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Small and Significant

 Bahrain’s Strategy for the War on Terrorism

BY MITCHELL BELFER - Radical Islamic groups like ISIS and Hezbollah — despite representing different sects – share goals of establishing theocratic systems of governance according to distorted readings of religious texts. They exercise pain on civilian populations as a matter of policy and are comfortable with terrorism, murder and the destruction of property—no matter its historic significance. And, they often find some support from abroad.


Hezbollah is publicly and unapologetically supported by Iran, which uses the group to generate instability in the Middle East and, at times, in Europe. Hezbollah also enjoys the absurd distinction between its political and military wings and many Europeans have only banned the latter enabling Hezbollah to keep fundraising channels open. Alternatively, ISIS is a fringe group not supported by Arab states, but rather relying on a string of individual donors and criminal enterprises. ISIS offers a Caliphate and Hezbollah an Imamate. It is a dangerous error to treat the two – and their organisational allies – differently.


For those with a stake in stability, it is time to deal with religious violence and terrorism as a singular problem instead of through geopolitical calculi. Iranian backed militias are not different from ISIS. A real political strategy is needed to combat terrorism through isolating its sources of inspiration, financing and religious legitimacy—crack down on extremism in the Middle East and reduce its surfacing in Europe. But doing so means breaking the cycle of European systems of politicking where lobby groups generate European policies instead of European interests.


And, European interests are changing. From a focus on economic engagements, Europe is increasingly concerned with political developments in an attempt to understand and navigate regional and trans-regional trends. But it cannot do so alone. It needs allies in the region, allies that speak Arabic, understand the nuances of Islamic culture and can make sense of the jargon on the streets. Europe requires anchors of stability in order to effectively combat terrorism.




Thirty-seven years of struggling against a radicalised Islamic state (re: the Islamic Republic of Iran) has taught Bahrain many things about its adversaries, its friends and itself. That, from its inception, Islamic Revolutionary Iran began a campaign of subversion, terrorism and insurgency throughout the Middle East – focusing on a handful of strategic points, such as Bahrain – was unsurprising and many warned about Iranian intentions since at least 1978—as the revolution began.


Bahrain’s first lesson was that in wars of terrorism, everything was possible. There were no limits to what Iran would do to undermine Bahrain’s national cohesion and stability. The Islamic Republic incited violence over the airwaves and dispatched hardened Hezbollah units to train local terror cells (re: Hezbollah, Saraya Al Ashtar and Sacred Defence Bahrain) and a political organisation to act as a go-between—the Islamic Dawa (banned and later rebranded as al Wefaq). Iran even named members of its parliament as “representatives” of Bahrain and through them funded anti-Bahrain groups in Europe. It conducted an intifada and a spate of terrorist attacks against Bahrain’s government, economy and society.


With a no-holds-barred adversary, coupled with an intimidating imbalance of power – Bahrain’s 550 thousand nationals represents less than 1% of Iran’s population of 87 million – Bahrain learned that alliance was not a luxury but a necessity. And so Bahrain encouraged the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to pool intelligence, military and economic resources behind collective interests and security. The other founding members agreed and in 1981 the organisation was established—in the shadow of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.


Alliances can only help win the material war on terrorism by deterring, supporting police actions and intelligence operations. They cannot change the nature of an adversary or those preaching radical ideas and sanction terrorist actions. Bahrain learned that the best technique for preventing radicalisation at home was to build and defend a values-based, tolerant and inclusive country. In May 2016, Bahrain developed the most comprehensive approach for combatting terrorism and it has nothing to do with arrests, prisons or even rehabilitation. Instead, Bahrain became the first Arab country to separate Mosque and State. In doing so, Bahrain dealt a fatal blow to radicalisation, against the potential of ISIS and against the existing Iranian militias, against all of them: Hezbollah, the Youth of 14 February and Sacred Defence Bahrain. And the political personalities that provided spiritual and financial support to them, people like Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Ali Salman, are experiencing what secularism is all about. Their organisation, the al Wefaq society – sectarian by nature – was disbanded, its assets frozen and its leaders arrested for incitement. Isa Qassim had his nationality revoked. These are the consequences of trying to wage a sectarian war in a secular state and they are just as applicable to Sunni groups as they are to Shia. Bahrain is not a sectarian state—but its antithesis.


Many in Europe do not understand what is happening in Bahrain because they are exposed to the headlines minus the substance. But Bahrain has gone through what France and Belgium, Germany and the UK are going through today. Radicalisation needs to be confronted materially and ideologically. Caution and vigilance is needed, police have to make arrests and it is time for Europe to be more proactive in dealing with those attempting to commit mass murder and those that inspire them. And, most importantly, it is time to stop supporting radical states just because their short-term interests align with your own. In the end, a radicalised regime is the enemy of progress and secularism its ally.

This article is part of a series of publications related to our upcoming event "Once and For All! Strategies to End the Scourge of Isis", that will be held on 02 November 2018, in Prague.

A special EGIC collection of articles and analyses will be distributed during the event.
Click on the link below to sign up to the event and find out more about it. 

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