Why Is Bahrain Outsourcing Extremism?

The Bahraini government has been working overtime to crush pro-democracy activists. But what about followers of the Islamic State?


Against the backdrop of a beautiful green landscape along the Euphrates River, four young men carrying assault rifles walk up a hill in slow motion, carrying the distinctive flag of the Islamic State (IS). A voice informs us that these “warriors of the doctrine” are carrying out the “noble mission” of “purifying” Iraq. Speaking to the camera, the four deliver messages to their “Sunni family” in Bahrain. Aside from the expected pleas to join their jihad, the key purpose of the film is to encourage members of their home country’s security forces to join IS. They also urge fellow Bahrainis to boycott November’s parliamentary elections.

The video is graphic evidence that Bahrain has a burgeoning problem with Salafi radicalization. Support for extremist groups has flourished even as the state has been cracking down on the non-violent, pro-democracy opposition. The regime’s response to the film, which has been viewed around 100,000 times since it was uploaded in September, has been muted, though officials admit that at least 100 Bahrainis have joined IS and several have been killed. That number is small but significant. Not only is there a direct link between IS and Bahrain’s security services (as the video suggests), but the Bahraini cohort in the Islamic State includes Turki al-Binali, one of the movement’s most influential radical preachers.

Bahrain’s public stance on the war against IS contrasts sharply with its lack of action at home. The kingdom has attempted to present itself as the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) anti-IS efforts. At the start of the air campaign launched against IS by the United States and a select group of allies in September, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, made prominent appearances in the Western media, including the BBC and CNN, to announce Bahrain’s membership in the U.S. military coalition. Khalifa even spoke of the need to rid the region of the “deviated cult.”

Some Bahrainis may have been wondering, however, at what point this cult was viewed to have “deviated.” In June, Information Minister Sameera Rajab appeared to tweet sympathetically about the advances IS was then making, suggesting that they might represent “a revolution against the injustice and oppression that has reigned over Iraq for more than 10 years” — a view echoed by many prominent figures in Bahrain.

Nor have the authorities given the impression that they are treating the threat of internal IS recruitment with anything like the seriousness they apply to “rooting out traitors” — a reference to the pro-democracy activists that have been taking to the streets to demand reform since 2011. So far, only one of those in the IS video has been identified — a former lieutenant in the Bahraini police force, Mohammed Isa al-Binali — although it is hard to believe that discovering the identities of the other three would be too difficult in a country with a native population of under 600,000.

In contrast to the grand rhetoric employed against political dissenters, the authorities tend to dismiss radicalization as the result of “misguided” youth who have been “led astray.” There is no acknowledgement that books printed and distributed by the Bahraini Army itself have promoted the takfiri thought that underpins IS and other extremist groups. Adel Jassim Flaifel, a former colonel in the state security service who has been accused of torture and openly preaches sectarian hate speech, was only recently arrested — though he was convicted only on lesser charges of financial irregularities. Before he was detained this summer he had spent three years openly preaching extremist views in Muharraq, Bahrain’s third largest city.

So far there doesn’t appear to have been any documented trial of any person on charges of IS-related terrorist activity despite government vows to pursue and monitor their activities. The government offered a two-week amnesty for former jihadists in March of this year. (A Bahraini IS fighter responded by ripping up his Bahraini passport on YouTube.) Commenters on Bahraini websites supporting IS brag about the freedom they enjoy in the kingdom, compared with other Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates.

By contrast, the government has violently repressed the largely peaceful, non-sectarian movement — led by activists like Nabeel Rajab, the president of the banned Bahrain Center for Human Rights — that continues to fight for equality, freedom, and human rights. Rajab was arrested on Oct. 1 for tweeting that “Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.” He was charged with “offending national institutions,” a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. (He’s supposed to receive his sentence today, Oct. 29.) He has already served two years on charges that included criticizing the prime minister, and was only released in May.

For three years, the regime has destroyed Shiite mosques, carried out sectarian profiling, and “cleansed” state institutions in a crackdown during which up to 15,000 people have been arrested; around 3,000 remain in prison. The government’s sectarian narrative — that the Sunni regime and its loyalists are threatened by the Shiites, who make up two-thirds of the Muslim population — is the paradigm that has been used to frame the Bahraini pro-democracy uprising right from the start. The opposition does include Shiites, who are justly aggrieved by decades of exclusion, but also many others whose longstanding demand has been for a constitutional monarchy and human and civil rights.

