have claimed or been responsible for at least 750 attacks, according to data kept by one of the authors (Weiss) for FDD’s Long War Journal.

These incidents include claimed and reported shootings; improvised explosive devices; car bombings; fire bombings; attacks against communication lines, municipality buildings, banks, and ATMs; and even attempts to shut down the Bahrain International Airport. The vast majority, however, resulted in few to no casualties.

U.S. and Bahraini officials have documented the extensive financial and logistical ties between Iran and the Bahraini militias. Additionally, the State Department has designated Iran-based members of these outfits, and one organization itself, as global terrorists. For its part, Iranian media has celebrated the burial of killed Bahraini militants in Iran. At least one Bahraini militia has also demonstrated its ties to Iranian-backed militants in Iraq.

Moreover, since 2012, Bahrain has confiscated several tons of explosive material from militant caches across the island. In more recent years, Bahraini security forces have intercepted large quantities of advanced Iranian weapons shipments and explosives, including armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators.

The harsh reaction to the normalization agreement was not the first time Saraya Wa’ad Allah has threatened Israelis. Last year, the group took credit for canceling an Israeli delegation’s meeting with Bahraini officials, after posting an animated video online that included violent threats to the delegation. While the meeting did end up occurring in secret, it was initially reported that the event was canceled due to “security concerns” stemming from Saraya Wa’ad Allah’s threats. Not long after, Saraya Wa’ad Allah posted several purported screenshots of threatening messages and emails it claimed were sent to the Israeli delegation.

Another Iranian-backed group, the U.S.-designated Saraya al-Ashtar, has also threatened to target Israelis. In February 2019, the group openly threatened attacks against Israeli targets in Bahrain. A spokesman for the group denounced the “Khalifa regime’s openness to the Zionists” and added that the “Zionist presence is a legitimate target” on the island.

So far, a successful attack against Israelis in Bahrain has yet to occur. But this is not to say that the threat does not exist. On September 20, Bahraini officials announced they had disrupted at least one terrorist plot on the island directed at an Israeli delegation earlier in the year. The alleged group behind that plot, Saraya Qassem Soleimani – named after the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, whom the United States killed in a drone strike in early 2020 – was reportedly connected to the much larger Saraya al-Ashtar.

Clearly, the absence of an attack is not from a lack of trying or intent.

This week’s Jerusalem meeting suggests that Bahrain has no intent to slow down its outreach and approach to Israel. But if Iran-backed militias up the ante – in the form of increased threats or even successfully staging an attack in Bahrain – that could give pause to Bahraini authorities as the implementation process unfolds.

Washington would do well to remember the threat these militias pose to Bahrain – and thus to the United States as well given that Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. U.S. officials are keen to expand the circle of peace, and rightfully so. But the administration of projected President-elect Joe Biden should remember that too much, too soon might do more harm than good. Any American pressure on Bahrain to speed up its interlinkage with the Jewish state could backfire if it allows these Iran-backed militias an opportunity to expand their toehold.

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst and contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal (LWJ), a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst focusing on the Persian Gulf and also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program. For more analysis from Caleb, Varsha, LWJ, and the Iran Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Caleb and Varsha on Twitter @Weissenberg7 and @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @LongWarJournal and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel The Long War