As the British Ambassador to Bahrain, Harold Walker, stated in 1981; ‘Since the Iran/Iraq conflict began, there have, as you know, been virtually no visible signs of support among the Bahraini Shia for the Imam Khomeini’.1 However, since, that time, and since a coup attempt by a fringe radical Shia Islamist group in Bahrain in 1981, the Shia in Bahrain have been villified more than usual. Today, Bahrain’s Minister of the Interior announced that they had arrested six members of a cell linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah who had been planning explosions in Bahrain.2 Saudi news channel, Al Arabiya, even reported that two of those arrested had met with Hassan Nasrallah, who gave them $20,000.3 Given the recent regional escalations, the announcement is probably less designed to reflect the truth, and more to validate Saudi claims of the regional danger presented by Iran. Indeed, Bahrain has frequently attempted to draw direct connections between Iran and the unrest in Bahrain. Usually the evidence provided to support such claims is questionable, and, as this article discusses, the Bahraini government have often invoked existential threats at strategic moments in order to justify draconian security measures.
In addition to Iran, these links have been extended to other Shiʿa organizations such as Hezbollah, for example, on ‘1 May 1995, the State Security Court sentenced Hussain ‘Ali al-Tattan to 10 years’ imprisonment, Salman ʿAbd Allah al-Nashaba to five years’ imprisonment, and eight other defendants to three years’ imprisonment’,4 for being members of Hezbollah in Bahrain. Officials also publicised that Shaykh ‘Isa Qassim, based in Qom in the 1990s, guided Hezbollah in Bahrain, and that the 250-strong network was only a small part of a labyrinthine network connected to Iran.5 Similarly, TV coverage was given to a group of Shi‘a youth who said they were trained in Lebanon and called the Bahrain Hezbollah.6 In 2014, Bahrain’s foreign minister Shaykh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa said Hezbollah was behind an explosion that killed a Jordanian officer working in Bahrain,7 although given the government’s attempts to forge an Iranian link, the veracity of these claims is disputed. In 2013, Erin Kilbride, an American teacher living in Bahrain, was deported for allegedly inciting hatred against the government and ruling family. The BNA published an image of her room, replete with a Hezbollah flag hanging on the wall.8 Two days after the second anniversary of the 14th February uprising, the Ministry of the Interior announced that they had arrested eight men who were part of a terror cell with links to Iran, Lebanon and Iraq.
During the uprising, there was a string of false stories claiming boats from Iran, heading to Bahrain, had been intercepted. A Kuwaiti news portal claimed Qatari authorities had intercepted an Iranian boat smuggling weapons to Bahrain.9 (Qatar later denied the story.)10 On 21 March 2011, soon after the Uprising began, King Hamad announced that a foreign plot had been foiled with the aid of Saudi troops. A week later a Kuwaiti news site said that Qatari authorities had intercepted two Iranian ships carrying weapons to Bahrain, a story that Qatar again denied.11 On 12 November 2011, a few weeks before the release of the BICI report, the government reported that they had discovered another terror cell with links to Iran.12 A similar report was released strategically the day before the National Assembly was dissolved in August 1975. About 30 people were arrested from the National Liberation Front and the People’s Front. Soon after, the weekly paper al-Mawaqif (Points of View) published an article claiming that a ship loaded with arms was intercepted as it headed towards Bahrain. Many of those arrested also had ‘ pamphlets ready for distribution’. In order to legitimise the dissolution, the Bahraini government fabricated a coup as a pretext. The Americans noted that the coup was indeed a pretext; ‘GOB seized on ineffectual intent of certain radical elements as a justification for taking, on “security grounds”, moves it felt otherwise necessary’.13 Indeed, there was ‘no clear security threat to regime’, highlighting that even threat perception is not necessary in implementing repressive laws.14 The only difference about today’s ‘plotters’ is that they are Shi‘a rather than left-wing.15