Last month, the NGO I cofounded, Bahrain Watch, uncovered a list of 77 people targeted by Bahraini intelligence agencies using British surveillance technology. Those named consisted almost entirely of lawyers, activists, and journalists who support political reform. This interpretation of what constitutes a “threat to national security” exemplifies the Bahraini regime’s warped worldview — that peaceful dissent is more of a threat than crime and terrorism.

The greatest Bahraini contribution to IS has not, however, been only in the form of fighters and funding. It has been through ideological and moral support, in particular from the radical Bahraini cleric Turki al-Binali, the now Mosul-based spiritual ideologue of IS whose writings have set out the case for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s credentials as the righteous caliph to whom all Muslims owe allegiance. His sermons in Bahrain, Libya, and Tunisia can all be found on YouTube, and he was freely traveling and preaching up until at least the end of 2013, if not later. (In the photo above, Binali leads a terrorism class in Mosul.) Last year, he led a protest outside the American embassy in Manama, the Bahraini capital, with no sign of the tear gas and crowd control usually employed during pro-democracy gatherings, despite the fact that the demonstrators were waving al Qaeda flags and pictures of Osama Bin Laden.

For years, Turki al-Binali has been expanding his influence in Bahrain and recruiting for his cause with little or no interference from the authorities. Bahrain’s society is small and interconnected, and this may explain why he’s enjoyed impunity for so long. The Binalis are an important family in the country due to their close historical and tribal ties to the ruling al-Khalifas. (Turki al-Binali is also related to Mohamed al-Binali, the renegade police official.)

Of course, some IS support was initially motivated as much by genuine feelings of solidarity with fellow Arabs suffering the oppression of the Syrian regime as by ideological Salafism. But the Bahraini government had also been nurturing and nourishing extremist groups and their sectarian ideology to counter the so-called “Shiite threat” posed by the pro-democracy uprising. For decades, the government has excluding Shiites from sensitive positions, a policy of exclusion that has included filling the security forces with mercenaries from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Baluchistan. Many of these “New Bahrainis” have been fast-tracked into citizenship. The popularity of IS ideology within the Bahraini security services shows just how clearly this policy has backfired.

Far from showing gratitude for this support, however, IS has been denouncing the ruling Khalifas as “heretics” for allowing the Americans to launch airstrikes against the jihadists in Syria and Iraq from the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain. IS is also attacking the royal family for allowing the sale of alcohol and for “placing themselves as gods next to Allah.”

Meanwhile, negotiations between the regime and Al Wefaq, the main opposition party, have broken down, and Al Wefaq has decided to boycott the parliamentary elections scheduled for November. The king has offered concessions, but they have been minimal, abstract, and insufficient to persuade Al Wefaq to participate. (Among the party’s demands: an equal voting system, an elected government, and a fair and independent judiciary.) Impartial polling data in Bahrain is virtually impossible to obtain, but social media sentiment suggests that the boycott enjoys wide support. In response, a judge has now banned the party for three months. This dangerous move to completely outlaw all political activity will push the democracy movement underground, and will push it toward the use of violence.

Now that Bahrain is “at war,” however, talk of reform and reconciliation has been relegated to the back seat. The monarchy’s Western allies are also more concerned about the monstrosity growing in the bosom of the Arab world rather than the environment that bred and nourished it.

But that is a mistake. The bigger question that needs to be addressed in the Gulf region is how to fight the extremist radicalization that has served as the material and “ideological incubator” of IS. It is not enough to tackle the enemy by military means without tackling the root causes of sectarianism and the specific environments and cultures in which it arises. The Bahraini regime needs first to dismantle a system that encourages extremism, promotes sectarianism, enforces exclusionary policies, and survives on repression.

Bahrain’s rulers may regard the country’s role in the coalition as necessary for their own self-preservation. If they lose their Western allies, and if their already small base of Sunni loyalists defects to the extremists, the already bare threads of sovereign legitimacy may not be strong enough to keep the dynasty in power. The regime hopes that it can reduce the external pressure for democratic change by strengthening its alliance with the West. But its allies, above all the United States and the United Kingdom, must not let the regime’s participation in the military offensive serve as a quid pro quo for avoiding genuine democratization.

The reality is that Bahrain, like many other Arab states, is in urgent need of a national unity that can only be achieved by forging a new social contract around democratic constitutions that represent the will of the people. Democracy is the only beacon of hope for a region that is drowning in a cesspool of extremism and authoritarianism.

So far, however, the ruling elites across the region only know how to respond by force, with the help of economic fuel provided by the richer Gulf states. Many believe the future lies in a regional bargain between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran but it is not clear to anyone if democracy is a stake in this bargain at all.