Iranian-backed terror groups in Bahrain: Part One

Logo of Saraya al Karar, an Iranian-backed militia in Bahrain

By Caleb Weiss

As part of the wider Arab Spring that encompassed much of the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, protests also spread to the small island Kingdom of Bahrain. The country is predominantly Shia, however, the ruling Al Khalifa family is Sunni and a strong ally of Saudi Arabia. Starting in February 2011, massive protests hit the monarchy in the capital Manama. Almost as quickly as the demonstrations began, a brutal crackdown of protesters was initiated by the state.

Just a few weeks later, Saudi and Emirati troops as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force were deployed to Bahrain to help quell the protests [1]. The move was seen as necessary by Saudi Arabia to stop any potential Shia victory in the country, as this could have been a catalyst for Shia unrest in Saudi’s eastern shores. The United States, which maintains a permanent naval base in Bahrain, took on a more sidelined role [2].

While the protests were suppressed, this did not mean that the threats to the Al Khilafa family were removed. In the wake of the crackdown, several Shia militia groups, backed by Iran, were formed. These groups began bombing Bahraini police and security forces and released statements calling for the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy [3].

While these groups only conduct the sporadic bombings or killings, like a bombing that injured four in late February, this does not mean they are not a threat to Bahraini security [4]. Earlier this month, Bahraini security forces arrested at least 25 members of an Iranian-backed militia operating in the country [5]. Bahraini officials also said that many of the group’s members were trained on the use of improvised explosive devices (IED’s) in Iran and Iraq.

In January, an Iranian-backed militia, likely the same one, perpetrated a prison break in which 10 inmates were freed [6]. In 2015, at least two large-scale bomb-making facilities were uncovered by Bahraini authorities while one boat shipment of bomb-making material was seized [7].

The importation of bomb-making material and expertise by Iran represents a significant threat to a strategic ally of the United States. While there isn’t a large Shia insurgency in Bahrain, a nascent one has clearly been in the works for quite some time. Recent Iranian rhetoric has also been more hostile to Bahrain than in prior years. For example, Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Force-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), stated that “The Al Khalifa [family] will pay the price of their actions, and its result will be nothing but the annihilation of this bloodthirsty regime [8].”

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy also reported in January that Hadi Modarresi, an Iraqi Shia cleric close to Iran, met with Iraqi Shia militias “to talk about escalating militancy in Bahrain in 2017 [9].” It is unclear if Modarresi meant the exportation of Iraqi Shia to Bahrain, or the training of Bahraini militants. However, at least 150 Bahraini citizens are said to be fighting alongside Iraqi Shia militias against the Islamic State group [10]. One Iranian-backed militia, Jaysh al Muammal, has stated its preparedness to send troops to Bahrain, as well [11].

Recent moves taken by the Bahraini government could fan the flames of this potential. Last year, renewed unrest began after Bahrain revoked the citizenship of the country’s top Shia cleric and banned the Al Wefaq opposition group [12]. This year has already seen a spike in bombings and shootings, which are likely linked to the execution of three suspected members of a terrorist organization in the country [13]. This spike could rise even further as Bahrain has recently moved to ban another opposition group and has approved the use of military trials for civilians accused of terrorism [14].

The next post in this series will look at three of the major Shia militias in Bahrain, evidence of ties with/to Iran, their history, and potential for expansion in the event of a potential spike in violence in the country.


[1] Bronner, Ethan & Slackman, Michael. Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain To Help Put Down Protest. (2011, March 14). The New York Times. Retrieved from:

[2] Chulov, Martin. Saudi Arabian troops enter Bahrain as regime asks for help to quell uprising. (2011, March 14). The Guardian. Retrieved from:

[3] Smyth, Phillip. Hizballah Cavalcade: Saraya al Karar: Bahrain’s Sporadic Bombers. (2014, December 1). Jihadology. Retrieved from:

[4] Bomb hits bus carrying policemen in Bahrain, four injured. (2017, February 26). Al Arabiya. Retrieved from:

[5] Bahrain uncovers 54 Iranian-backed militants. (2017, March 5). The National. Retrieved from:

[6] Bahrain jail break: Gunmen, inmates on the run after attack. (2017, January 1). Middle East Eye. Retrieved from:

[7] Knights, Michael & Matthew Levitt. Iranian-Backed Terrorism in Bahrain: Finding a Sustainable Solution. (2017, January 11). Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Retrieved from:

[8] Karami, Arash. Soleimani issues rare political statement on Bahrain. (2016, June 21). Al Monitor. Retrieved from:

[9] Knights, Michael & Matthew Levitt. Iranian-Backed Terrorism in Bahrain: Finding a Sustainable Solution. (2017, January 11). Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Retrieved from:

[10] Bahrainis fighting in Iraq. (2017, February 13). News of Bahrain. Retrieved from:

[11] Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad. Twitter. Retrieved from:

[12] Gladstone, Rick. Bahrain’s Sunni Rulers Revoke Citizenship of Top Shiite Cleric. (2016, June 20). The New York Times. Retrieved from:

[13] Bahrain executes three Shia men over 2014 police killing. (2017, January 15). BBC News. Retrieved from:

[14] Bahrain Moves to Dissolve Major Opposition Group. (2017, March 6). Reuters. Retrieved from: