State Department designates Iranian-backed Bahraini militia

Saraya al Mokhtar’s logo, which clearly adheres to Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps branding.

The US State Department has added the Bahraini Shia militia Saraya al Mokhtar to the US government’s list of designated terrorist organizations. Saraya al Mokhtar is one of many Iranian-backed groups operating within the island kingdom.

In its designation, State noted that Saraya al Mokhtar “is an Iran-backed terrorist organization based in Bahrain, reportedly receiving financial and logistic support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC].”

Saraya al Mokhtar has been open about its ties to the IRGC and its vast international network in the past. For instance, it has had a significant relationship with the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Imam Ali in Iraq. Kata’ib Imam Ali is led by Shibl al Zaydi, who was designated as a terrorist by the United States in 2018 for his ties to the IRGC.

Following his death in 2015, Saraya al Mokhtar noted its ties to Ala’ Hilel, a commander within Kata’ib Imam Ali. At the ceremony for the one year anniversary of Hilel’s death, supporters spoke of how Hilel helped train a contingent of Saraya al Mokhtar fighters who went to Iraq.

Saraya al Mokhtar’s former flag was periodically seen flying inside Iraq by members of Kata’ib Imam Ali. While in 2016, Saraya al Mokhtar openly boasted about its representatives visiting Kata’ib Imam Ali sites inside Iraq.

That year, it also spoke highly of Saraya al Khorasani, another IRGC-backed militia inside Iraq.

In 2018, Iranian state media publicized the funerals in Qom for three members of Saraya al Mokhtar who had died at sea attempting to travel between Bahrain and Iran.

Later that same year, Saraya al Mokhtar changed its logo and flag to reflect more IRGC branding. That rebranding occurred alongside a condolence statement for Hezbollah Brigades fighters killed in a US airstrike in Syria.

Saraya al Mokhtar was also a signatory of a joint statement produced by various Iranian-backed groups in Bahrain condemning the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s Qods Force, earlier this year.

State’s designation also notes Saraya al Mokhtar “has plotted attacks against U.S. personnel in Bahrain and has offered cash rewards for the assassination of Bahraini officials.”

The group was also quite open about this on social media. In 2014, Saraya al Mokhtar posted a vague threat to US military personnel stationed on the island through its official Twitter account.

Saraya al Mokhtar is now just the second Bahraini militia to be designated by the US government. In 2018, Saraya al Ashtar was also added to the designated terrorist list.

Saraya al Mokhtar was once of the most active militias on the island kingdom. But it has not claimed an official attack in Bahrain since 2015, according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal.

It is possible, however, it has leveraged front groups much like Saraya al Ashtar, to better hide its hand in engaging in terrorism in Bahrain.

Iran has sponsored a number of militia groups inside Bahrain since the Arab Spring protests in 2011. In recent years, Iran has attempted to redouble its 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. Bahrain has also accused Lebanese Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al Haq, another IRGC proxy, of training Bahraini militants in Lebanon and Iraq.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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