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Austin Bodetti

Bahrain 'should rebuild relationship' with Shia population

The monarchy's Sunni leadership has had difficulty connecting with Bahrain's Shia-majority population [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 October, 2018

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Bahrain can only resolve its Shia insurgency by approaching the problem as a matter of democratisation, not counterterrorism, writes Austin Bodetti.

The extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen has long alarmed policymakers in the United States and across the Arab world.

A festering Iranian-sponsored insurgency in Bahrain, however, has flown under their radar. While attacks perpetrated by Bahraini insurgents appear far less intricate than operations conducted by Hizballah, the Houthis, or Iraqi Shia militias, Bahrain has yet to arrive at a strategy that can contain its own set of foreign-backed militants.

Bahrain can likely reach a solution to this problem by enacting social change to complement its military strategy.

Tensions between Shias and Sunnis lie at the heart of the island country's unrest, and the monarchy's Sunni leadership has had difficulty connecting with Bahrain's Shia-majority population. As the insurgency worsens, this sectarian challenge has become that much more critical.

Signs have emerged that Bahrain's Iranian-fuelled insurgency is growing more sophisticated. On September 25, the island country's attorney general charged 169 Bahraini citizens with trying to organise a Hizballah-style organisation and claimed that Iran had trained some of the detainees.

The monarchy has also struggled to combat the threat of the Ashtar Brigades, an umbrella organisation of Iranian-backed Bahraini militants. The State Department lent its support by designating the militia "a foreign terrorist organisation" in July and labelling Qassim Abdullah Ali Ahmed, one of the Ashtar Brigades' leaders in Iran, a "specially designated global terrorist" in August.

Unnamed American officials told The Washington Post in May that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, sees arming and training Bahraini insurgents as an economical way of antagonising Bahrain and expanding Iran's sphere of influence.

Read also: Another year of deep state repression in Bahrain

A report published by the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institution at the United States Military Academy in New York, noted that years of Iranian patronage has expanded Bahraini militants' capacity to conduct attacks against Bahraini security forces and wage a low-intensity insurgency.

The IRGC is capitalising on the anti-monarchical leanings of some Bahraini Shia dissidents. During the Arab Spring in 2011, tens of thousands of Bahraini Shias protested the preferential treatment that the monarchy appeared to give Sunnis. Some of the protesters went so far as to call for an uprising, leading the island country to fear that the Iranian Revolution would repeat itself in Bahrain. The Bahraini security forces' subsequent crackdown drove many dissidents into hiding.

Iran viewed the unrest as an opportunity to exploit the Islamic republic's cultural and religious ties to Bahraini Shias. The IRGC recruited some of them into the Axis of Resistance, an Iranian-led coalition dedicated to fighting Iran's opponents in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US.

In Bahrain, the more the Shia community can rely on civil society organisations to address its needs and policy challenges, the less daylight Iran will have to mobilise the Shia population instead

Iran's social influence in Bahrain may present the biggest challenge. Bahrain can best counter Iran's bid to undermine the monarchy by combining operations against the Ashtar Brigades and other IRGC-organised Bahraini Shia militias with the tried-and-true method of civic engagement.

If Bahrain engages with elements of the Bahraini opposition that disagree with some of the monarchy's actions but reject violence and retain popularity among Shias, such as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Wefaq National Islamic Society, Bahraini authorities can enhance the monarchy's legitimacy and sabotage Iranian attempts at political warfare.

After all, success in counterinsurgency rarely comes from military victories alone. Adept counterinsurgents must often mobilise the support of sympathetic activists, community leaders, and politicians as well.

"Civil society plays a vital role in countering terrorism, particularly in societies where there are acute sectarian cleavages," said Dr Christopher Meserole, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"In Bahrain, the more the Shia community can rely on civil society organisations to address its needs and policy challenges, the less daylight Iran will have to mobilise the Shia population instead."

Bahrain can look to one of its neighbours for an example of this strategy. Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said defeated the Dhofar Rebellion in the 1970s by not only waging an aggressive campaign against insurgents in the restive region of the Arabian Peninsula but also conducting outreach to the peoples of Dhofar, issuing amnesties to former rebels, and reforming the Omani state.

The US, which has already provided some support to Bahrain and which has stationed one of its largest naval fleets in the island country, can further assist the monarchy by drawing on the lessons of American soldiers' successes and failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam.

Bahrain will hold a general election in November 24. The island country can use representative democracy to cultivate civic engagement and reintegrate Bahraini Shia dissidents into politics and society.

However much the monarchy fears its political opponents gaining power, participatory democracy and open-mindedness represent Bahrain's best hope of defeating the insurgency.

Unlike Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, where sectarian tensions have captured headlines for years and sometimes decades, Bahrain can rebuild its relationship with its Shia population and undercut Iranian influence before the insurgency achieves critical mass. Though military successes have helped Bahrain curb attacks, civil society may hold the key to victory.


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia.

He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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