NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

From Najaf to Damascus and Onto Baghdad: Iraq’s Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas

By Phillip Smyth

LAFA-Iraq

Figure 1: Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas Tashkil al-Iraq’s logo.

Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) is still the best known of the Iraqi Shia staffed militias operating within Syria. The creation of the organization and successful marketing of its narrative; which cast the group as the “defenders of the Sayyida Zaynab Shrine” south of Damascus, set the stage for Shia Islamist foreign fighters to join the battle in Syria against rebel forces. Under the leadership of the Syrian Shia “Abu Ajeeb” in Damascus, the group has been deployed to numerous combat zones throughout Syria. While other foreign Shia fighters have been attached to the group, the primary nationality making up the ranks of LAFA has been Iraqi.

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Figure 2: (left) A LAFA-Iraq fighter stands guard near Iraqi government forces. (Right) Another LAFA-Iraq member stands in an office.

Yet, LAFA’s name and possibly their geographic reach changed in 2014. Instead of using Iraq as a place simply to recruit more members for activities in Syria, LAFA adopted a new role as a Shia militia within Iraq. In fact, the new Iraq-focused LAFA may have more limited connections to the LAFA in Damascus, yet this does not mean that Iraqi Shia fighters affiliated with the Syrian-based LAFA are not active within the newer group’s ranks or have a longstanding affiliation with the new Iraq-based group.

The Iraq-focused section of LAFA, known as Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas Tashkil al-Iraq, (The Abu Fadl Abbas Brigade Iraq Formation or LAFA-Iraq), is led by Sheikh Qasim al-Ta’i. It also appears that LAFA-Iraq’s links are more directly associated with units of the so-called Rapid Reaction Force which was deployed to Damascus in early 2013. The force claims to have affiliations with the Iraq’s Internal Security Forces and Special Operations/SWAT teams.

LAFA-Iraq’s more structured Iraq-focused image first emerged on a number of Facebook pages in March 2014. This coincided with announcements by Iranian Shia Islamist proxy groups that they were actively involved in fighting within Iraq’s Anbar Province against rebel forces, included the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Often, photos of parading members wearing new Velcro patches featuring the group’s logo were uploaded. It is currently unknown how large LAFA-Iraq’s forces are or if their deployment within Iraq is limited to certain areas. In mid-June a video surfaced claiming the group was patrolling the Mansour section of Baghdad. Another report claimed that LAFA’s fighters in Syria had returned to Iraq in the wake of ISIS advances in the country. Their absence in Syria was reportedly filled by units belonging to Lebanese Hizballah.1 On June 16, 2014 post, it was also claimed that 1500 LAFA-Iraq fighters had been deployed to the holy city of Samarra, home of the Askari Shrine.

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Figure 3: A LAFA-Iraq fighter stands in the bed of a pickup truck. His camouflage gear appears similar if not the same as the variety used by Lebanese Hizballah and LAFA forces operating in Syria.

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Figure 4: A screenshot of a LAFA-Iraq claim to have sent 1500 of their forces to Samarra.

As Iraq undergoes massive recruitment efforts for Shia fighters, it is likely that LAFA-Iraq has, along with other Iranian-proxy organizations, recruited new members and deployed fighters to key hotspots. Since a main narrative for the group has been their “defense of shrines,” it is possible the group has some contingent stationed in or around Iraq’s many holy Shia mosques/shrines. Additionally, with reports that fighters who gained experience on the battlefields in Syria have come back to Iraq, the group has an added punch.

While the group’s logo is a departure from LAFA-Syria’s more Hizballah themed symbols, it still uses imagery specific to the concepts first honed in Syria. The main theme is the notion of shrine defense, namely the golden dome found on the Sayyida Zaynab mosque/shrine and Shia religious themes present with the image of the historically important Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Abbas stands in the middle of a map of Iraq. Secondly, the more militaristic theme is furthered by the inclusion of two SVD-type sniper rifles. Thus, LAFA-Iraq’s symbolism plays on the fact that its recruits are Iraqi (with the map), but heavily includes transnational religious imagery to build the theme of Shia power and shrine defense.

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Figure 5: A group of LAFA-Iraq fighters stand equipped in a 2014 photograph.

Some Distinct Changes in LAFA-Iraq’s Messaging Compared to LAFA in Syria:

  • Abu Ajeeb, LAFA’s Syria commander, has not been mentioned by pages associated with LAFA-Iraq. Instead, Iraqi cleric Sheikh Qasim al-Ta’i is listed at the group’s “qa’id” or leader.
  • New symbolism linking themes related to Iraq and Syria.
    • Sayyida Zaynab’s dome is combined with a map of Iraq.
  • Stronger Iraq focus in terms of narrative.
  • Stronger emphasis on the group as the “defender of the Shia.”
  • Increased focus on the ISIS-led offensive in Iraq.

The Qasim al-Ta’i Connection

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Figure 6: Al-Ta’i (far left in the white turban) with LAFA-Iraq escorts.

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Figure 7: Al-Ta’i poses with Iraqi Shia Islamist militants headed to Syria. The photograph dates from 2013.

Iraqi Shiekh Qasim al-Ta’i, a cleric once supported by Muqtada al-Sadr and had been involved in the movement established by Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq Sadr. After the 1999 assassination of Grand Ayatollah Sadr, Ta’i branded himself as a main leader of the broadly defined “Sadrist movement.”2 Ta’i has also stated he is a supporter of Wilayat al-Faqih, the ideology of Iran’s Islamic Revolution established by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini.3

In April 2013, Ta’i claimed that the initial idea for the creation of LAFA in Damascus, “began in Najaf by a group of youth.” Interestingly, at the time Ta’i evoked memories of the bombing of Samarra’s Askari Shrine in 2006 to explain why LAFA needed to deploy to Syria.4 Today, LAFA-Iraq uses the defense of the Askari Shrine in Samarra as another way to explain why the group needs to be present in Iraq.

Despite Tai’s claims that the group was conceived of in Najaf in 2013, there is ample evidence that LAFA was already well-established in Damascus by the fall of 2012. It is also likely that other Iraqi Shia—splinters from Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement—refugees living in Syria formed the initial group and it was then reorganized and equipped with assistance given by Iranian Shia Islamist proxy groups.

However, al-Ta’i’s relationship with elements of LAFA in Damascus cannot be understated. Ta’i has a number of offices open around the area near Sayyida Zaynab and throughout 2013, he repeated calls for support for the Iraqi Shia-populated sections of LAFA. In some respects, the Iraqi Shia foreign fighter influence on LAFA in Damascus did lead to tensions. In the summer of 2013 there was discord over Abu Ajeeb’s leadership, leading to a firefight.5 Nevertheless, by fall 2013, some well-known fighters associated with LAFA in Syria and al-Ta’i were taped operating together in Damascus (see video: “The Original LAFA Operating in Damascus – Fall 2013”). The creation of LAFA-Iraq under a firmer leadership by al-Ta’i, erasure of other Syrian-based leadership, and utilization of the established group name and faces likely represents the latest evolution for a group which has undergone many transformations since its creation as a Shia-focused popular committee in 2012.

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Figure 8: Leaders of the Damascus-based LAFA walk with al-Ta’i.

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Figure 9: Al-Ta’i blesses Iraqi Shia jihadists planning on fighting in Syria.

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Figure 10: Iraqi Shia members of LAFA. Originally the photograph was distributed by LAFA social media sites. It has now been reprocessed by LAFA-Iraq.

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NOTES:

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

IRGC’s First Martyr vs. ISIS in Iraq?

By Phillip Smyth

Is This Iran IRGC martyr5

Figure 1: Post claiming the IRGC member was killed fighting in Samarra.

According to Iranian media outlets Ali Reza Moshajari, a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was reportedly killed in an accident on June 14, 2014.1 In another article written by the IRGC-linked Tasnim News, Moshajari was killed in “Western Iran” while on “a mission.” In all of the articles he is described as a “martyr” or “hero martyr.” However, his death was not such an open and shut case. In fact, Moshajari’s death may be further evidence of direct IRGC presence in Iraq.

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Figure 2: Moshajari in his IRGC uniform.

Before official announcements were made by groups such as Kata’ib Hizballah or Lebanese Hizballah stating they were both involved in fighting in Syria, both organizations would give vague explanations for the funerals of their members. The former would claim members had died due to illness or for other non-combat related reasons. Lebanese Hizballah would often only state that their fallen fighter had been “killed doing his jihadist duty.” Nevertheless, on social media run by many of these elements, it would be stated that the fallen fighters had in fact been killed in Syria. This may be the same type of structured announcement.

In some ways, this mirrors the announcements for the fallen IRGC member who was not only listed as a martyr for battle on a mission of some sort, but had competing accounts for how and where he died.

On Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked (often these pages are run directly by the IRGC for internal and narrative purposes) social media networks–which run the gambit from Twitter and Facebook to Google Plus and YouTube—have cast Moshajari as an IRGC fighter who had been “martyred” in the IRGC deployment to Iraq.

It is possible that Moshajari was actually killed in an accident while deploying with IRGC units to sections of Iraq bordering Iran. CNN reported that 500 IRGC had been deployed to Diyala, an Iraqi province on the border with Iran.2 In Diyala Province, Kata’ib Hizballah and other Iraqi Shia Islamist groups backed by Iran have also reported being engaged in combat against units belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Is This Iran IRGC martyr4

Figure 3: An IRGC Facebook page claiming Moshajari was the first IRGC martyr in Iraq while defending the shrines.

However, other Facebook-based sites with links to Iran’s regional Shia Islamist proxies and the IRGC also claimed that he had been involved in the “defense of Samarra.” Samarra has been a city of heavily publicized deployments by Iran’s Shi’a Islamist proxies within Iraq, mainly due to the fact that the holy Askari Shrine is located in the city.

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Figure 4: Killed IRGC member’s martyrdom poster. The poster was circulated primarily on Facebook and Twitter. It claims he was an “Iranian defender of Karbala.”

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Figure 5: A photo of Moshajari’s face prior to his funeral.

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NOTES:

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Happy Birthday Hizballah Cavalcade

By Phillip Smyth

Happy Birthday Hizballah Cavalcade

All of the various fronts must unite. The organization must form an alliance; it must be a religious party…Everyone must unite in the Party of God, “Hizballah”. Everyone must speak out together. Everyone must rise up together.” – Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, May 13, 1978, speaking in Najaf, Iraq, in response to crackdowns by the Shah of Iran.1

It was a warm evening in early May 2013 when I met-up with a group of friends which included Aaron Zelin, the creator of Jihadology.net. We discussed the possibility of a guest post or me being able to assist with a section dealing with Shi’a jihadism. Since April of that year, I had been posting information on Lebanese Hizballah and other Iraqi Shi’a Islamist groups sending fighters to Syria on Twitter with the hashtag #HizballahCavalcade. We both felt this could be expanded and Aaron gave me the opportunity to put together some posts for the page. Who would have figured it would have grown and changed so much over the past 12 months?

Initially, I thought Hizballah Cavalcade would simply be an “attempt to display available photos of all funerals and martyrdom posters belonging to Shia groups which are fighting in Syria. In addition, funeral, combat, and even music videos belonging to these groups pertaining to the fighting in Syria will also be posted.” At the time, funerals and the imagery associated with them were the main way to gauge involvement. It was also unknown how deep the involvement of Shia Islamist fighters would be in Syria.

As I started to do more research, put together methodologies (which have grown and changed over the year), and truly devoted a higher-level of focus on more networks—particularly those on social media, it became clear that there would be plenty to post about for the page. As the information grew and the situation continued to transform, it became clear that putting “martyrdom announcements” or the funeral videos were simply not enough. Instead, harder analysis, focused on deeper studying of the material(s) and explanation was required with less “data-dump” style posts. As a result, Hizballah Cavalcade grew into a venue where I could put together posts on new organizations, links between the groups, their commanders, weapons systems, camouflage, where they were fighting, the fighters, uploaded combat videos, even the symbolism and language used by these groups.

Syria was also supposed to be the main focus for HC. In most respects it still is, but due to the interconnectedness of many of the forces, it became necessary to expand the scope. Consequently, I started to also focus on where many of the Shia Islamist forces fighting in Syria had originated: Iraq. Narrative development also became increasingly important as it became necessary to explain key elements regarding why a Shia jihad was occurring in Syria.

Recently, in March 2014, I started working on a subseries on Hizballah Cavalcade called “The Pearl and the Molotov” which sought to explain the growing numbers of militant Shia jihadi groups in Bahrain. I had expected to put up around five posts and focus back on Syria. However, the growth, narratives, and importance of the development has yet to stop. The hope for the rest of 2014 (and hopefully 2015) is to continue to offer some other subseries on geographic areas where there is also Shia jihadi activity.

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Figure 1: I’m still searching for a correlation between Chichen Itza and fallen Shia Islamist fighters.

Hizballah Cavalcade also helped established something else which was far more expansive than simply being a niche series covering Shia Islamist organizations and their battles. The importance of open-source social media and internet-based platforms with this unique primary source information truly came to light. As the broader and at times (unfortunately) intellectually-rigid analytical community learns to deal with this 21st century reality, it is plain to see that the old narrative of, “Well, that’s just social media material” increasingly has little merit.2 As exemplified with a number of new Shia Islamist militias in Syria, their existence was announced to the world via a Facebook page. This neither means that social media sources are the best nor that they should not be used in conjunction with other sources, but their utility and the breadth of information they offer is a true game-changer.

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Figure 2: Hizballah: the car seat.3

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Figure 3: A young Hassan Nasrallah washing-up.

Praise & Coverage for Hizballah Cavalcade

Over the past year Hizballah Cavalcade has also gotten some fantastic coverage in the media. Needless to say, it always serves as an ego boost and affirms that the pieces are useful for those following complex situations involving Shia jihadist elements.

Noted Iraq expert Michael Knights, who also wrote a Washington Institute For Near East Policy piece on Shia Islamist fighters in Syria, used HC as a main reference and was kind enough to say HC had, “the best coverage of these issues.”

During the Battle of Qusayr, posted figures on HC of Lebanese Hizballah dead were cited by distinguished journalist Anne Barnard of the New York Times. Since then, Hizballah Cavalcade has been featured, quoted, and cited in pieces by a myriad of top journalists, blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other publications including (but not limited to): The Wall Street Journal, AFP, McClatchy, National Public Radio, Australian Broadcasting, NOW Lebanon, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, The New York Review of Books, USA Today, The Financial Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. Fitting with the maxim that, “80% of what is written has been written before” a number of other publications have recycled (without credit) HC posts into their own pieces.

Additionally, the posts on Hizballah Cavalcade gave me the opportunity to write longer pieces for Foreign Policy and West Point’s CTC Sentinel. There was also the privilege of being able to take part in an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. In November 2013 I had the great honor to testify in front of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding Shia Islamist groups fighting in Syria. When jihadism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he also gave praise to HC.

Based primarily on a Hizballah Cavalcade piece on the musical narrative of Shia militias in Syria, Aaron Zelin (who addressed Sunni jihadist anasheed) and I were featured in a Washington Post piece. Shia jihadi music has been a long standing and rather esoteric obsession of mine. The ability to post my analysis of this material and see the positive reactions to it is always wonderful.

Quotes and references aside, the private conversations I have with many well-informed and experienced followers of the region always present me and the blog with new insights. I am always happy to share what I have learned with them and others.

Thanks

I try to write pieces I would like to read and my greatest hope is that others find it informative, novel, and able to address specific trends. Not to sound cliché, but those who read my posts are both an inspiration for me and often serve as the push I need to continue writing. There are times when I suffer from a good bout of frustration from certain geopolitical conditions and the analysis which comes out of it. It’s very easy to jump down the ultra-cynical rabbit hole and either stop writing or produce subpar work. Nevertheless, Hizballah Cavalcade’s readers have time and time again challenged me, taught me new things, and most importantly demonstrated that they too wanted to read the material. To my many colleagues and friends, thank you for your kind words, suggestions, assistance, and the encouragement you all have given me.

I promise to continue to write more posts and I truly hope everyone has benefited from reading them.

Thank you all for reading Hizballah Cavalcade! Time to cut the cake.

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Figure 4: A Kata’ib Hizballah celebration for the martyrdom of one of its members in Syria. (Special thanks to an anonymous reader who sent the photo).

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2 See: J.M. Berger’s comments. Berger is a leading expert and luminary in the field of studying terrorist groups’ utilization of social media: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkhT4DhZzWQ.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Liwa ‘Abis: A New Active Militant Group in Bahrain

By Phillip Smyth

Liwa Abis

Figure 1: Liwa ‘Abis’s logo.

Liwa ‘Abis (the ‘Abis Brigade) declared their existence in an announcement dated April 7, 2014 and released it on Facebook and Twitter on April 8. The group’s first announcement declared they were joining those who “preceded” them in “jihad and resistance” against the “oppressors,” meaning the government of Bahrain. As with other radical anti-government organizations, which utilize force, Liwa ‘Abis call their enemies, meaning Bahrain’s internal security forces, “mercenaries.” This terminology is common among Bahraini militant organizations. According to Liwa Abis’s, their attack(s) are representative of the “legitimate jihad” they were waging against the government of Bahrain. Combined with the group’s self-description as “Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya fi Bahrain” (“The Islamic Resistance in Bahrain”), the group appears to share many themes with other Bahraini militant organizations.

