Bahrain's Hezbollah boogeyman

The Gulf state is blaming wider terrorism networks in order to cover up local opposition.

Protests in Bahrain 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protests in Bahrain 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On November 5, the morning calm in Bahrain’s capital was shattered when an unsuspecting foreign street sweeper was killed after erroneously kicking a crude homemade explosive device planted near a trash can. That morning, four other pipe bombs detonated almost simultaneously in Manama, killing another foreign worker and wounding several more. The Bahraini government alleged that this amateurish attack bore the prints of Hezbollah, the world’s most capable militant group. In all likelihood, the attack was the product of an increasingly radicalized younger generation of Shiite activists, whose long-ignored anger threatens to boomerang back in the form of an intensifying wave of violent attacks. Indeed, these pipe bombs may have been unsophisticated, but their impact will ultimately be felt across the island, from King Hamad’s palace to the top floors of Manama’s glimmering financial towers.
In recent months, Bahrain's activists have taken to burning tires in an effort to block major roads, particularly near Bahrain’s International Airport. On the Island of Sitra, which hosts Bahrain’s largest industrial centers, the local police station has become a fortress, falling under nightly attacks by Molotov-cocktail wielding youth. Just two weeks prior to the Manama bombings, a police officer was killed by another crude explosive device after an anti-government demonstration in the village of al-Eker. The opposition is clearly attempting to hit the government where it hurts by staining Bahrain’s hard-earned image as a safe, foreign-friendly hub for international commerce.
The government, for its part, doesn’t seem deterred. The bombing in al-Eker led security forces to impose an unprecedented security blockade on the village. On October 29, the government banned all demonstrations, while revoking the citizenship of 31 opposition activists weeks later. These moves have only resulted in further boiling the blood of Bahrain’s February 14 youth activist network, resulting in rioting, tire burning, and an increasingly worrying trend of bombing attacks.
The government has furthermore consistently claimed that Bahrain’s most influential (and moderate) opposition movement, al-Wefaq, is linked to Iran and Hezbollah. Without a doubt, there is some truth to this. Al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman has met with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in the past and Hezbollah’s al-Manar media outlet, often reports sympathetically on the Bahraini opposition movement. Meanwhile, as the Middle East's Shiite leadership, the Ayatollah's undoubtedly seek to increase their influence on the doorstep of their Saudi rivals, using Bahrain's Shiite majority.
The fine line however, is drawn where the government exploits these connections to belittle the largely peaceful opposition movement as a foreign conspiracy. Using the crude attacks of a minority of opposition elements as fodder for this argument, the government alleges that members of the opposition have trained in Hezbollah camps, while Iranian and Hezbollah agents have infiltrated the country to foment terrorism and incite against the government.
You don’t need to be a counter-terrorism expert to determine that the amateurish pipe bombs used in Manama and al-Eker bare little markings of the region’s most prestigious militant group. Since its inception, Hezbollah has mastered the use of suicide and car bombings, developed its special forces, and established global smuggling routes for drugs, personnel, and weapons. Needless to say, had Nasrallah wished to send a message to the Bahraini government, poorly-placed pipe bombs wouldn’t be his method of delivery.
As a popular tactic in the Gulf, governments often blame shadowy multinational networks to de-legitimize sometimes legitimate opposition demands whilst instilling fear into their own support camps. In Kuwait and the UAE, governments have increasingly blamed domestic dissent as a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia has consistently asserted that Iran is responsible for its own Shiite uprising in the Eastern Province.
The Bahraini government’s continued blaming of foreign influences further disassociates itself from any responsibility to actually reconcile with the opposition. Blaming Hezbollah shifts focus away from alleged human rights violations against its Shiite majority while giving it a free hand in the eyes of the international community to crackdown on “terrorists” anyway it sees fit.
By regionalizing its conflict, the government has created the perception that any concessions to the opposition would open the gates for Iranian influence, successfully ensuring that all criticism from its Western allies remains limited to rhetoric.  While the US recently condemned the ban on demonstrations, they notably refrained from speaking out against Bahrain during a June UN Human Rights Council debate. Meanwhile, opposition activists continue to flaunt empty canisters of US-made tear gas on their Facebook pages.
Ironically, the government’s exaggerated claims of Hezbollah and Iranian infiltration will only drive their increasingly radical opposition activists into the arms of the only factions willing to support their cause- Hezbollah and Iran.  These feelings of abandonment by the international community will eventually drive throngs of radicalized youth into Hezbollah’s training camps, and back into Bahrain with the ability to build car bombs instead of pipe bombs.
These are worrying developments, particularly in what may be the most strategic piece of island real estate in the battle against Iranian influence. Looking ahead, it would serve the government well to realize that the window for reconciliation is closing rapidly, and when it does, the door will be left wide open for destabilizing extremism.
The authors are intelligence analysts at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.