How long before a campaign of urban terrorism is launched in Bahrain?

I can't believe I have to ask this question, but everyone is skirting around it and somebody has to point out the obvious: between the increasingly hardline demands of some of the more extreme opposition groups and, above all, the campaign of political repression launched by the government of Bahrain and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, what began as a manageable political situation is at the brink of no return. This has become obvious over the past week in particular, and it had been my intention to begin a grim posting of this nature with a timeline and summary of how the situation has deteriorated to the point where the question I posed in my title has become unavoidable. But the outstanding Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written a flawless, pitch-perfect summary and analysis of these developments, published on Carnegie's website on April 4, and there is no point my retracing it in such detail. I recommend reading her acute diagnosis not only for its precise factual content but also as a textbook example of how to perform a timeline/summary of the development of a crisis, interspersed with wise and insightful analysis. For me, this is political writing at its very finest, and the narrative she outlines with such precision forms the essential background of my deep concern about where things are going in Bahrain.

The bottom line is that under Saudi Arabian and other GCC “guidance” and influence, the government and royal family of Bahrain has responded to the protest and reform movement with a program of total political repression. This was completely avoidable, as initially the protest movement was not strictly sectarian nor initially aimed at removing the royal family or completely overhauling the political system in the country. There's no doubt that the government's violent response, starting on February 17, to what had been peaceful protests at the Pearl Roundabout began the pattern of overreaction between extremists on both sides that has utterly foreclosed the obvious solution of a partial opening up of political space and the beginning of a process of moving towards a truly constitutional monarchy. It also began the process of ensuring that the protest movement in Bahrain became increasingly and is now almost entirely sectarian.

There was an initial move away from total repression. The King himself apologized for the first deaths, and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa made many of the right noises and apparently attempted to initiate a productive dialogue with the opposition. Some opposition groups such as the leading moderate but sectarian Shiite political association al-Wifaq undoubtedly did place some onerous conditions on the opening of a dialogue, and bear their share of the blame for the rapid breakdown of the possibility of a reform dialogue. But in the end whatever influence the Crown Prince and his apparent moderate faction within the regime had, hard-liners centered around his uncle, the Prime Minister Khalifa Bin Salman al-Khalifa, clearly won out. So did extremists among the protesters, most notably the more militant Shiite organization al-Haq, led by Hassan Mushaima, who, along with other Shiite opposition groups, proclaimed the intention of founding a “republic” in place of the Island Kingdom. It was assumed that al-Haq at least, if not the other two organizations in the "Coalition for a Bahraini Republic" which was announced on March 8, had left the word “Islamic” — in the manner of the “Islamic Republic of Iran” — implicit but clearly discernible in their call. Hardliners on both sides by that point had drawn red lines neither could tolerate. The process by which extremists on both sides seized the momentum was neatly summarized in an excellent analysis in The National by Caryle Murphy, also published on April 4.

Violent repression continued, and culminated in the invitation to GCC armed forces to intervene, led by 1,200 Saudi forces that crossed the causeway into Bahrain on March 14. On March 17, Mushaima and four other leading Shiite opposition figures were arrested. So was the social democrat reformist Dr. Ibrahim Sharif of the al-Wa'ad organization, a moderate, non-sectarian group (I spoke at their headquarters in Manama the week before the last US presidential election, and if they are radicals, then there are no moderate opposition figures in Bahrain). Bahraini security forces, GCC troops and un-uniformed armed gangs have instituted what amounts to a reign of terror in Manama, largely focused on the Shiite community. All political space for opposition, particularly Shiite opposition or dissent of any kind, in Bahrain is now completely closed. Opposition newspapers are shut. Leaders, both moderate and extreme, are in prison. Medical services have been targeted, injured patients rounded up in hospitals and often denied medical care, and doctors arrested. The Pearl monument, the focal point of the protests and the main landmark of the city, has been demolished by the government. A draconian emergency law put in place. At least 300 people arrested. 25 people killed. A widescale crackdown on various professional sectors, including public employees, professional organizations and unions is underway. One could go on, but the big picture is extremely clear: there is no political space for dissent of any kind in Bahrain anymore.

