The men who built the secret bomb factory had been clever – suspiciously so, Bahraini investigators thought, for a gang known mostly for lobbing molotov cocktails at police. The underground complex had been hewed, foot by foot, beneath the floor of a suburban villa, with no visible traces at street level and only a single entrance, hidden behind a kitchen cabinet.
But the real surprises lay inside. In one room, police found $20,000 lathes and hydraulic presses for making armor-piercing projectiles capable of slicing through a tank. Another held box upon box of the military explosive C-4, all of foreign origin, in quantities that could sink a battleship.
“Most of these items have never been seen in Bahrain,” the country’s investigators said in a confidential technical assessment provided to U.S. and European officials this past fall that offered new detail on the arsenals seized in the villa and in similar raids that have occurred sporadically over nearly three years. In sheer firepower, the report said, the caches were both a “game-changer” and – matched against lightly armed police – “overkill.”
The report, a copy of which was shown to The Washington Post, partly explains the growing unease among some Western intelligence officials over tiny Bahrain, a stalwart U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf region and home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Six years after the start of a peaceful Shiite protest movement against the country’s Sunni-led government, U.S. and European analysts now see an increasingly grave threat emerging on the margins of the uprising: heavily armed militant cells supplied and funded, officials say, by Iran.
Signs of growing militancy have been cropping up for years, with arrests of masked operatives planting roadside bombs and seizures of weapons and explosives smuggled into the country by land and sea. But until recently, Western officials have been cautious in accusing Iran of direct involvement in the unrest, citing inconclusive or unreliable evidence, as well as fears of further roiling sectarian tensions. Bahrain, a monarchy, is majority Shiite but ruled by a Sunni minority.
While Bahraini officials frequently accuse Tehran of inciting violence, the allegations often have been discounted as exaggerations by a monarchy that routinely cites terrorism as a justification for cracking down on Shiite activists.
Now, the West’s reluctance appears to be fading. Despite credibility problems raised by Bahrain’s human rights record, Western intelligence agencies are seeing a new boldness by Iran in supporting armed insurgents in the kingdom, according to multiple analysts from the United States and two Western European governments.
Documents and interviews with current and former intelligence officials describe an elaborate training program, orchestrated by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to school Bahraini militants in the techniques of advanced bombmaking and guerrilla warfare. A wide variety of increasingly sophisticated weaponry – much of it forensically linked to Iran – has been discovered in Bahrain over the past three years, including hundreds of pounds of military-grade explosives that almost certainly originated in Iran, U.S. and European intelligence officials say. The efforts appear to mirror similar ongoing operations to build a network of pro-Tehran militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria, several analysts said.
“We are seeing more evidence of an Iranian destabilization effort,” said a U.S. intelligence official with years of experience monitoring Bahrain’s civil and political unrest. The official, like several others interviewed, insisted on anonymity in discussing sensitive intelligence from the region.
“Bahrain sometimes overstates the facts,” the official added. “But this is real.”
The mounting evidence has prompted unprecedented steps by U.S. and European governments targeting alleged leaders of Bahraini Shiite militant groups.
On March 16, German authorities ordered the arrest of a Bahraini man – a 27-year-old Shiite asylum seeker living in Berlin – under international warrants accusing him of being a terrorist operative for the al-Ashtar Brigades, a Bahraini Shiite militant group that has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against Bahraini police officers.
On March 17, the State Department – finalizing an initiative begun during the final months of the Obama administration – imposed sanctions against two leaders of the same Bahraini group, formally designating the men as “global terrorists.” The official announcement specifically accused Iran of backing the group as part of its “destabilizing and terrorism-related activities in the region.”
And last week, the Trump administration moved to lift a freeze on the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain, reversing a decision made last year by the Obama administration to protest Bahrain’s outlawing of al-Wefaq, the country’s main Shiite opposition party. The White House action, heavily criticized by human rights groups, suggests a new willingness to overlook repressive behavior by key Gulf allies in the service of maintaining a strong defensive shield against future Iranian aggression.
In last month’s sanctions announcement, the State Department sought to calibrate its message, insisting that U.S. officials would continue to press Bahrain to “clearly differentiate” its response to real terrorist threats from its dealings with peaceful demonstrators and political opposition groups. But it flatly accused Tehran of intervening directly to make the problems worse.
“Iran has provided weapons, funding and training” to Bahraini militants, it said. Alluding perhaps to the sprawling U.S. Navy facility that lies on the outskirts of Manama, Bahrain’s capital city, it noted that the “global terrorist” designation was reserved for individuals and groups that threaten the “national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.”
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When the vast weapons cache was discovered beneath a villa in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of the village of Nuwaidrat 18 months ago, few outside the Persian Gulf region seemed to notice. Bahrain’s national police force displayed photographs of chemical drums and bags of white powder – proof, in the words of Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, the state police chief, that “relentless Iranian actions are attempting to undermine security and stability within Bahrain and the wider region.”
But were the explosives real, or were they a prop used to justify arrests of Shiite opposition leaders? Bahraini officials had put on numerous such displays since February 2011, when the Sunni-led government sought to crush massive protests by the country’s Shiite majority, with the help of tanks and thousands of troops dispatched into Manama from neighboring Arab countries.
Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst who has met with top Bahraini officials to discuss the weapons caches, said chronic complaints about the country’s poor human rights record made it difficult for outsiders to assess whether the claims were real. Were the allegations of Iranian interference a case of “crying wolf, or a wolf at the door?” he asked in an essay framing Bahrain’s dilemma.
“The problem with Bahrain was that they had so little credibility that it was hard to separate what was real from what wasn’t,” Levitt said in an interview. But in the final analysis, he said, the evidence from weapons caches pointed to a real threat: Iranian-sponsored terrorism. “In the case of Bahrain,” Levitt said, “there is some ‘there’ there.”
Over the past year, Bahraini officials have shown an increasing willingness to share evidence and seek outside scientific analysis to convince Western governments of the seriousness of the problem the country faces. That effort led to a confidential assessment that was furnished to several intelligence agencies late last year. Three U.S. intelligence officials who have looked at the evidence said it broadly supports Bahrain’s claim of Iranian involvement in several recent attacks as well as in the arming of hard-core militant groups.
The dossier seen by The Post contains extensive technical reports assessing a small mountain of weaponry seized from Bahraini militants since 2013, including small arms, grenades and ammunition bearing distinctive Iranian markings, as well as Iranian-made electronics found inside improvised explosive devices. The report catalogues staggering quantities of military-grade explosives, including 418 pounds of C-4, an amount comparable to the quantity used by al-Qaeda to blast a 40-foot hole in the Navy destroyer USS Cole in 2000.
Chemical tests cited by the report showed that all the C-4 – recovered from six locations over three years – came from two manufacturing lines that previous forensic analyses linked to Iran. One of the six caches “involved C-4 in its original Iranian military packaging,” the report said.
But Bahraini investigators were more troubled by the discovery of the expensive hydraulic presses and metal lathes in the underground bomb factory in the village of Nuwaidrat. At least $35,000 worth of Chinese- and Italian-made metalworking equipment had been smuggled into the house to craft expertly made “explosively formed projectiles,” or EFPs, a kind of improvised bomb designed to blast through military armor. The unfinished bombs recovered from the villa bore designs identical to those used by Iranian-supplied Shiite insurgents to attack U.S. troops in Iraq, the analysis said.
“This dramatically upgrades Bahraini terrorist capabilities to conduct more lethal and effective attacks,” the analysis said. “This level of advancement is highly unlikely to have been reached without outside support, guidance and training.”
The report called the existence of such devices in Bahrain “deeply puzzling,” noting that the firepower far exceeded what would be required to blow up the ordinary police cruisers and unarmored transports used by Bahraini patrols. One plausible use for the EFPs would be to destroy tanks and troop carriers dispatched from neighboring Gulf countries in the event of a future conflict. Or perhaps the bombmakers and their sponsors had an entirely different goal in mind, the report said: to “inflict grave damage to U.S. forces and facilities.”
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Whatever their intended purpose, powerful EFPs have not been used anywhere in Bahrain up to now. Militant groups have used smaller bombs and assault rifles to strike police and security forces and, in a highly coordinated attack in January, to stage a prison breakout that briefly freed several prominent militant leaders.
Against the backdrop of steady, if low-bore, violence, the rhetoric is intensifying on all sides. In late March, Bahrain announced it had disrupted a militant plot to assassinate government officials and carry out a string of attacks targeting local police and the U.S. Navy base. A police spokesman cited intercepted communications between local cell leaders and alleged supporters and co-conspirators in Iran.
Bahrain has continued to draw international criticism over its repression of political dissent. Human rights groups and United Nations investigators issued reports last year accusing Bahrain’s authorities of systematically harassing and imprisoning peaceful protesters, and of torturing and even killing several detainees.
In response, Bahraini officials point to ongoing efforts to institute political reforms, including the appointment of an independent ombudsman to weigh complaints of mistreatment leveled by Shiite opposition groups. “We’re doing more on human rights than any neighbor within a thousand miles of us, and we’re being punished for opening up and dealing with our problems,” a senior Bahraini official complained wearily.
Iran, meanwhile, although it has not acknowledged supplying weapons to Bahraini militants, has allowed resistance leaders to operate openly in Tehran and has expressed solidarity with opposition calls for ending Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy. In March 2016, senior Revolutionary Guard commander Saeed Qassimi publicly called Bahrain an “Iranian province separated from Iran as a result of colonialism,” adding that Iran is now a base “for the support of revolution in Bahrain.”
Increasingly, “there are words to go along with the deeds, which indicates that they are trying to signal something: ‘Don’t mess with us, or we can hurt you,” said Michael Knights, an analyst on Middle Eastern military and security affairs for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.
Knights, who extensively investigated Iran’s backing of Shiite insurgents during the Iraq War, saw echoes in Bahrain of Iran’s practice of supplying tank-crushing EFPs to Iraqi Shiite militias, which used the devices in an effort to create no-go zones around Shiite strongholds. The fact that the EFPs haven’t been used in Bahrain could mean that local authorities have found all of them, he said. Or it could suggest something more sinister.
“It could be that they’re being withheld for another time,” Knights said, “or for another set of circumstances.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post ·Souad Mekhennet, Joby Warrick