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Figure 2: Liwa ‘Abis’s first announcement.

Liwa ‘Abis’s Targets & Their War on the “Occupier’s Economy”

A developing trend among Bahraini militant groups has been to target infrastructure and economic targets. Saraya al-Mukhtar has attacked Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs). Attacks against ATMs occurred in January, February, and March, 2014. These activities led the U.S. Department of State to issue specific travel warning instructions to U.S. citizens in Bahrain, telling them to, “Use caution when approaching ATMs, particularly at night and early morning, by scanning the area for items that are out of place or suspicious to the area in general.”[1]

Liwa ‘Abis appears to have also adopted a strategy of attacking economic targets. These targets have included structures—which the group has argued—assist with the “Saudi occupation” and the Bahraini government.

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Figure 3: A Saraya al-Mukhtar edited image showcasing their targeting of economic interests. Bombed-out banks and ATMs are shown on the left. The Bahrain Financial Center—likely a broader warning that other pillars of the Bahraini economy will be targeted—is used as a background on the right.

In late-April, a Liwa ‘Abis operation claimed to attack a factory. Their statement said this plant was flying the flag of the “Saudi occupation” and that the owner of the structure supported the government. The attack on the factory was also claimed to be the first in a campaign the group launched, which coincides with protests of the same name: “Symptoms of the Intifada.” Liwa ‘Abis referred to their operation as “Symptoms of the Intifada 1.”

Interestingly, the statement also claims that the “Rijal Allah” or “Men of God” of “Saraya ‘Abis” (the ‘Abis Brigades) conducted the attack.  The term “Rijal Allah” has been adopted by Iranian-backed Shia Islamist militants operating in Syria.

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Liwa ‘Abis has also claimed attacks against the Bahraini police. On April 11, 2014 the organization claimed on Facebook that they had attacked a police station in Sitra. The group stated the attack was to gain vengeance for Hasan Mushaima, an exiled anti-government Bahraini Shia leader of the Haq Movement. Attacks by firebomb wielding youths against police stations in Sitra have occurred since 2012.[2] Additionally, Sitra has also been the scene of improvised explosive device-based attacks against Bahraini internal security forces.[3]

Symbolism

Liwa ‘Abis’s name likely refers to ‘Abis bin Abi Shabib, one of Imam Husayn’s loyal, militarily prominent, and powerful companions during the Battle of Karbala.[4]

The group’s logo features two crossed green swords and a red banner with a fist emblazoned on it. The stylized fist, which bears a striking similarity to the fist featured on the logo of Saraya al-Mukhtar. These images are encapsulated in a circular shaped combination of lines and text. As with other Bahraini militant groups, it’s possible the circle may represent the pearl, a symbol of Bahrain.

On the top of the group’s symbol sits a section from Quran 32:22. The entire passage from the Quran reads “And who is more unjust than one who is reminded of the verses of his Lord; then he turns away from them? Indeed we, from the criminals, will take retribution.” This is a clear reference to a number of themes expressed by Bahraini militants, particularly those affiliated with Saraya al-Mukhar. The first is “revenge” for perceived crimes against protesters executed by forces belonging to the Bahraini government. Another theme surrounds how militants consider the ruling Khalifa royals. Using a passage like Quran 33:22 may suggest these groups consider the Khalifas and those who support them to be infidels. Additionally, charges by government media organs which consider militants to be terrorists and vandals are also addressed with the Quranic passage, by flipping the tables and accusing the government of being the true criminals.

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[1] See: http://photos.state.gov/libraries/saudi-arabia/323264/riyadh/security_message_for_u_s_citizens-bahrain_situaiton_3-6-2014.pdf

[2] See: http://youtu.be/3mUPS6Eq4Hk. This clip was released in April, 2013.

[3] See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/middleeast/2013/07/130707_bahrain_bomb_sitra.shtml.

[4] See: http://www.islamquery.com/documents/companions%20of%20Imam%20Husain.pdf.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Singing Hizballah’s Tune in Manama: Why Are Bahrain’s Militants Using the Music of Iran’s Proxies?

By Phillip Smyth

Singing Hizballahs Tune in Manama

Figure 1: A screenshot of a Hizballah musical band performing at the 2013 “Resistance and Liberation Festival”

Bahraini officials have repeatedly accused anti-government militants and protesters in the country of being supplied, trained, and supported by Iran and its numerous regional proxies. Still, the government of Bahrain has done little to bolster their claims of deep and intrinsic links between Bahraini militants and Tehran. Along with official Iranian denials, the issue of Iran-Bahraini militant links is still quite hazy. Nonetheless, this does not mean that within the material released by Bahraini militant organizations that there are not hints of some level of Iranian influence. One of the more intriguing pieces pointing to influence from Iranian-backed organizations comes from the utilization of specific types of music in the many propaganda videos released by Bahraini militants, their sympathizers, and amplifiers.

Numerous instances of Bahraini militants producing propaganda videos with different varieties of music created and utilized by Iranian-backed proxies could indicate a connection with Iran’s proxies. Nevertheless, this type of overlap should not be viewed as a “smoking gun” affirming Iranian involvement. However, it does assist in piecing together direct and indirect influences.

The pieces of music in question were originally developed and used by Iranian proxy organizations, particularly Lebanese Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Kata’ib Hizballah. In fact, some of the songs that have been promoted fit a long standing media strategy employed by the aforementioned groups and Iran when manufacturing narratives and perceptions for themselves and other armed groups.

The use of music as a transferable propaganda medium follows a very formulaic strategy used by Iran and its “Islamic Resistance” proxy organizations for many years. Often, songs produced for one group are repackaged for newer organizations in other geographic locations. The songs are then altered in a way to make them appeal to the populations and target audience where the new group is located.

Possible Reasons for Using Specific Songs

Why would Bahraini militant groups utilize Hizballah and its Iraqi clones’ music and with such frequency? Some possible answers include:

  • Direct Iranian influence or assistance provided to the developing militant groups.
  • Video editing/production was offered to Bahraini militants by Iran and/or its proxies as a means to influence and shape militant organizations and to encourage the adoption of a more bellicose strategy to the broader (and more peaceful) protester audience.
  • Bahraini militants sympathize with Iranian-proxy groups, their exploits, and with the general concept of “Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya” (“The Islamic Resistance”). The hope to be as successful, feared, and/or respected as those organizations has led them to adopt the same varieties of music.
  • Thumbing their nose at the government: With the government of Bahrain accusing protesters and militants of being Iranian proxies, militant groups may use the material as a way to subtly frighten or encourage speculation among Bahraini government and other observers.
  • Narrative Goals: One song by Lebanese Hizballah’s Ali al-Attar called “Wa’ad al-Asra” or “The Prisoner’s Promise” was written to celebrate the release of prisoners Hizballah sought to free during the 2006 Hizballah-Israel War. While the song makes clear references to Lebanese Hizballah and themes related to the 2006 war, the same song was employed by some Bahraini protesters (as background music for their uploaded clips) when they protested the government’s detention of key protest-leaders.

Auto-Tuning the Revolution: Examples of the Musical Overlap

In March 2014, a music video which was claimed to have been produced by “Saraya al-Bahrainiyya al-Muqawama” or the Bahraini Resistance Brigades, (which is likely another name used by The February 14 Youth Coalition’s Saraya al-Muqawama al-Sha’biya [Popular Resistance Brigades]) was posted by the popular Revolution Bahrain’s YouTube Channel. The video featured a montage of edited clips, which purported to show Bahraini militants engaged in training. The music video also included a number of videos of bombings orchestrated by militant Bahraini organizations.

Yet, the music used was strikingly familiar in the circles of Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamist groups. In fact, Iranian-backed Iraqi group, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq had released the exact tune back in 2011 to commemorate attacks the group orchestrated against U.S. targets to demonstrate solidarity with Bahrain’s protesters. Later in 2011, when fellow Iranian proxy Kata’ib Hizballah released footage of attacks it had also launched in solidarity with Bahraini protesters, it too used the same song.

However, the song was neither originally Bahraini nor Iraqi, instead its origins were rooted father to the west, in Lebanon. The original song, “Risalat al-Thuwar” (“Message of the Rebels”), was performed by one of Lebanese Hizballah’s official bands, Firqat al-Fajr (The Dawn Band), following the 2006 Hizballah-Israel War. It first appeared on the band’s 2007 “Lahan al-Turab” or “Melody of the Soil” album. Still, the rendition dealing with Bahrain was not the only version of the song. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq had their own Iraq/Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq Sadr (as opposed to Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah) themed “Risalat Thuwar” produced in 2011.

