Yesterday (03/03/2014), the Bahrain Ministry of the Interior reported that three bombs had been detonated in the village of Daih. One explosion killed three policemen, including an Emirate officer. The Ministry of the Interior announced today that 25 people had been arrested in connection with the attack. Naturally, the MoI will make quick arrests, whether the accused are guilty or not. To fail to do so would look weak, and potentially inflame tensions between those who wish to enact their own style of vigilante retribution. Human Rights groups reported house raids and collective punishment in Daih following the attack, and this video shows a policeman kicking a detainee a few times as he (the detainee) lay on the ground.
Although there were four bombs, it is unclear exactly who is responsible for what. At least two groups have claimed responsibility via social media for the attacks in Daih – the Al Ashtar Brigades and the Popular Resistance Movements. The former group’s confession can be read here, while the latter’s can be read here. Although it is possible that the two groups planted separate bombs, or co-ordinated attacks, they do not mention this. The Popular Resistance Brigade state they conducted an attack near the Al Hashmi centre in Daih. The Al Hashmi centre is the location outside which most of yesterday’s grisly pictures of wounded/dead officers emerged. (see here then here to view the Al Hashmi centre(jump to 0.28). Similarly, the Al Ashtar brigade took responsibility for the attack that resulted in the death of three policemen – presumably at the Al Hashmi centre too. So far, different media outlets have attributed the attacks to different parties. Khaleej Times, for example, have attributed it to the Popular Resistance Brigade, while the AFP, Financial Times and Gulf News attributed it to the Al Ashtar Brigade.
Regardless of who did it it, it is interesting that this is not the first time they appear to have claimed responsibility for the same attack. In May, both groups seemed to take credit for the same attack against policemen in the village of Karanah(See here and here). Whether or not it was the same attack cannot be certain, yet they both happened in the same place at around the same time. It is also interesting to note that a Twitter account for the Popular Resistance Brigade was linked to the Bahrain government (however, there is no evidence to suggest Facebook and Twitter accounts are linked). Ultimately, it is not clear who runs these accounts. They could be government sponsored accounts, they could be real militant groups, or they could be some keyboard activists with a knack for religiously infused Arabic rhetoric.
As for the Bahraini government, they have not made an official announcement yet as to who was responsible, but the names of both groups have featured frequently in the local newspapers following other bomb explosions. Recently, a policeman claimed that during his investigations he found that Al Ashtar brigades were linked to the Coalition of February 14th. Furthermore, the government seem to be taking the threat seriously, as they recently put Al-Ashtar Brigade, the Popular Resistance Brigade, and the Coalition of February 14th on the terrorist blacklist. Interestingly, as Dr.Abdulhadi Khalaf points out, the Deputy Chairman of the Dubai Police Leiutenant General Dahi Khalfan seems to have single handedly discovered that the person who killed one of the Emirate policeman (specifically?) was trained by Hezbollah and used to visit Lebanon a lot. Step aside Benedict Cumberbatch.
Having said this, these brigades need not be the only ones responsible for violence. The use of explosives, especially Molotov cocktails, is not new. In Bahrain’s latest uprising (the one that began in 2011), Molotov cocktails became frequently more common towards the end of 2011. There have also been numerous reports of improvised explosive devices being used. February 14 Youth Coalition have defended the use of violence in the name of self defence (and not against civilians) for some time now. In addition to this, video evidence suggests a more brazen attitude among some groups towards violence. A video depicting the making of a relatively sophisticated, remote detonated IED surfaced before February 14th 2014. The video appeared to be endorsed by Bahrain’s unlicensed opposition, who have co-operated a lot recently with the February 14th Youth Coalition, especially on the anniversary of the uprising in February 14th where they appeared to snub the civil disobedience agenda propagated by the country’s licensed opposition. Whether ًُ or not the inclusion of the unlicensed opposition’s logos on the video meant they support violence is still unclear.
However, unlike the licensed opposition, who have unequivocally condemned yesterday’s attacks against policemen, the unlicensed opposition have remained silent. That does not mean they condone it, but rather they are unwilling to commit to condemning violence as it implies that they are succumbing to government pressure to police their own constituency. Also, condemning violence is problematic, as it seems to tie into the government’s narrative that positions activist violence as an unwarranted and unprovoked attack on a benevolent and reformist state. In fact, the government have continued to repress dissent while not opening up sufficient political breathing room in which to craft a non-violent solution. In short, the safety valve of participatory politics has been denied activists, while continued state violence is creating an untenable situation in which violence is seen by many as a justifiable means of retaliation. Of course, such a statement is not one that celebrates killing, (and some people have sought to celebrate it – as this video from the village of Nuwaidrat shows), but one that acknowledges that killing is reprehensible, no matter who carries it out. However, the justificatory framework for killing in the name of fighting systematic oppression is much greater than killing on behalf a state in order to perpetuate a system of exploitative inequality.
