The US State Department recently announced the designation of two Bahraini nationals affiliated with Iran-backed militant group the Ashtar Brigades as global terrorists. Their designation comes amidst repeated attempts by Tehran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to foment an insurgency against the rulers of the island, who have launched a widespread crackdown on all Shiite opposition.
Last Friday’s announcement signals a new tone in US policy towards Iran’s malign activities in the region.
The State Department has so far divulged little details about Hasan Yusuf, a 31-year old “Iran-based senior member” of the group, and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi, a 33-year old “affiliate.” Little is also known about the Ashtar Brigades, one of the several Iranian-backed militant groups active in Bahrain since 2011.
Bahrain, a small island monarchy in the Persian Gulf, holds strategic value for both Washington and Tehran. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet —responsible for the Gulf and surrounding areas — is stationed there. The population is 70 percent Shiite, but ruled by the Sunni al Khalifa clan. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Tehran’s Shiite government has at times sought to export its revolution to Bahrain. This includes an Iranian-sponsored coup attempt in 1981 by the now-defunct Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain.
Bahrain has a decades-long history of discriminating against its Shiite majority. The ruling elite tends to view Shiites’ as a possible Iranian fifth column. Extremist Iranian officials and commanders have not helped that perception, as they often describe Bahrain as the Islamic Republic’s rightful “fourteenth province.”
When the Arab Spring reached the kingdom’s shores in early 2011, the Shiite-led opposition demanded the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The Gulf Cooperation Council — led by Saudi Arabia —promptly intervened to bolster their fellow Sunni monarchy. Reconciliation talks since then between the government and opposition have broken down several times as intermittent clashes have persisted.
In recent years, Iran has redoubled sponsorship of militant groups in Bahrain. Bahraini security forces have intercepted large quantities of advanced Iranian weapons shipments and explosives, including armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). Since 2015, Manama has detained dozens of Bahraini nationals linked to the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah. Earlier this month, Bahrain announced the arrests of 25 suspects who were part of a “terrorist organization” that had operations in Iraq and Iran, according to Bahraini officials. Those arrested included 10 former inmates who escaped Jaw prison in a sophisticated operation in January in which perpetrators employed reconnaissance drones.
While Bahrain has designated the Ashtar Brigades as a terrorist group, the US has yet to officially do so. Bahraini authorities accuse the group of receiving training in improvised explosive devices (IED) from the Hezbollah Brigades, a US Treasury designated Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq. Yusuf’s Iraqi alias corroborates the group’s link to Iraq, and the Ashtar Brigades’ Instagram page eulogizing slain Hezbollah Brigades fighters last month further highlights those connections.
Ashtar’s social media activities and claims of attack have been sporadic in recent years. It claimed dozens of small-scale bombings in 2013 and 2014, including a March 2014 bomb attack that killed two Bahraini and one Emirati police officer. Yet since then, Ashtar’s claims have declined. In 2015, it released a spate of videos claiming IED attacks on Bahraini security forces. Sporadic assassinations and IED bombings have since continued in Bahrain, yet not all necessarily attributable to the Ashtar Brigades. The group has claimed some attacks that killed security forces, including a January assassination of a Bahraini security officer.
In Jan. 2016, a cell linked to Ashtar Brigades was arrested by Bahraini authorities. According to officials, the two-person cell was planning to execute “a series of dangerous bombings” in Bahrain. They traveled to Iran on several occasions for financial and logistic support with the IRGC. In 2012, Bahraini authorities allege the Ashtar cell members met with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and received $20,000 “in support of their organization.”
Friday’s designation marks the first in the Trump administration’s targeting of the Iranian-backed network inside Bahrain. The State Department has pledged to “aggressively target Iran’s destabilizing and terrorism-related activities” in the Middle East. It vowed to stand with the Bahraini authorities, even as it “encourage[s] the government to clearly differentiate its response to violent militia groups from its engagement with peaceful political opposition.” This reflects the State Department’s understanding that crackdown on all Shiite opposition can radicalize the political environment, which could devolve into further violence and play into Tehran’s goal of destabilizing the kingdom.
The designation also signals a departure from the previous US administration. The Obama administration refused to designate Iranian-backed entities in Bahrain, while the GCC want the US to do more to push back against the IRGC’s activities regionwide. Indeed, Obama administration designations against Iranian officials were rare in the wake of the nuclear accord with Tehran, though designations continued against Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful foreign militia.
The latest designation underscores the US’s concern over the IRGC’s role in sponsoring militants in Bahrain and signals an initial step in a strategy to counter the IRGC’s influence there and across the Middle East.