“Risalat al-Thuwar” is not the only Hizballah song which has been adopted and rebranded by Bahraini militants and their amplifiers. Another song used by Bahraini militants also comes from Firqat al-Fajr. The song, “Ya Wa’ad Allah” (“O Promise of God”) can be found on the group’s 2008 album, “Sharit Wa’ad Allah” (“Take the Promise of God”). The song has been released in different formats, with more recent music video varieties showcasing the assassinated Hizballah terror-mastermind Imad Mughniyeh. The album also included an instrumental version of the song. Both versions have been prominent features on productions done by Hizballah’s Al-Manar TV network.

In Bahrain, “Ya Wa’ad Allah” was used as background for clips released to the popular (particularly with militant groups) Revolution Bahrain’s YouTube account. One of these videos included the firebombing of an armored car used by Bahraini government forces.

It is not just the polished music video-quality material finding its way into Bahraini militant propaganda productions. Bahraini militant group Saraya al-Mukhtar released a video of their April 2014 targeting of Bahraini police with an improvised explosive device. Another bomb attack in Bani Jamra also utilized the same background music.

The musical selection in the background matched with instrumentals used by Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. This music was first featured on the AAH-affiliated Al-Ahad TV in the late summer/fall of 2013 to commemorate Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq members killed fighting in Syria. Further pointing to some level of Iranian or Iranian proxy influence, is highly unlikely that this particular musical element could find its way into so many pieces of released footage. This may indicate some Bahraini militant footage being sent abroad (possibly to Iraq) where the footage is re-edited and put back together for a later introduction.

Another similar instrumental used by Bahraini militants with Saraya al-Mukhtar and Saraya al-Ashtar was also the same exact tune utilized in a number of Kata’ib Hizballah video releases (see: 00.17-00.40 on “Kata’ib Hizballah Anti-America Video”).

The use of the last two instrumentals create further questions. Why would these groups, which have resorted to using a variety of improvised weapons, and exist under increasing heavy security crackdowns, spend the time to find, edit, and utilize background instrumentals which already have obscure points of origin. Why pick these two exact instrumentals, which have only been found in the repertoire of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah? Other Bahraini protest organizations have utilized a variety of different musical accompaniments. Thus, the use of these particular musical pieces seem out of place when compared to the rest of what has been released.

Whatever the reasons, closely assessing the propaganda published by these organizations may provide insight into rather opaque organizations. While assessing the musical selections may appear to be a tangential escapade, AAH, Kata’ib Hizballah, and Lebanese Hizballah have all demonstrated their strategy of using this material as another method to push the narrative of the “Islamic Resistance.”

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Asa’ib al-Muqawama al-Bahrainia: An Emerging Militant Group in Bahrain?

By Phillip Smyth

Asaib al-Muqawama al-Bahraini

Figure 1: Asa’ib al-Muqawama al-Bahrainia’s logo.

Asa’ib al-Muqawama al-Bahrainia (The League of Bahraini Resistance or AMB) was first established and marketed as an independent militant organization on February 22, 2014. The group’s founding announcement claimed that the time had become ripe for armed opposition against Bahrain’s ruling monarchy due to the government’s actions. As with other Bahraini militant groups, little is known about AMB’s manpower or armed capabilities.

Regardless, unlike other Bahraini militant organizations, AMB’s founding announcement has found its way onto many different online venues catering to a wide range of readers.[1]

AMB’s statements appear online in bursts. February 22 and February 28, 2014 have been the two dates this organization has placed a series of announcements in public. This pattern is reminiscent of another Bahraini organization, a proto-militant group which went by a similar name, Asa’ib al-Muqawama (The Resistance League). Using Twitter, Asa’ib al-Muqawama released 33 announcements (in both Arabic and English) between April 21 and 22, 2012. Asa’ib al-Muqawama’s threats centered on Bahrain’s controversial Formula One race. One of these statements claimed responsibility for planting three homemade bombs at the race location.  At time, there were also instances of Molotov cocktails being thrown at some (from Team India) affiliated with the race.[2] Additionally, on April 9, 2012, seven Bahraini police were wounded due to an improvised bomb planted in the town of Akr.[3] Albeit, neither of these attacks were linked to Asa’ib al-Muqawama.

After their last tweet on April 22, 2012, Asa’ib al-Muqawama went quiet. This is similar to how AMB went silent after their last February 28, 2014 statement. There is a possibility of a link between AMB and Asa’ib al-Muqawama, considering the groups espouse the same militarism, utilized a similar name, and have released announcements in bursts over two-day periods. In fact, AMB’s official Twitter account also describes itself as “Asa’ib al-Muqawama.” It is possible that AMB developed out of the original Asa’ib al-Muqawama. However, beyond these assumptions, there is little substantiating open-source information to assist in confirming any links.

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Figure 2: Asa’ib al-Muqawama’s English language Tweet-announcement, declaring they had planted 3 bombs at the Bahrain F1 race.

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Figure 3: Asa’ib Muqawama’s logo.

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Figure 4: AMB’s first announcement.

On February 28, 2014 AMB announced the launch of their, “Fist of Righteousness” operation to avenge the death of Ja’afar al-Derazi. Derazi, whose burial occurred the day of the announcement, was a 22 year old anti-government activist. According to opposition and pro-Iran sources, Derazi died due to torture and other forms of maltreatment when he was detained within a government jail cell.[4] In revenge for Derazi’s death, on April 11, 2014, Saraya al-Mukhtar claimed responsibility for an attack targeting Bahraini police. Nevertheless, AMB has not yet claimed any other attacks as part of their “Fist of Righteousness” campaign.

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Figure 5: AMB’s second announcement from February 28, 2014.

AMB Joins YouTube

AMB’s official YouTube account claimed to release a video introducing the group on February 21, 2014. However, the first publicly accessible copy of the video was uploaded and released on February 22, 2014. In the video, supposed AMB members are shown marching in formation, extending their arms in a Roman salute. Demonstrating their potential roots as militant offshoots of the larger Bahraini protest movement, young balaclava wearing men hold tires in one of their displays. Tires are a regular feature in some protests; often laid across stretches of road, coated in gasoline, and lit on fire.

Furthering religious themes was also a feature of the film. Young marching militants are seen holding Qurans, wearing white (in addition to other colors) burial shrouds symbolizing a willingness to be martyred, and holding flags with “Ya Husayn” (“O Husayn”) written on them. The “Ya Husayn” flags symbolize a Shia-centric theme, recalling Husayn’s martyrdom via beheading, at the pivotal Battle of Karbala.[5] These flags have also made regular appearances during anti-government protests.

The promotional clip also claims to show AMB launching operations against internal security elements (primarily the Bahraini police). Segments of film featuring Molotov throwing youths are a main theme. However, these clips are usually from earlier films recorded by more violent activists associated with the February 14 Youth Coalition. It is possible this footage demonstrates a further link to the February 14 Youth Coalition or it was simply repackaged by AMB to show a broader theme surrounding the “resistance” against the Bahraini government and their forces.

AMB also appears to have a preoccupation with utilizing weapons which can burn their foes. This may be the result of protester use of Molotov cocktails. Utilizing the limited available tools, some Bahraini protesters, particularly younger male militants, have often thrown Molotov cocktails at Bahraini internal security forces. The theme of the Molotov thrown at Bahraini police, particularly their vehicles, was regularly utilized in AMB’s introductory video. However, the focus on using weapons which can kill and injure using fire does not appear to stop with Molotovs. In one part of their video, AMB shows Bahraini police engulfed in a wall of flame, likely caused by a bomb or another incendiary device.

AMB’s Badge

AMB’s logo may also show links to Saraya al-Ashtar (SaM), one of the first publicly established Bahraini militant organizations. Featuring two crossed M16-style rifles within a circle (which could potentially symbolize a pearl, a recognized emblem of Bahrain), the group’s logo mirrors SaM’s official symbol. This logo also included two crossed rifles (albeit, of the Kalashnikov variety) within a circle representing a pearl.

An Asa’ib of Their Own?

When investigating potential links between AMB, Iran, or Iranian-backed proxies, there was some evidence of overlap between AMB & Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). On March 13, 2014, AMB’s founding statement was circulated on AAH’s extensive network of Facebook pages. This often coincided with claims that AMB was representative of AAH’s spreading brand. Claims of this nature may be an Iranian proxy attempt to demonstrate a substantial link to the Bahraini militant group. Both groups utilize similar language, with AMB describing itself as the “Bahraini Resistance” and AAH calling itself the, “Islamic Resistance in Iraq.”  Still, there is the possibility that AAH could be jumping on an organically constructed (in Bahrain) group while skillfully playing on AMB’s similar name, all in an effort to claim a connection and demonstrate a broader reach. It is important to note that it took AAH nearly a month before pages associated with the group started to carry AMB’s founding statement.

Another potential link includes religious and ideological themes. The AMB’s founding statement mentioned the group was following their taklif. A taklif, or religiously mandated order, was developed and utilized for political and social events by those embracing Iranian Islamic Revolutionary concepts.[6] The mention of a taklif mirrors a similar statement made by fellow Bahraini militant group, Saraya al-Mukhtar, which also mentioned they were picking-up arms against the government due to a taklif.

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Figure 6: A post promoting the first AMB declaration on an official Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Facebook page.

Is AMB Dormant?

At the time of this writing, the last statement issued by AMB was released via their Twitter account on February 28. Since that time, AMB has not itself claimed any new attacks, seen related militant groups, protest organizations, or the official Bahraini media, cite any new actions by the group. While little has been heard from this organization since it’s nearly 2 month-long period of silence, AMB’s release of formal statements, broad web-presence (including their YouTube video release), overlap between itself and other Bahraini militant groups, and other attack claims, may indicate AMB is still active.

AMB’s activities may be continuing as members of the organization act as integral elements within other Bahrain militant groups. If there is a true link between the AMB and Asa’ib al-Muqawama, it is possible that following the established model, a new wave of attack-claims could be registered on an entirely new online/social networking apparatus.

Nevertheless, until AMB claims another attack or has an allied organization claim an attack for them, it will be impossible to know what has become of this group

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[1] Note: Numerous Sunni Islamist and Shia Islamist forums, Facebook pages, and Twitter profiles have all spread around AMB’s founding statement.

[2] See: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/formulaone/article-2131934/Bahrain-Grand-Prix-2012-Force-India-caught-petrol-bomb-attack.html.

[3] See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-17663642.

[4] See: http://alwefaq.net/cms/2014/02/28/27444/. This post was written by the main Bahraini opposition party, Al-Wefaq. See also: http://www.almanar.com.lb/adetails.php?fromval=2&cid=221&frid=21&seccatid=221&eid=760912. This article originated from Lebanese Hizballah’s Al-Manar TV network

[5] See: http://books.google.com/books?id=Idp6FWByq6oC&pg=PT191&dq=beheaded+Husayn+battle+of+karbala&hl=en&sa=X&ei=37xQU_DtFIWR0QHI_ICQBA&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=beheaded%20Husayn%20battle%20of%20karbala&f=false.

[6] http://brown-moses.blogspot.com/2013/10/hizballah-executing-syrian-prisoners.html. See my writing about the relevance of the Taklif Sharii among Hizballah and allied Iraqi Shia Islamist groups.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Bahrain’s Saraya al-Muqawama al-Sha’biya: Militants of the February 14 Youth Coalition

By Phillip Smyth

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Figure 1: Saraya al-Muqawama al-Sha’biya’s logo.

Saraya al-Muqawama al-Sha’biya (The Popular Resistance Brigades or SMS), sometimes also called Saraya al-Muqawama (The Resistance Brigades), was listed by the government of Bahrain as a terrorist organization following the deadly March 3, 2014 bombing. The group, along with fellow militant group Saraya al-Ashtar, claimed responsibility for the attack. SMS has been operationally active and publishing its activities online since April 2012. Importantly, Saraya al-Muqawama al-Sha’biya does not hide that they are affiliated with one of the main anti-government protest groups, the February 14 Youth Coalition (which was also listed as a terrorist organization by the government of Bahrain). This is hardly a minor connection, since, both the February 14 Youth Coalition and SMS have also distributed images sharing one another’s logos, organized events (such as protests) together, and share a similar narrative. Other militant groups—namely Saraya al-Ashtar and Saraya al-Mukhtar—have only vaguely claimed to represent links to protestors, let alone main protest organizations.

In June 2013, the Bahraini government accused the February 14 Youth Coalition of having a “spiritual leader” based in Karbala, Iraq and of, “frequently travel[ing] between Iran, Iraq and Lebanon to obtain financial and moral support as well as weapons training.” However, Bahraini authorities provided little substantiating evidence dealing with claims of Iranian or Iranian proxy involvement. Nevertheless, according to Iranian reports, February 14 Youth Coalition representatives have thanked Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for his comments supportive of their activities. Iranian media has also expressed their support for the “revolutionary activities” of the Bahraini group. Despite these pronouncements, the actual relationship between Iran and the February 14 Youth Coalition, particularly dealing with any attempts at training or equipping militant elements attached to the organization, is still unknown.

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Figure 2: Both the February 14 Youth Coalition and Saraya al-Muqawama al-Sha’biya’s logos on a promotional image released onto multiple February 14 Youth Coalition pages.

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Figure 3: SMS supporters carry the group’s flag during a march.

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Figure 4: SMS and February 14 Youth Coalition supporters march together and carry February 14 Youth Coalition flags.

Initially, the February 14 Youth Coalition did not embrace violence. However, after publishing a series of “warnings” to the Bahraini government, Gulf Arab states (namely, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) which have deployed forces to Bahrain, and foreigners recruited into the Bahrain’s internal security forces (often referred to by the group and other Bahraini militants as, “mercenaries”), the coalition issued communiques demonstrating they would choose a more militant path of “resistance.” In a January 27, 2012 English-language statement made by a February 14 Youth Coalition affiliated page, the group issued a statement reading:

“We have so far preserved our right to use force for self-defense, hoping that would make you hesitant from attacking peaceful protestors, women and children. However, common sense and human logic do not seem to work on you…Our people have decided to bring an end to the illegitimate regime…We shall take no responsibility for whatever might happen to the mercenaries after this final warning.”

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Three months after this announcement, SMS pushed for a response to the holding of the controversial 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix Formula 1 race. The group released images urging protestors to throw the gas (the group claimed it was poisonous) used by Bahraini police at the race cars. However, no armed action was taken against the race by SMS. It is likely that in such an early stage of development and combined with Bahraini government crackdowns, the group was unable to act.

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Figure 5: One of SMS’s English language posters calling for action against the 2012 Grand Prix race.

Narrative Structure

SMS considers its fighters to be “jihadists,” refer to their attacks as “jihadist operations,” and believe they are fighting a “jihad against the infidel Khalifas [Bahrain’s ruling royal family].” While the message of jihad is repeated in many SMS statements, these statements do not share the same level of more complicated religious and ideological messaging found with other non-Bahraini Shia jihadist elements.

SMS also lacks a specific goal for what type of government will rule in Bahrain following a theoretical collapse of the currently ruling Khalifa royal family. Still, this has not stopped the group from constructing complex narratives via militant activity for their enemies.

Following Saraya al-Ashtar’s and SMS’s claim of responsibility for the March 3, 2014 bombing (which killed two Bahraini police officers and a police officer sent by the United Arab Emirates [UAE] to Bahrain), SMS used the opportunity to criticize government claims that forces of the Peninsula Shield Force were being used in conjunction with local Bahraini police forces to counter protests and riots.

Sent to Bahrain in 2011, the Peninsula Shield Force included hundreds from the Saudi military and the UAE’s police force. Officially, these units claimed they were not involved in internal matters in Bahrain and were only interested in securing strategic bases and locations from “external influence.” Regardless, the death of a UAE police officer attached to Bahraini police served as a propaganda coup for SMS.

The timing of the SMS’s bombing claim and messages which proceeded it also fit into a broader message dealing with the Peninsula Shield Force and particularly Saudi Arabia. SMS has demonstrated a specific ire for the Saudis. The organization’s communiques have called Saudi Arabia the “usurper of land,” “occupiers,” and have stated their operations are to “purge the land of its Saudi and Khalifa occupiers.”

In part, this may tie back to February 14 Youth Coalition links to Saudi Shia activists. Researcher Fredric M. Wehrey noted that an “important attribute of the February 14 Youth Coalition is its strong affinity with Shi’a activists in neighboring Saudi Arabia.” Wehrey went on to explain how coordinated protests were conducted by Bahraini and Saudi groups out of solidarity. The February 14 Youth Coalition’s and SMS’s links to the Saudi Shia is also important when viewed in context with announcements by fellow militant organization, Saraya al-Mukhtar. Saraya al-Mukhtar has issued a number of announcements saying they share the cause of the “people of the [Saudi] Eastern Region” –an area heavily populated by Saudi Shia. The shared narrative may demonstrate deeper links between Saraya al-Mukhtar, SMS, and the February 14 Youth Coalition.

