Saraya al Ashtar’s logo, which clearly highlights its IRGC affiliation.
The US State Department has added the Bahraini Shia militia Saraya al Ashtar to the US government’s list of designated terrorist organizations. Saraya al Ashtar is one of many Iranian-backed groups operating within the island kingdom.
In its designation, State noted that Saraya al Ashtar “is yet another in a long line of Iranian sponsored terrorists who kill on behalf of a corrupt regime.” It also said that the “United States sees plainly what Iran is trying to do to Bahrain through its proxy.” The Bahraini militia has been responsible for a series of bombings and other terrorist attacks across the island since 2013, which State lists many within its designation.
State’s designation also mentioned Saraya al Ashtar’s recent rebranding in which it took on more overt imagery to highlight its connection with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s ‘axis of resistance.” In a tweet earlier today, State also released an infographic which details how Iran supports Saraya al Ashtar as well as some key information on the group and its leadership. The infographic can be seen below.
At the same time as the rebranding, Saraya al Ashtar reaffirmed its loyalty to the Islamic Republic of Iran. “We believe that the commander and ruler of the Islamic religion is the line of the two imams, Khomeini and Khamenei, which is in the original Muhammad approach in confronting the oppressors and fighting back against the tyrants,” the group’s statement said.
Saraya al Mokhtar, another Iranian-backed Shia militia in Bahrain, has also recently rebranded itself with more overt IRGC imagery. While Iran is known to support various groups in Bahrain, that makes at least two groups now openly flaunting an IRGC affiliation in the kingdom.
Last year, State designated two members of Saraya al Ashtar as global terrorists. State noted that one of the individuals, Hasan Yusuf, is an Iran-based senior member of the group. Bahraini officials have accused the group of receiving training in improvised explosive devices (IED) from the Hezbollah Brigades, a US Treasury designated Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq. State’s designation also noted extensive Iranian support in both weapons and training for the militia, including in Iraq.
In Jan. 2016, a cell linked to a militant group 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 alleged that the al Ashtar cell members met with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and received $20,000 “in support of their organization.”
Additionally, Iran has redoubled sponsorship of militant groups in Bahrain in recent years. Bahraini security forces have intercepted large quantities of advanced Iranian weapons shipments and explosives, including armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). Iran has also buried killed Bahraini militants within its borders, further showing the Islamic Republic’s support of extremists in Bahrain.
Since 2015, Manama has detained dozens of Bahraini nationals linked to the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah. Bahrain has also accused Lebanese Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al Haq, another IRGC proxy, of training Bahraini militants in Lebanon and Iraq. However, Bahrain’s heavy-handed approach and crackdown on all Bahraini Shias, not just militants, only further serves to radicalize more of the populace which plays into Iran’s strategy.
State Department infographic on Saraya al Ashtar: