The State Department’s August 13 designation of Qassim al-Muamen as a terrorist, serves as the latest reminder that Iran’s destabilizing actions are not limited to Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Muamen is a leading member of the Tehran-backed Bahraini terrorist group known as the al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB), and his crimes are substantial. In addition to terrorist recruitment, terror financing, arms smuggling and the facilitation of weapons and explosives training, the Bahraini government claims that Muamen played a key role in the November 2017 plot to assassinate Bahraini officials and to target three key Bahrain Oil Company pipelines.
Muamen’s new terrorist designation highlights Iran’s near continuous efforts to create a smaller version of Lebanon’s Hezbollah inside Bahrain, with the goal of destabilizing the island kingdom’s Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy and threaten U.S. and Saudi Arabian interests in the Persian Gulf. While Bahraini security forces have done an admirable job containing AAB, the international community has done little to support them.
Bahrain is a Shia-majority country ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Iran has sought to exploit this divide and its malign focus on the small island state—which also hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet—has been unrelenting since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In December 1981, Iran backed the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) in its failed attempt to spark a general rebellion by assassinating members of the royal family and government officials. In 1996, Bahraini Hezbollah, an IFLB offshoot, mounted a second failed coup attempt, with the perpetrators later confessing to having received training and guidance from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Bahraini security forces discovered arms caches in and around the capital, Manama, and uncovered dozens of militants with ties to Iran. Although these claims were sometimes seen by the West as an effort to paint any domestic opponent as a tool of Iran, the aggregate evidence showing Iran’s hand was clear.
In 2011, Iran supported a popular uprising in the hope of overthrowing the al-Khalifa ruling family. Although Bahraini security forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, restored order, new Iranian proxies soon appeared, including Saraya al-Ashtar, more commonly known as the AAB. The AAB’s arrival coincided with a sharp increase in the seizure of Iran-manufactured weapons, including armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators similar to those used by Iranian-armed surrogates in Iraq. AAB cadres employ pro-Iranian and anti–American rhetoric similar to that used by other Iranian proxies. The organization is openly allied with Hezbollah and has adopted a flag resembling that used by its Lebanese counterpart.
In Bahrain, as in Lebanon and elsewhere, the IRGC purposefully targets marginalized and/or religious Shia for recruitment; those deemed ideologically suitable are then sent to camps in Iran, Lebanon or Iraq for paramilitary and explosives training with the IRGC, its extraterritorial unit, the Quds Force, or other Iranian proxies including Hezbollah. In Iraq, Iranian proxies Kata’eb Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq seem to have instructed Bahraini militants in the use of the aforementioned explosively formed projectiles, which Iran used to inflict high numbers of casualties on U.S. troops. Iran has also posted training videos on social media aimed at Bahraini militants. Earlier this year, the Bahraini government charged 116 people with being part of an IRGC-sponsored network targeting Bahrain’s oil sector. Many had received training in Iran and Iraq.
The AAB has employed this training with violent results. Between the summer of 2013 and early 2014, it claimed responsibility for nearly two dozen attacks, most notably a March 2014 bombing that killed three Bahraini security officials and an Emirati adviser. In all, radical Shia militant groups, including the AAB and another Tehran-sponsored proxy, Saraya al-Mukhtar, have killed 22 security personnel and wounded an additional 3,500 since 2011.
While these casualty figures may pale in comparison to the ongoing carnage in Yemen and Syria, this does not explain why Iran’s stoking of such violence receives such little attention in Washington, especially since the Islamic Republic’s strategic goals in Bahrain directly threaten U.S. interests.
Throughout the Middle East, Iran has worked to establish direct or proxy influence at economic choke points including the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. In Bahrain, Tehran aims to expel the U.S. naval presence, extending its control over the Persian Gulf. Freedom to operate in Bahrain would also allow the IRGC to stoke violence in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority Eastern Province and threaten the kingdom’s vast oil reserves and petrochemical facilities. Iran’s strategic focus on the island state means that its meddling in Bahraini affairs would not end even if Manama’s Sunni government reached a modus vivendi with its majority Shi’a population—although a political rapprochement would likely reduce the pool of militant candidates available to Tehran and its allies.
Even though Iranian support for armed proxies like the AAB has been well-publicized, international action against these organizations has been handicapped. This is partly due to Russia’s refusal to sanction any criticism of Iran in the U.N. Security Council, but also as a result of Western neglect of the problem.
In the absence of decisive international action, Bahrain’s security forces have put an effective system in place that should allow them to continue identifying most, but likely not all, of Iran’s operatives. Although the U.S. State Department has criticized some of their tactics, already the intensity of this surveillance has compelled Bahraini militant cells to minimize contact, and this inevitably inhibits the type of inter-cell collaboration, which is necessary to launch devastating terrorist attacks.
While U.S. and partner security forces support Bahrain’s navy in the critical task of interdicting Iranian weapons shipments and detaining militants traveling to and from Iran, more must be done. Washington’s ongoing campaign to raise the costs to Iran for its regional adventurism is a positive step. However, the success of this policy will ultimately depend on the U.S. convincing our European and Asian partners to engage in a multilateral pressure campaign that ensures an end to Iranian involvement in Bahrain as part of any final settlement.
Absent this pressure, Quds Force operations against Bahrain will remain a low-cost way for Tehran to bleed Manama, spread, foment political unrest, and threaten Saudi and U.S. equities. The international community’s failure to reproach Iran for these actions must no doubt be seen by the IRGC as validation of their current strategy and, worse, reason to believe that any expansion of violence will also be tolerated.