While the camera’s eye has been focused on the July designation of Hezbollah’s so-called “military wing” by the European Union, the Iran-backed organization was dealt another blow. The government of Bahrain recently blocked the website of al Manar television, Hezbollah’s official station, in a move Bahraini officials say is aimed at clamping down on terrorism in the island kingdom.
Al Manar was listed as a Specially Designated Terrorist Entity by the United States in 2006, which allowed for tougher sanctions to be levied against the media outfit. Two years earlier, Al Manar had been named to the US Terrorism Exclusion List. In March 2005, broadcasting regulators in the European Union banned satellite broadcasts of al Manar on the basis that the channel carried racist material and incitement.
Al Manar broadcasts have been banned by France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Canada, and Australia, among others.
In April, Bahrain became the first Arab country to designate Hezbollah a terrorist entity. The move was followed by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) announcement in June that it was placing sanctions on Hezbollah and looking for ways to curb the organization’s activity in the Gulf.
Bahrain’s blocking of the al Manar website was announced on Aug. 3 by the Minister of State for Communications, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammad Al Khalifa, implementing the National Assembly’s recommendations to take additional antiterror measures.
The Communications Ministry also blocked websites run by al Qaeda and its affiliates, including the Al Nusrah Front in Syria.
“With the increasing threat of terrorism, it is critical for Bahrain to join its allies and global partners in preventing the spread of extremist ideology through shutting off access to websites developed by internationally recognized terror groups, such as al Qaeda and Hezbollah,” Sheikh Fawaz said in the Ministry’s statement.
Although the move took place just as Iranian president Hassan Rouhani took the oath of office, the development is being viewed more through the domestic lens, coming about two weeks before anticipated protests by Bahrain’s Shia opposition, set to take place on Aug. 14.
In addition, Gulf officials have increasingly expressed outrage at Hezbollah’s military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al Khalifa has called Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah “a terrorist.” While Sunni-Shia tensions have existed for some time, and Hezbollah’s longstanding terror record has been visible for decades, Hezbollah’s decision to send troops to fight alongside Assad is seen as the tipping point that led Bahrain and the other Gulf states to turn up the heat on Hezbollah at this time.
The GCC, which rejects the division of Hezbollah into military and political wings, is reportedly considering sanctions that are more comprehensive than the EU’s.
Other actions against Hezbollah in Bahrain
Banning Hezbollah’s website was not the first action taken by the Manama government against the Lebanon-based organization since it was blacklisted in April.
In May, Bahrain banned opposition groups from maintaining links with Hezbollah, according to Agence France Presse.
In June, Sheikh Rashid al Khalifa said Bahrain will probe possible Hezbollah activity in the kingdom, including “financial investments, commercial and economic activity, operations that masquerade as charities, bank accounts, money transfers and individual members of the organization to take the required legal procedures.”
Kingdom officials have also recently accused Hezbollah’s Iranian masters of instigating violence and stirring up the island’s Shia population in an effort to gain political power in the Sunni-ruled, but Shia-dominated nation. Two years earlier, a confidential report filed by Bahrain with the UN Secretary General in April 2011 alleged that Bahraini opposition members were being trained in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon and Iran, but the reports were met with official denials by Iran, Hezbollah, and the Bahraini opposition, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The confidential report to the UN also alleged that Hezbollah and Bahrain’s Shia opposition groups have met to coordinate political strategy and have used al Manar TV to mobilize Bahrain’s opposition.
In early April this year, Bahraini MP Adil al-Asoumi called Hezbollah a threat not only to Bahrain but also to the rest of the Gulf region, and said, “[W]e call on our Gulf brethren to confront the terrorist organization to secure Gulf security.”
A month later, Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al Khalifa tweeted that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is “declaring war on his own nation,” the Bahrain News Agency reported. “Stopping (Nasrallah) and saving Lebanon from him is a national and religious duty,” he added.
Other Gulf nations may be following Bahrain’s lead. In June, Qatar deported 18 Hezbollah supporters as part of the GCC’s measures against the group. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon has said that his country will take action against Hezbollah as well, according to the Bahrain News Agency.
Bahrain is an ally of the United States and houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf. As the Wall Street Journal noted back in April 2011, neighboring Saudi Arabia has urged the US to back Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family, to help avert a scenario in which an overthrow in Bahrain could lead to Shiite unrest in Saudi Arabia and the spread of Iranian power in the region.
Toby Dershowitz is Vice President of Government Relations and Strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.