Bahrain Remains Powder Keg for Iranian Proxy Conflict
Brian M. Perkins
Iranian involvement in the most prominent conflicts in the Middle East—particularly in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon—has dominated international headlines over the past several years while overshadowing Tehran’s hand in the smoldering, low-intensity conflict in Bahrain. Unlike the more prominent conflicts where Iranian-backed groups are heavily armed, well-organized, or wield significant political power, Shia militants supported by Tehran in Bahrain operate entirely outside of political view and in small cells across the small nation. While Bahrain is a far less permissive environment for Shia militant groups than Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen, their presence is a constant destabilizing force within the country, which could easily become the next powder keg in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain’s religious demographics—30 percent Sunni and over 50 percent Shia— coupled with the harsh Sunni autocratic rule of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa creates a combustible environment that Iran has exploited with very little effort or cost. The roots of Iranian involvement in Bahrain grew out of the Arab Spring uprisings and the government’s violent response against Shia protestors. The crackdown caused the uprisings to intensify, and fringe groups mobilized and grew increasingly militant after the uprisings were quelled. As these organizations grew, so did the indications of Iranian involvement, beginning with the increased sophistication of explosive devices used to target the government and security forces. Among the most organized and notorious group is al-Ashtar Brigades, which has been responsible for the deadliest attacks in Bahrain to date and whose members have also reportedly received training with Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and the IRGC in Iran (al-Arabiya, June 9, 2017).
Now, eight years removed from the beginning of the Arab Spring, Bahrain’s Shia insurgent groups are still operating in the shadows, and though there has not been a significant attack since 2017, there are indications that the insurgency could be escalating and arrests have shown an increased level of training and sophistication of weapons. In February, al-Ashtar Brigades released a statement threatening further attacks against the Kingdom as well as U.K. and U.S. targets within the country (Al Arabiya, February 14). More recently, in early November, the lesser known Katibat al-Haydariyah reemerged to threaten attacks after being dormant since claiming a series of attacks in 2015 (al-Abdal, September 10).
Although the death toll throughout the history of the Shia insurgency in Bahrain is only in the dozens, there are signs that the country’s various insurgent groups might be growing increasingly active. While Iran’s role in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen is being seriously challenged—both by local dynamics and the international community—there is far less focus on Bahrain. It is easy to conceive that Iran could look to increase its support to its proxy groups in Bahrain, which is right on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. While it is unlikely the insurgency will rise to the level seen in other countries, it would be a low-risk, high reward scenario for Iran to ramp up support in the coming months.
Sri Lanka: Presidential Elections Likely to Further Ethnic Strife and Radicalization
Brian M. Perkins
The tragic Easter Sunday 2019 bombings that claimed the lives of at least 250 people in Sri Lanka have paved the way for a contentious presidential election on November 16. The presidential election has seen the return of the highly divisive Rajapaksa clan, with former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, securing victory. Support for Rajapaksa largely comes from Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhala Buddhist population, which has grown increasingly suspicious and hostile toward the island nation’s minority Muslim community following the bombings. The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) and perpetrated by the Salafi-jihadist group, National Thowheeth Jamaat (NTJ).
The Rajapaksa clan, particularly Gotabaya’s brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has a storied history of human rights abuses and political violence against minorities during the war against the militant separatist Tamil Tigers. Rajapaksa announced that he would run for president just days after the attacks, promising to stop the spread of Islamic extremism (Tamil Guardian, April 27). Sri Lanka has long experienced violent tensions among the country’s various ethnic groups, and the bombings led to a significant increase in violence and abuses toward the Muslim minority community by both civilians and security forces. His appointment will almost certainly galvanize the state as well as militant Buddhist groups against the country’s beleaguered Muslim community. The longstanding communal violence and ethnic rift between the majority Buddhist and minority Muslim and Tamil communities has fueled radicalization at mosques and online. In fact, key members of the NTJ had used these channels to call for Muslims to retaliate against Buddhist groups (See MLM, June 4).
Though Rajapaksa was the front runner, his victory was not guaranteed as rival candidate Sajith Premadasa from the ruling United National party (UNP) ran a strong campaign. A victory for Premadasa would have likely not seen the situation for minority ethnic communities deteriorate as significantly, but he ran his campaign on promises to eradicate terrorism, which would have likely disproportionately affect minority Muslim and Tamil communities while allowing militant Buddhist groups to continue operating. At the same time, Premadasa would have been unlikely to spur neither the kind of governmental change that would lead to transparency or accountability for past governments’ atrocities, nor would it have built the institutions and pass legislation that would lead to reconciliation and help ease communal tensions.
Now that Rajapaksa has secured a victory, the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka will come under increased scrutiny by security forces and the shift in government sentiment will only serve to demonize Muslims in the eyes of the Buddhist majority. At the same time, there are widespread fears that Rajapaksa will punish the minority community since he won without a significant portion of votes from the Muslim community. There is a clear need to address radicalization and militancy in Sri Lanka but villainizing one community while allowing another to operate will further ethnic tension and violence and fuel radicalization within fringe Buddhist as well as Muslim communities.