Bahraini investigators have seen an increase in the sophistication of the militants around the country, and it seems to indicate the influence of forces outside of the country. In one secret bomb factory, police found $20,000 lathes and hydraulic presses for making armor-piercing projectiles capable of slicing through a tank. Another room had boxes of military explosive C-4, all of them of foreign origin.
These are militants who before were known for throwing Molotov cocktails, but are now demonstrating a new level of armament, some of which could sink a battleship.
“Most of these items have never been seen in Bahrain,” said the country’s investigators in a confidential technical assessment provided by U.S. and European officials in the fall of 2016. During this assessment, new details emerged regarding the arsenals seized in the villa and in similar raid that have occurred sporadically of the past three years.
These arsenals show the militants are now overmatched against lightly armed police. The report explains in part the growing unease among some Western intelligence officials over Bahrain. Six years after the start of a peaceful Shiite protest movement, it is U.S. and European have seen the emerging from the margins of that movement, the heavily armed militant cells supplied and funded by Iran.
Bahrain has alleged in the past that Iran is backing various militant groups. The Interior Ministry issued a statement early Monday saying 11 members of a group “are suspected of receiving overseas military training under the supervision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah in Iraq.” The police had recently arrested 14 suspects in raids that saw the seizing of weapons and explosives. Two leaders of the groups, according to Bahrain authorities, are abroad in Iran.
Iran, of course, denies the allegations, calling them a “futile and baseless lie”. Protests have increased against the backdrop of a government crackdown on dissent.
Signs of Iran’s influence have been growing over the years, but Western governments have been reluctant to accuse Iran of direct involvement in unrest, citing inconclusive or unreliable evidence. Plus, they were concerned it would fuel the unrest of the sectarian tensions.
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 bomb making and guerrilla warfare. Weapons have also been forensically linked to Iran, including hundreds of pounds of military-grade explosives that almost certainly originated in Iran, U.S. and European intelligence officials have noted.
In the past, doubts have been raised about Bahrain’s claims, based on their poor human rights record. Western officials wondered if the Iranian interference allegations are a case of crying wolf. But the Bahraini officials have shown increasing willingness to share evidence and seek outside analysis to convince Western allies about the seriousness of the problem.
Technical reports have shown that the mountain of arms seized by the Bahrain government, show distinctive Iranian markings and Iranian-made electronics.
However, Bahraini officials point to ongoing efforts to create reform, including appointing an independent ombudsman to weigh complaints by Shiite opposition groups. “We’re doing more on human rights than any neighbour within a thousand miles of us, and we’re being punished for opening up and dealing with our problems,” said a senior Bahraini official.
In the midst of all of this back and forth, Iran has not acknowledged supplying weapons to Bahraini militants, although they have allowed resistance leaders into Tehran and expressed solidarity with opposition calls for ending the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain. Yet the presence of EFPs, a kind of improvised bomb designed to blast through military armour concerns authorities.
“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.” While it has not yet been used in Bahrain, it could be meant to destroy tanks and troop carriers from neighbouring Gulf countries in the event of future conflict.
No matter what the plan for these devices, their presence is evidence that Iran is adding another country to its growing list of militias in other countries within the region, with the potential to create another area of instability.