Despite this, the statement of the licensed opposition, and the desire of some people to see what happened yesterday as a government fabrication/plot demonstrate the fact that violence is still frowned upon by many people, activists and non-activists alike. However, nuance is often a luxury in a climate of sectarianism and political strife, and there are a number of people who still wish to perceive any act of violence as being the responsibility of the opposition in its entirety. Manama Press, for example, already blamed yesterday’s attack on Al Wefaq. This man in Muharraq stated that this was not a ‘peaceful’ revolution (the implication being that one act of violence taints those others who advocate peaceful method – a logical fallacy, but not an uncommon argument in Bahrain). The government also have invoked Iran as a potential agitator in the recent affair, further contributing towards tropes that positions the government as a bulwark against sectarianism radicalism. There is also the theory that the government staged the bomb.
There is also a growing concern that vigilante groups may become increasingly involved in policing Bahrain’s internal politics. While the use of ‘thugs’ has always long been a problem, elements of Salafi conservatism may be creeping in more than before. Al Asala Islamic Society, have threatened to confront anti-government protesters if the government does not introduce tougher sanctions. Similarly, the National Unity Assembly, a loyalist opposition coalition have also pulled out of the upcoming dialogue until the government deal with the ‘terrorists’ with an ‘iron fist’. The NUA’s secretary-general, Abdulla Al Howaihi, also claimed that the legal opposition were essentially endorsing terrorism.
“What is the point of sitting on the dialogue table with participants who directly or indirectly use their political umbrella to support terrorists?”
Meanwhile, secular opposition party Wa’ad, whose own secretary general Ibrahim Sharif has been in prison on trumped up charges, demanded police protection after their headquarters were threatened . The threat came after attacks on the headquarters of opposition society Al Wefaq following the bombing on Monday. In addition to this, Adel Flaifel, an accused torturer-turned-Salafi-preacher, has been inciting sectarianism, and stating how Shia elements and the US were working together to attack Sunnis (In Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf). Whether this kind of bilge has any traction in Bahrain remains to be seen, yet the government are playing a dangerous game, provoking sectarian tensions and invoking a climate of fear amongst some of the country’s Sunni population. Incidentally, I imagine neither Flaifel nor the hundreds who gathered in Muharraq to protest against the police deaths will be held to account for breaking the law (Inciting sectarianism and illegal gatherings are against the law in Bahrain- though anti-Shia insults and ‘pro-government gatherings’ seem to be tolerated).
Furthermore, while transnational politics have always been important in Bahrain, the fact that one of the officers was from the UAE has potentially exacerbated regional tension by turning the Bahrain conflict into an emotive issue for residents of the UAE. The Dubai chief of police has already suggested sending 1000 Emirate policemen to Bahrain in order to show the ‘enemies of the Arabian Gulf that the security of Bahrain is all of our security’. If this were to happen, it would simply be highlighting the not-so-secret, and increasingly pervasive policy of unelected GCC leaders policing the politics and people of Bahrain. Such a move would hardly go down with Bahrain’s opposition, many of whom still refer to the presence of the GCC Peninsula Shield in Bahrain as a foreign occupation. The presence of UAE troops in policing Bahrain’s internal situation also poses further questions about Bahrain’s sovereignty (as addressed here by Ala’a Shehabi). Currently, the country is policed by a force of mercenaries drawn from many other countries, both inside and out the Arab World. The most recent revelation is that a new force of policemen drawn from GCC countries under the title ‘Amwaj Al Khaleeh’ is now active in Bahrain (The UAE officer who was killed, Tariq al-Shahi, was part of this force). Indeed, a government so dependent on foreign forces to protect a ruling elite can hardly be called sovereign, let alone legitimate.*
The presence of more foreign troops in Bahrain to combat so called ‘foreign-inspired’ terrorism already points to Bahrain being a battle ground between nervous Gulf monarchs and their own insecurity of Shia expansionism or democratisation and/or power sharing. This is particular true of Saudi, who have always been nervous of oppositional elements in Bahrain, whether they be Shia, communist or nationalist.
While the US has recently reported that Iran is supplying ‘arms and other aid’ to Shia militants in Bahrain, it does not provide much more detail or evidence. True or not, the supplying of arms to groups willing to use them is largely irrelevant, as it is no basis to discredit or punish an entire movement who are willing to protest without recourse to violence. Sadly, the Bahrain authorities have led a punitivie campaign against Bahrain’s opposition, whether legal or illegal. At the moment, it is unclear how they will further increase the costs of engaging in dissent. So far they appear to have been tackling unrest in a typically authoritarian fashion, provoking the situation and then appeasing angry loyalists by taking a hardline against anti-government protesters. Naturally this process has resulted in increased resentment, and explains the recent increase in violence. (Let us not forget that the bombing in Daih came after people were protesting the death of another young activist in police custody). Whatever happens, the next few days will offer a telling insight into Bahrain’s future.
*Interestingly, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE closed ranks again today against Qatar in the name of the security. They appear to be irritated by Qatar’s unwillingness to step in line with regards to adopting a singular GCC security police. UAE have also banned members of Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest opposition society. (update: this story was reportedly fabricated)