Bahrain: The Next Target For Islamist Militancy?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 1

Real estate prices in Bahrain have registered unusual rates of increase over the last few months as western expatriate workers relocate to the island kingdom, in the hope of finding a more secure environment. Bahrain is considered to offer one of the Gulf’s most western-friendly lifestyles, and is easy to access — the causeway linking the island to the Arab peninsula’s mainland is crossed by 100,000 motorists every weekend. However, along with the exodus of expatriates, Islamist militants, too, will be crossing the causeway as the security environment tightens for them in Saudi Arabia.

Islamist terror groups such as al-Qaeda aim at the entire Peninsula, dismissing its individual nationalities under a generalized term Bilad al-Haramayn, ‘The Land of the Two Holy Shrines’ (Mecca and Medina). But Bahrain represents a particular draw for the high, and increasing, concentration of Westerners in the community. It is a target-rich environment, which is seen — in relative terms — as a ‘western playground’. Bahrain is also overtly wedded to western interests politically through its hosting of the US Fifth Fleet at Manama. The King was also one of the few Arab leaders to attend the G8 summit, and the government has agreed to co-operate with the US-backed administration in Baghdad in providing security for Iraq’s 58-kilometer coastline. A successful strike in Bahrain, where foreigners have hitherto felt themselves most secure, would make a powerful statement. This is evident from the debate traffic posted on Islamist websites, which indicate a lively interest in weighing the strategic benefits of broadening the target range to Gulf states, including Bahrain, as opposed to concentrating on attacking Westerners in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

A massive security build-up is therefore underway. Policing coverage on the Causeway has been expanded, as well as the accompanying coast guard services. At the same time, the 3,000 strong US Fifth Fleet, based at Manama, has acted to increase restrictions on the movement of its personnel. It has ordered the relocation or repatriation of a third of its staff in order to thin out the concentrations of US military and their families in any one residential building. However, unlike in Saudi Arabia, many westerners in Bahrain reside outside secure compounds and, therefore, the hotels and restaurants are not as well defended.

The precautions appeared to have been lent added justification with the arrest, or rather re-arrest, on July 14 of six suspected Bahraini members of the Salafist Muslim community, which is considered to be close to al-Qaeda. The suspects (who were first picked up June 20) were said to have been preparing to target Western installations, including U.S. military personnel, and were thought to have been linked to an al-Qaeda-aligned cleric in Bahrain, Sheikh Muhammad Salih, who had been recently released after spending nine months in prison. Two of the suspects, Yaser Kamal and Muhammad Saleh Muhammad, had already come into contact with authorities, respectively in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, while another three, Bassam Bukhuwa, Bassam al-Ali and Muhyiddin Khan, had been temporarily detained in a weapons case in February last year. Another suspect, Ali Mahmud Khan, a British passport-holder released with the others in June, appears to have slipped through the net and exited the country.

According to an official statement there were suspicions that the suspects were preparing ‘grave acts against human lives and goods through the use of dangerous materials.’ However, all of the six detainees were released the next day without charge. It transpired that the suspects were well known to the authorities from previous detentions and custodial sentences, indicating that the present arrest was part of a pre-emptive security sweep and designed as a demonstration of intent. Details released on the suspects’ computer files revealed an interest in bomb and poison manufacture, target surveillance and the use of communication codes to evade security monitoring.

The response of Bahraini security underlines another advantage for Islamist militants. The government is faced with the dilemma of protecting its economic interests from negative publicity, while at the same time avoiding the accusation of covering up security operations associated with fundamentalist terrorism. This effectively circumscribes its operational efficiency and accounts for the confusion over the detentions. The six Salafists detained on June 22 were subsequently released for lack of evidence and pending further investigations. (Khaleej Times, 22 June 2004)

Under clear external pressure from the US, the security authorities promptly rearrested them in mid July. Information revealed by the authorities following this second detention shed a stronger light on their activities. In addition to the discovery of the computer files there were actual chemicals confiscated from the suspects’ homes. Confiscated documents also indicated that they had not only planned attacks on government, business and tourist establishments, but were ready to carry them out when the opportunity arose. All of which begs the question as to why they had been released in the first place. Since the last arrests, 15 additional names of suspects have been mooted. There are likely to be more.