Iran’s proxies have gone under the radar for too long

Countries in the Arab Gulf have been the main targets of Shia extremism and are thus on the front lines of combating it.
Sunday 18/02/2018
A 2016 file picture shows the burned-out wreckage of a police vehicle in Karbabad village in Bahrain. (AP)
New and old tactics. A 2016 file picture shows the burned-out wreckage of a police vehicle in Karbabad village in Bahrain. (AP)

Over the past 30 years, the world has seen various terror groups rise to prominence, committing gruesome, violent acts in the name of religion. While much of the focus has been on Sunni extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), the issue of Shia extremism has gone largely unexamined.

Militant Shia groups began to proliferate in the 1980s, when Hezbollah, a so-called resistance group based in Lebanon, was founded with the support of Tehran. The Shia group is one of many sponsored and armed by Iran to “defend Islam” and resist the “Zionist enemy.” While the groups frequently deny support from Tehran, they are part of Iran’s project to export its 1979 Islamic Revolution to the greater Muslim world.

Countries in the Arab Gulf have been the main targets of Shia extremism and are thus on the front lines of combating it and containing Iran’s expanding influence. Despite this, claims by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that Tehran is meddling in their internal affairs have largely fallen on deaf ears in the West.

Why would the West keep silent about the threat of Shia extremism?

First, is the West’s focus on natural resources. What it cares most about is maintaining a constant flow of oil and gas from the Gulf at a reasonable price. As long as it receives this, it is unlikely to get involved in the Gulf’s interstate conflicts.

Second, as far as the United States goes, attention was intentionally diverted from Iranian threats and proxy groups during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office. A December 2017 report by Boer Deng, a Washington correspondent for the British newspaper the Times, states that the Obama administration, to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Such negligence from the West has had a negative effect on Gulf countries, particularly Bahrain, which has been hit the hardest by Shia extremism. Its saga began in December 1981, when Tehran supported a coup attempt by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), a Shia Islamist group that sought theocratic rule. As part of its coup attempt, which failed, the IFLB planned to assassinate Bahraini royals and seize local media to foment a Shia uprising.

In 1996, another coup was planned by an IFLB offshoot, Bahraini Hezbollah, led by Muhammad Taqi Mudarassi. This also failed but Tehran continued to fan the flames of sectarian violence by supporting extremist Shia cells across the Arab country.

More evidence of Iran’s interference was published in January by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Centre. A report titled “The Evolution of Shia Insurgency in Bahrain” exposed the role of Iran and its proxy militias in developing terrorist cells in Bahrain.

Written by Michael Knights and Mathew Levitt, the report said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps latched onto hard-line Shia elements in Bahrain, training some in bases outside the country and reinserting them in Bahrain as cell leaders. Military training was carried out in Iran, Lebanon and, more recently, Iraq, with the active involvement of Iranian proxy groups, notably Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah and Lebanese Hezbollah.

“A network of safe houses was developed to receive and store arms shipments and to train individuals with the set-up of bomb-making workshops to integrate locally sourced and imported bomb components,” the report stated.

Through Iran’s efforts, Shia terrorist elements in Bahrain evolved from easily detectable groups to well-trained cells of attackers with combat experience and an ability to mount effective attacks with improvised explosive devices, the report noted.

It concluded that the threat of Iran-backed Shia cells in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is likely to expand, with their tactics including the use of unmanned air and sea vehicles, anti-armour weapons and assassinations.

The report provides clear evidence of Iran’s role in promoting Shia extremism but there are many questions unanswered:

How many Iran-sponsored militias are there in the Gulf region and the world?

Where specifically are these militias active? What kind of weapons are they using?

Which targets are they aiming at?

How many have civilian and security casualties there been?

How many of these militias are listed as terrorist groups by the United States and other Western countries?

Western research centres and institutes have focused exclusively on Sunni extremism, commissioning thousands of research papers and analytical studies on ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups. What little attention has been given to Shia extremism has focused exclusively on Hezbollah. As a result, most Iran-backed militias in the Arab region remain off the radar, with little known about them, their ideology and their tactics.

Perhaps it is time that these critical issues be addressed, both politically and academically. Now, with the US administration showing greater concern over the expanding threat of Iran-sponsored groups and proxies, there is hope that this will happen.

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