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Figure 6: A poster released by the February 14 Youth Coalition asking, “Who are the terrorists?” The photo shows Saudi forces crossing the King Fahd Causeway which links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.  

As part of the view casting the Saudis as foreign occupiers, activists from SMS and the February 14 Youth Coalition have drawn parallels between Israel and Saudi Arabia; accusing both counties of using the same techniques of occupation. Prior to a series of March 2014 protests against “Saudi occupation”, the February 14 Youth Coalition and SMS circulated images attempting to link Saudi Arabia and Israel as fellow occupying states. This also extended into the realm of February 14 Youth Coalition partisans attempting to directly link the causes of Palestinian and Bahraini demonstrators.

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Figure 7: The Israeli flag flies behind Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock (left) while a bulldozer is shown destroying the 400 year old Amir Mohammed Braighi Mosque with a Saudi flag behind it (right). The latter incident occurred in 2011 along with the Bahraini government destruction of other Shia mosques. This picture was used as a tool to organize activists for protests and events against the “Saudi occupation.”

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Figure 8: A poster showing a Bahraini protester (with February 14 Youth Coalition) and a Palestinian activist. The former looks to the now demolished Pearl Roundabout statue, the latter looks to the Dome of the Rock. The picture attempts to show a unity of purpose and cause between Palestinian and Bahraini demonstrators.

Symbols of the “Popular Resistance”

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Figure 9: SMS protesters at a February 14 Youth Coalition event demonstrating against “The Saudi Occupation.”

Shia symbolism is heavily featured in the group’s logo.  The most prominent image is the symbolic hand of Shia leader Abbas Ibn Ali; son of the first Shia imam and loyal aid and military leader for the third Shia imam, Husayn ibn Ali. Serving as Husayn’s flag bearer during the historic Battle of Karbala, Abbas’s hand was cut off by one of the forces of Yazid, the reviled leader of the Umayyads, as Abbas went alone to collect water for Husayn’s dehydrated camp. Abbas went on to fight singlehandedly until his other arm was cut off by sword strikes from Yazid’s forces and was then killed. Abbas’s loyalty and steadfastness until being cut down remains an important message for many Shia Muslims.

Another unique feature from the logo is that “The Sacred Defense” is written within the symbolic hand of Abbas. This helps convey that the group’s conflict with the government is viewed as both a defensive and religiously justified action. Intriguingly, the Shia jihad in Syria and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) have (by Shia actors) both been described as “The Sacred Defense.”

Behind the hand of Abbas are two crossed swords. In posts published by SMS and their supporters, these swords are often called “sword[s] of pride.” This could be a further symbolic message claiming to show SMS as reclaiming perceived lost dignity by anti-government Bahraini protest and militant elements.

In addition to the group’s logo, symbolic forms of dress are also used by SMS to portray their militant bent. As with many militant groups (in the Middle East and abroad), supporters of the organization dress in balaclavas, uniquely made shirts featuring the SMS logo, and often don headbands featuring religious and other types of slogans. The group’s partisans have also worn white burial shrouds during protests and lower-level attacks (using firebombs), symbolizing their willingness to be martyred.

Improvised Weapons & Many Targets

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Figure 10: An SMS photo from December 2013 claiming to show an attack against a power station.

It is no secret that groups such as Saraya al-Mukhtar and Saraya al-Ashtar have utilized improvised weapons. Yet, as an organization, SMS has not shied away from showcasing its improvisational abilities.

One of the more intriguing attempts to cause disruption within the kingdom involved the launching of small balloons around Bahrain International Airport. The balloon launches started in February 2013 with the hope that air traffic into Bahrain could be halted.  SMS also made sure to photograph and publicize their operation. In a February 15, 2013 announcement, the group stated its goal was to, “paralyze the airport and [gain] full vengeance for the martyrs [of the Bahraini Revolution].” These types of operations continued until mid-April, 2013 and were limited in their success.

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Figure 11: An SMS posted photo of one of the balloons they launched near Bahrain International Airport.

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Figure 12: SMS’s March 12, 2013 announcement calling for airliners not to land at Bahrain International Airport. The notice was published in Arabic and English.

Along with their use of more unique platforms to disrupt infrastructure, SMS has also used improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Their first operation involving explosives took place in August 2012 when SMS planted two “grenades” in the food court of a Bahraini mall. The group issued a communique warning those in the mall to leave. In mid-February 2013, the group targeted the National Bank of Bahrain in Sanad. Reportedly, the bomb exploded at night. As with the 2012 announcement that the group had placed explosives in a mall, it would appear the bank attack was less geared toward causing causalities. Instead, both operations were carried out to demonstrate the group’s capabilities and reach.

Security forces and structures the group claims to be linked to internal security forces have also been high on the SMS target list. In December 2013, the SMS claimed to have attacked a power station which gave energy to “military headquarters…[and] supplies centers of torture.” Also starting in December 2013, SMS also claimed to have planted car bombs in the Bahraini capital of Manama. According to the group, the first attacks were orchestrated to show the government’s weak security abilities in key areas. The group also claimed to have planted other car bombs on January 5 and February 13, 2014 (in the latter attack, internal security forces were attacked).

While the attacks did not result in deaths, the targeting of the airport, a bank, certain neighborhoods, and a mall food court demonstrate the group views that civilian sites are viewed as legitimate targets. In terms of rhetorical structure, SMS has also claimed that these targets were legitimate due to their links to the state. Albeit, it would appear the main thrust of SMS operations target internal security apparatuses and that the group is less inclined to hope for civilian casualties.

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Figure 13: SMS’s Facebook claim stating they had planted two IEDs/grenades at a Bahraini mall.

Despite the fact SMS has not explicitly criticized the United States, on June 29, 2013, the organization claimed to have planted and detonated an IED near the U.S. naval base in Juffair, a section of Manama. This operation appears to have coincided with other protests in the area. The purpose behind the bomb was not explicitly released on pages run by the group. However, it is possible SMS may have been trying to send the U.S. a message about the presence of the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and the American alliance with the Bahraini government.

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Figure 14: SMS’s claim of blowing-up an IED near an American base.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Saraya al-Mukhtar: A Bahraini Militant Group with Regional Goals

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Figure 1: Saraya al-Mukhtar’s newest logo. The group’s name is on the bottom, a black zulfiqar style sword combines in with a a black roundel featuring a green fist and black barrel and forearm of a Kalashnikov-type rifle. On the left is a red map of Bahrain.

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Figure 2: Saraya al-Mukhtar’s first logo. The symbol appears to show two crossed bifurcated Zufiqar-type swords resting on a book (most likely the Quran). The organization’s name appears at the bottom of the logo.

First announcing itself to larger audiences online in a September 26, 2013 statement on Facebook (albeit, the statement itself was dated September 27), Saraya al-Mukhtar (The Mukhtar Brigade or SaM) has claimed numerous attacks on Bahraini security forces and has developed a sophisticated messaging strategy. At the time, the then new group promised to strike at the ruling Khalifa royal family and their security forces with, “operations of quality”. Despite the group’s September online appearance, it still claimed attacks since the summer of 2013. These operations have primarily included the use of crudely produced improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and types of arson attacks. SaM also has the unique distinction among Bahraini militant groups for claiming their first fallen member, or “martyr”, Ali al-Sayyid Ahmed al-Musawi. The group’s narrative on both a regional and potential religious-ideological level have also set it aside from other Bahraini armed organizations.

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Figure 3: Saraya al-Mukhtar’s martyrdom poster for Ali Sayyid Ahmed al-Musawi.

Save for the occasional mentions state-run Bahraini press organs and opposition reports on the situation in Bahrain, for the most part, the group has not received as much media scrutiny as militant groups such as Saraya al-Ashtar. Additionally, SaM appears to have escaped specific mention on Bahrain’s terror group list.[1]

The group calls their foes; The Khalifa royal family, Bahraini security forces, and Saudi Arabia, “a mafia/the Khalifa mafia”, “mercenaries/criminals”, and “occupiers”, respectively. In a November 3, 2013 announcement, SaM vowed to “crush the fascistic regime.” This type of discourse generally fits with most rhetoric issued by Bahraini militant groups. Though, SaM appears to be a bit more colorful when describing their enemies.

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Figure 4: SaM’s November 3, 2013 statement.

In terms of promoting the group’s goals, narrative, and attacks, Saraya al-Mukhtar has exhibited the most advanced strategy and online presence when compared to other Bahraini militant organizations. The group has Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, among other modes of digital communication with supporters. On March 5, 2014, the group’s main Facebook was taken offline. Another page was quickly made in its place where the group claimed “the tyrant’s mercenaries” took the last page down. On YouTube, the group (or possibly loosely-linked supporters) started separate accounts which would upload one clip of an attack the group claimed and then become inactive. It is unclear whether this is done as an operational security method or for some other purpose. As with Saraya al-Ashtar, the group has also sent footage of its attacks to popular pro-revolution YouTube stations for broader dissemination.

Shia religiously-based rhetoric is a more established common feature in SaM’s releases, rhetoric and even the group’s name. The organization also calls itself, “Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya al-Bahrania” or the “Bahraini Islamic Resistance.” Most Iranian-backed militant organizations also use this term as a self-descriptor.[2] However, it is possible this could be an example of mimicry, demonstrating the group respects the strength of those organizations and is attempting to adopt their rhetoric to appear more powerful.

Saraya al-Mukhtar’s moniker is likely a reference to Mukhtar al-Thaqafi. Mukhtar al-Thaqafi was a figure who launched a failed rebellion against the Umayyad’s in the 7th century. The rebellion was initiated in southern Iraq and executed in order to get revenge for the death of the third Shia imam, Husayn ibn Ali, who was killed by the Umayyads during the Battle of Karbala.[3]

Interestingly, the name of the group and its background history plays into the style of media campaigns and announcements made by SaM. Often, the group brands their attacks and those launched by other groups against internal security elements as “revenge.” On January 27, 2014 SaM launched the “Vengeance Has Been Achieved Media Campaign.” Until the time of this writing, the slogan, “Vengeance has been achieved” is still stamped onto the photos of injured (often in hospital) Bahraini police.

The recruitment and naturalization of foreigners (particularly from Sunni Muslim religious backgrounds) into Bahrain’s internal security forces has been a main objection for peaceful protesters and militants alike. This is a main reason why SaM, other Bahraini militants, and peaceful protesters have referred to these internal security elements as “mercenaries.” Tapping into this grievance, SaM regularly posts images of police officers with foreign backgrounds that the group has targeted.

Additionally, the motive of “revenge” may be another attempt to appeal to some younger portions of the protest movement. Due to numerous bloody crackdowns by the government, these elements have become fed-up with more traditional groups leading peaceful protests.[4] Thus, SaM likely sees them as a component which can be brought into to give some level of support (even passive) to the organization’s activities.

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Figure 5: On February 9, 2014, SaM claimed to kill Ahmed Rashid al-Moraysi, a Syrian working for the Bahraini police. “Vengence has been achieved” was stamped on the photo.

Claimed Militant Activities

Saraya al-Mukhtar has been quite prolific in the production of videos and the release of photographs to show off its attacks. In one November, 2013 attack on what the group claimed was a communications network station, photos and a video of the target being attacked (with what appears to be a crude incendiary device) were posted online.

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Following Saraya al-Ashtar’s claimed March 3 bomb attack against Bahraini police, Saraya al-Mukhtar praised the, “Bahraini Resistance.” On March 5 SaM released an edited photo showing the aftermath of the bombing and praising the action.

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Figure 6: Saraya al-Mukhtar’s image praising the bomb attack on March 3, 2014.

The group also claims to be in possession of a special sniper weapon they call the “Mukhtar 1”. It is unclear if the weapon is a firearm or some other improvised device. However, SaM has released video on March 4, 2014 of the Mukhtar 1 in use against Bahraini police forces. Like Saraya al-Ashtar, SaM’s videos were released through a combination of the group’s own YouTube pages.

Another uploaded Saraya al-Mukhtar video claimed to show a January IED attack against a Bahraini police checkpoint. This video was also sent into other YouTube stations in a possible effort to increase viewership.

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Figure 7: A Saraya al-Mukhtar released photo claiming a January attack against “mercenaries”.

Regional Outlook & Ideology

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Figure 8: Saraya al-Mukhtar’s February 20, 2014 post.

Saraya al-Mukhtar’s potential links with radical Shia Islamist ideology and the group’s regional aspirations were showcased in a small post made on their official Facebook page on February 20, 2014. The group appears to view the conflict in Bahrain as part of a larger regional conflagration involving Saudi Arabia. Their post read, “The cause of the people in the Eastern Region [of Saudi Arabia] and our defense is one…Resistance against Saudi occupation, our taklif, and our fate are united.”

The statement about Saudi Arabia’s “Eastern Region” is a direct reference to an area which not only borders Bahrain, but is main zone where much of the Saudi Shia Islamic community, 15 percent of the Saudi population, call home.[5] Saudi Shia have faced exclusion from politics, government positions, and many economic opportunities, not to mention suffering religious discrimination. Throughout 2013, Saudi Shia groups organized numerous protests—particularly in Qatif, a seaside town which is about an hour’s drive from the Bahraini capital, Manamah.[6] According to Hossein Askari, “Historically, Sunni-Shia dynamics in Saudi Arabia have been affected significantly by events in neighboring Bahrain.”[7] Many of these protests were carried out in response to Saudi Arabia’s 2011 deployment of forces to Bahrain as part of the so-called Peninsula Shield Force.

Besides talk of also battling the Saudis, there was mention of a “taklif”. A taklif, or a legalistic religious order, is a concept widely used by Iranian-backed organizations and clerics as part of their Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih ideology. A taklif must be followed, since it is viewed as an order coming directly from God.[8] Traditionally, Shia Islamic circles did not use taklif in a political manner. Even radical Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, who had close ties to Lebanese Hizballah (which follows the Wilayat al-Faqih ideology), came out against the practice in that politicized form.[9] Nevertheless, adherents to Wilayat al-Faqih often obey issued taklifs in matters ranging from voting to the engagement in warfare.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that this is just one post online and the mention of a taklif must be viewed in a broader context. Thus far, SaM has not issued any statements in support of Khomeinist ideology or Iran. Furthermore, the organization appears to use Shia symbolism and rhetoric (e.g. support for Shia in Saudi Arabia), yet has not produced any real ideological demands or plans for a post-Khalifa Bahrain. At this point, the group appears to be more interested in militant activities.


[1] See: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/04/us-bahrain-unrest-idUSBREA231FC20140304. Note: Bahrain’s recent terror listings have stated (in one instance) that any group affiliated with Saraya al-Ashtar would be considered a terror group. Considering SaM has praised attacks claimed by Saraya al-Ashtar, it’s likely they have found a place on the list in a more de facto fashion.

[2] E.G. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq which calls itself “Al Muqawama al-Islamiyya fi Iraq” (The Islamic Resistance in Iraq) or Lebanese Hizballah which goes by “Al Muqawama al-Islamiyya fi Lubnan” (The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon).

[7] Hossein Askari, Conflicts in the Persian Gulf: Origins and Evolution, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), P. 41

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here. For the first part in the subseries on Bahraini militant groups: “The Pearl and the Molotov.”

Saraya al-Ashtar: Bahrain’s Illusive Bomb Throwers

by Phillip Smyth

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Figure 1: Saraya al-Ashtar’s main logo. The symbol shows two Kalashnikov-type rifles crossed over a roundel which resembles a pearl. The base includes the group’s name.

“The operation comes in revenge for our martyrs”, read the March 3, 2014 “Statement No. 9”, issued by Saraya al-Ashtar (The Ashtar Brigades or SaA) on Facebook and Twitter. This declaration directly referred to a bomb which was detonated during a Bahraini police operation in the town of Daih. Three were killed, including an Emirati officer who was deployed to Bahrain as part of the “Gulf Waves Force”.[1] Reportedly, the police were attempting to disperse what was claimed in an official statement as a “riot.” The protests occurred following funeral demos for another Bahraini protester.[2] However, the group claiming responsibly for the bombing received little attention in Western media and passing mention in Arabic language news. Regardless, the Saraya al-Ashtar group is quickly making a name for itself via it bombing campaign.

Since the summer of 2013, the group claimed almost twenty attacks against security personnel in Bahrain. The March 3 blast appears to be another attack in a long and developing list of bombings carried out by the group. This will probably not be the group’s last. On March 4, the Bahraini government listed Saraya al-Ashtar as a terrorist group.[3] Still, the organization is quite shadowy and despite Bahraini government arrests, appears to be active.

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Figure 2: Saraya al-Ashtar’s Statement 9, which claimed responsibility for the bombing of Bahraini police officers.

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Figure 3: A member of the Bahraini internal security forces looks at blood-stained concrete following the March 3rd blast. (Source: Facebook)

Saraya al-Ashtar released its first statement via their Facebook page on April 27, 2013 (albeit, the written statement was dated April 28, 2013). In part, it stated, “Enough is enough” in regard to the actions of, “the rabid dogs of al-Khalifa [Bahrain’s ruling royal family].” The group promised to strike their enemies the next day.  Keeping to their word, on April 29 SaA claimed in another post that they had, “Targeted a collection of mercenaries [the term most Bahraini militants use to describe Bahraini internal security forces] at the Adra roundabout”.[4]

Attacks such as these have demonstrated SaA’s preferred method of operation: Building and detonating improvised explosive devices and their direct targeting of Bahraini government security personnel.

SaA has an extensive social media presence with Facebook and Twitter accounts. These platforms are used to promote the group, broadcast threats, and to claim responsibility for attacks. Nevertheless, the group has not posted any photographs of their operations, membership, or weapons systems.

In fact, SaA has not released any photographs save for their logos. With the logos come further questions. SaA’s first displayed symbol was clearly modeled off of Iranian-backed groups, most likely Kata’ib Hizballah’s logo.  Their second, showing crossed Kalashnikovs over what appears to be a pearl (a national symbol for Bahrain) continues the militant theme.

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Figure 4: SaA’s first logo.

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Figure 5: Kata’ib Hizballah’s logo. Note the similarities between the fist-clenching-Kalashnikov images.

While photographs have been lacking, there have been a number of videos released onto the internet showing SaA’s attacks. Since the summer of 2013 the group has also posted video footage of some of the attacks it has carried out against Bahraini security personnel. One of the videos claimed to show an attack the group made in Bani Jamra, a town in northwestern Bahrain.[5]  In another video from October, the group wrote, “This is just the beginning.”

Designed to coincide with the major February 14 protests (which commemorate the start of the 2011 Bahraini Uprising), SaA carried out another nighttime attack against Bahraini internal security forces and also released a film of their action. Albeit, instead of using their own accounts, this time the group sent the video to the popular “Revolution Bahrain” YouTube station. This style of release was repeated following the March 3 bombing when the group released footage it claims to have taken showing the aftermath of the bomb. In all cases, films of their attacks are regularly edited in order to give the group a level of operational security.

Following the March 3 blast, supporters of the group published clips which reportedly showed protests in support of the “holy warriors of Saraya al-Ashtar.” During the protest, candy was handed out to show support for the attack.[6]

The Rhetoric of Saraya al-Ashtar

Demonstrating a direct link to the adoption of Shia-centric forms of messaging, Saraya al-Ashtar’s name was likely no coincidence. It’s possible the group draws the roots of its name from Malik al-Ashtar, one of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib’s most loyal aids and colleagues. Malik al-Ashtar was also known to be a brave warrior and took part in a number of major battles at the behest of Ali. Ali Ibn Abi Talib, was the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s relative and viewed by Shia as the Prophet’s successor and the first Imam.

The organization also refers to its combatants as “Rijal Allah” or the “Men of God.” The utilization of the phrase sets the underpinning for a religiously focused message: These fighters are doing the work of God. This immediately casts their foes as agents of a notably less than holy origin. The term finds regular use as a descriptor for Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi Shia Islamist fighters among the supporters and members from Iranian-backed proxy organizations currently fighting in Syria.

Nevertheless, it is still essential to acknowledge that despite the organization’s clear Shia-centric messaging, it has attempted to argue that it is not a sectarian entity. In Saraya al-Ashtar’s July “Statement No.4”, the group accused the government of “igniting sectarian strife between the communities.” SaA also claimed that, “all of [Saraya al-Ashtar’s] operations are directed at the pillars of the corrupt regime and its mercenaries.”

There are a few ways to measure such a statement. When compared to the bulk of Iranian-backed Shia Islamist group rhetoric, those organizations also claim to be non-sectarian while simultaneously promoting an undercurrent of heavy Shia-centric sectarian messaging. There is also the possibility the group is honestly conveying its “revolutionary” beliefs. Arguing that its enemy is not Sunni Muslims, just the government under the Khalifa royal family and their supporting elements, is given more weight considering the group has only directly targeted security personnel.

As with other Bahraini militant groups, Bahrain’s security personnel are regularly referred to as “mercenaries.” The charge that Bahraini security forces are “mercenaries” stems from Bahraini recruitment of outsiders, primarily Sunnis from Pakistan and other Arab states. Additionally, while the organization has not specifically called-out Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states which sent forces to Bahrain in 2011, it does make passing references to their presence as, “the occupation.” In an effort to demonstrate the weakness of the Khalifa royal family, the SaA regularly refers to the Bahraini royals as a “collapsing regime”.

Saraya al-Ashtar’s Messaging & Links to Iran

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Figure 6: Saraya al-Ashtar’s Statement No. 4.

At the time this post was written the group had released nine statements dealing primarily with their militant activity.  Besides claiming responsibility for bomb attacks, another main focal point for SaA’s releases have dealt with the fate of political prisoners and to show support for main figures involved with the protests The condition of Abdulwahab Husayn Ali Ahmed Isma’il (A.K.A. Abdulwahab Husayn), a major ideologue, politician, and protest leader since the uprisings in Bahrain in the 1990s, was a core concern in SaA’s 2nd (May 17, 2013) and 8th (November 10, 2013) released statements. At the start of the 2011 Bahrain protests, Husayn was arrested by Bahraini authorities, reportedly tortured, and then sentenced to life in prison by a military court. Even though the sentence was overturned, Husayn remained in prison. In both statements, concerns over Husayn’s “deteriorating health” were main themes. The statement in November also reflected broader protest groups’ concerns over Husayn’s health and accused the Bahraini government of abusing him.[7]

When the home of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassim’s home was raided by Bahraini authorities, in May 2013, SaA described it as a “[criminal] act”. Iran and Lebanese Hizballah also condemned the raid.[8] Qassim is the leading Shia cleric in Bahrain and is considered a “spiritual leader” for the opposition Al-Wefaq Party. Pro-government activists and figures have accused Qassim of instigating violence against police forces in Bahrain.[9]

A July 2012 paper by the American Enterprise Institute noted Qassim was increasingly moving into Iran’s orbit and this, “should be a red flag for the US on Bahrain.”[10] It is also important to note that Qassim did his religious studies in Qum, Iran. Qum is a center for the promotion of Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, the main Iranian Islamic Revolutionary ideological concept. While there, he studied under Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, the same figure who issued the first publicly available fatwa declaring Shia should fight a jihad in Syria. (in addition to other clerics). In the 1960s, when Qassim studied in Najaf, Iraq it was claimed by Iranian sources he was a student of the late radical cleric Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.[11]

In one article by Al-Arabiya, it was claimed that Saraya al-Ashtar is loyal to the concept of Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih.[12] However, the SaA has not published anything which publically confirms their reported faithfulness to the religious-political ideology.

Still, Bahraini and Emirati authorities have accused the group of receiving direct assistance from Iran and Lebanese Hizballah. Dubai’s police chief claimed that one of the people who planted the March 3 bomb, which killed an Emirati police officer, was trained by Hizballah after a trip to Lebanon.[13]

While links to Iran are hazy, the increasing activities of the group, sophistication in terms of building and placing bombs, and frequency of attacks, does beg the question: Where did Saraya al-Ashtar’s bomb makers and operatives learn their deadly skills? As demonstrated by the growth of Iranian-backed Shia Islamist militias in Syria, Iranian presence is often a well-hidden element. In Bahrain, where there are regular accusations of Iranian intervention, it is likely that if Iran did have a hand in constructing Saraya al-Ashtar, it has done its best to obscure this involvement. However, based on open source information it is still too hard to confirm or fully deny Iranian connections to the group.


[1] See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26421744. It’s important to note that some reported the killed police officers were originally from foreign states. Foreigners who joined internal security forces and were then naturalized has been a major issue for protesters and militants alike. Additionally, forces attached to the initial 2011 deployment of primarily Saudi and Emirati forces (the latter deployed 500 police officers) have also provoked the ire of protesters and militants. Two of those killed in the attack were foreign born: Muhammad Arslan was a Pakistani and Tariq Al-Shahi was from the UAE and part of the “Gulf Waves Force” which sent police from the UAE to Bahrain. It’s also important to mention that both the Saudi and UAE forces have denied direct involvement in Bahraini affairs. See also: http://www.thenational.ae/world/emirati-officer-dies-in-bahrain-bomb-explosion.

[2] Note: According to family members, the protester died due to being tortured. The Bahraini government denied this charge.

[4] AFP also reported the attack, but no organization was named as responsible. See: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2013/Apr/29/bomb-explodes-after-bahrain-detains-22-over-unrest-22.asp.

[5] This attack was also covered by Bahraini state media. The state media station intimated connections between the bombers and support for the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and the February 14 Youth Coalition. The February 14 Youth Coalition has been a leading group in organizing protests. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIAeVW3SyWo

[6] For an excellent post which also utilizes this video footage, see: http://bahrainipolitics.blogspot.com/2014/03/tit-for-tat-in-bahrain.html.