As well as these suspicious news stories, officials such as Sameera Rajab, the Minister of State of Information, propagate bizarre myths, some of which beggar belief.16 These include mentioning that there were tunnels17 to Iran dug under the Pearl Roundabout, or that an Iranian drone had been found off the coast of Bahrain.18 19 In another instance, Sameera Rajab claimed protesters were carrying Bahraini flags with twelve points, reflecting their commitment to twelver20 Shi‘a Islam. Sameera Rajab even went on Al Jazeera holding a photo of a flag as evidence, even though the the flag in the photograph she was holding did not have twelve points. The conspiracy reached such a pitch that the Arabic translation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report contained mention of the 12-point-flag, implying high level and influential forces were inserting anti-Iranian propaganda in an official document, and casting doubts about the integrity of the report.21 Soon after it the translated report was withdrawn. The government also announced in 2013 that the February 14th Youth Coalition were backed by Hadi Al Mudarrasi, an exiled Iraqi Cleric who had lived in Bahrain, and who was now living in Iran. Al Mudarrasi had been accused of attempting to stir up unrest in Bahrain during the 1980s.22 Other sensationalised reports include articles focusing on emotive topics like the role of women and children, claiming that they were being used as human shields in the villages. Faisal Fulad, of the Government run Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society stated to the press that ‘Iran-backed extremists are using children as human shields’.23 In a video alleging to show a police raid on a Bahrain bomb-making lab, a one thousand Iran Toman note was placed strategically on the table.24
The fetishization of the Shi‘a and Iranian threat, and the rise of sectarianism through media channels, argues Al Naqeeb, is a particular feature of tribal monarchies, that became more apparent both after the demise of Arab nationalism, to which they had all been hostile. Al Naqeeb adds that this ‘tribal consciousness’ is becoming more embedded, and facilitated with rise of new media outputs. Khuri concurs that the regime exploit the polarities inherent in political unions,25 and this is most easy along sectarian lines, which explains the emphasis on focusing efforts at stigmatization on the sectarian threat. As for the veracity of the government claims, they shall always be questionable. The BICI report contained no evidence of any Iranian threat in 2011, and evidence produced by the government shall always be tainted by the fact the government have shown no real commitment to reform post-2011.
1H.B. Walker, The Shia in Bahrain.
5K. Evans, ‘Bahrain plot “is led from Qom”’, The Guardian, 12 June 1996.
6L. Bahry, May 1997.
7 Reuters, ‘Policeman killed in “terrorist” attack in Bahrain: interior ministry’, 8 December 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/08/us-bahrain-security-policeman-idUSKBN0JM25320141208 , (accessed 10 October 2015).
8Bahrain News Agency, ‘Teacher with Links to Extremists Deported for Social Media Activities and Violation of Labor Laws’, 10 August 2013, http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/574672, (accessed 2 November 2015).
9H. Toumi, ‘Qatar denies seizing Iran boat loaded with weapons’, Gulf News, 23 January 2013, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/qatar/qatar-denies-seizing-iran-boat-loaded-with-weapons-1.1136351, (accessed 10 October 2015).
11 J. Bladd, ‘Qatar denies seizing Iran ships carrying weapons’, Arabian Business, 28 March 2011, http://www.arabianbusiness.com/qatar-denies-seizing-iran-ships-carrying-weapons-390435.html, (accessed 10 October 2015).
12M. Singh, ‘Terror Plot Foiled’, Gulf Daily News, 13 November 2011, http://archives.gdnonline.com/NewsDetails.aspx?date=04/07/2015&storyid=317594, (accessed 10 October 2015).
13 US Embassy Manama, ‘Bahraini Political Developments: Foreign Minister’s Comments’, 11 September 1975, Wikileaks, Link hard to find? https://search.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/1975MANAMA01057_b.html
16Lies of Samira bin Rajab, [online video],
17@busalmani, ‘نفق في الدوار يودي على ايران و نفق في عذاري يودي العكر حشى اللي عندكم ارانب مو بشر كله تحت اﻻرض#مسخره #طنبورها #نفق#البحرين #Bahrain’ 23 October 2012, https://twitter.com/busalmani/status/260673433485062145 (accessed 10 October 2015).
18Fajr al-Bahrain, ‘competition…enter and put in your information’, [web forum]https://www.fajrbh.com/vb/threads/24682/ , (accessed 10 October 2015).
19Al Wasat, ‘Iran deny sending unmanned aerial spy drone above Bahrain’, 23 May 2013, http://www.alwasatnews.com/3911/news/read/774772/1.html, (accessed 10 October 2015).
20Twelver Shiʿa Islam is the largest branch of Shiʿa Islam. The name reflects that its adherents believe in twelve divinely ordained leaders, known as the Twelve Imams.
21N. Toorani, ‘Arabic Report of BICI Withdrawn’, Gulf Daily News, 30 November 2011, http://archives.gdnonline.com/NewsDetails.aspx?date=04/07/2015&storyid=318698, (accessed 2 November 2014).
22 ‘Bahrain: Report on the carrying out of terrorism and the identity of the February 14 Movement’, [online video], 12 June 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D_WBKYBXlY0 (accessed 10 October 2015). Translated from Arabic by the author.
23S.S. Grewal, ‘Children used as “human shields”’ Gulf Daily News, 7 June 2013, http://archives.gdnonline.com/NewsDetails.aspx?date=04/07/2015&storyid=354827
25F. Khuri, p. 242.