The sectarian character of this crisis has become undisguised and unmistakable. This has been driven by the government's attitude, influenced by its GCC allies, which holds that the entire affair is an Iranian plot. It has also been shaped by some of the more hardline protesters who have made clear their attitude that the royal family, which originates from Qatar, and much of the Sunni community, is a foreign presence whose rule, and perhaps even residency, in the island is coming to an end. What should have been a manageable negotiation over the opening of political space and moves to end discrimination and marginalization against the Shiite majority has become an existential struggle. Since the protests began in February, it's been de rigueur to say it's not too late to pull back from the brink, and I've said so many times. In fact, my initial attitude — which was misguidedly based on the logic of the political situation rather than the sectarian hysteria, ideology and total irrationality which has bizarrely won out on both sides of the equation (although it should be noted that the government holds most of the cards and therefore bears most of the blame) — was to describe “the drama in Manama” as a “sideshow” to the broader “Arab Spring.” That's probably still true: what's happening in Bahrain is only tangentially connected to the wider Arab reform process and anti-government protest movements, precisely because it is more a function of a long-standing sectarian conflict between a Sunni ruling minority and a disenfranchised Shiite majority. But we may really be reaching the point of no return.

The facts speak for themselves: there is no political space left at all for dialogue or dissent; the conflict has become entirely sectarian; extremists on both sides have all the momentum; and the situation is totally untenable. Also on April 4 (which has all the hallmarks of a turning point in perceptions), the Saudi cabinet issued a statement touching on many subjects, but claiming that, "Peace and stability returned to Bahrain as a result of the wisdom of its leadership in dealing with its internal matters and because of its people giving priority to national interests.” I don't know how one could possibly tweak this sentence to make it any more incorrect. Even though the crackdown is total, and at this stage weapons are being almost entirely held, or certainly used, by only one side (the Bahraini government, its GCC allies and its armed gangs), the idea that “peace and stability have returned to Bahrain” is utterly delusional. To the contrary, what we have is a classic formula for the emergence of the most dangerous of political phenomena: a campaign of urban terrorism, in this case by extremist Shiites.

In my view the question is probably more one of when and how, rather than if, such a campaign begins, and what its character, scope and effects will be. Just as al-Haq operates to the political and sectarian right of the traditionally larger and more mainstream al-Wifaq organization, are there not now or will there not soon inevitably be those to the right of al-Haq? Is it really conceivable that among a disenfranchised and marginalized majority of between 60-70 percent of a country, however small, facing a situation of total crackdown and violent repression with a complete closing down of all political space, there will not be those who conclude that "fire must be met with fire?" I can't think of a parallel situation in which that hasn't eventually happened.

The United States might have been able to play a moderating role, but was unable to do so (it apparently tried without any success). Ultimately its interests, driven by the hosting of its Fifth Fleet in a huge naval base in Bahrain and concerns about Iranian designs on the island and the Gulf region as a whole, lie with the continuation of the ruling family, especially if the alternative is its overthrow by Shiite Islamists or other opposition movements unfriendly to the United States. Therefore, no matter how much it disapproved of the government's reaction and the GCC intervention, which it publicly criticized, the Obama administration has not been able to prevent the deterioration I've described.

The wildcard here of course is Iran. There are strong cultural, familial and other connections, beyond simply Shiite religious affiliation, between large sections of the Bahraini Shiite community and Iran, and a subsection of it is directly Persian in origin. There isn't any strong evidence of major Iranian involvement in the Bahraini uprising to date, but without doubt the Bahraini royal family and, possibly even more strongly, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have seen the entire opposition movement as either directly an Iranian plot or inevitably accruing to the benefit of Tehran. Iran has a long-standing territorial claim on Bahrain, which caused major tensions with Britain and Arab Gulf states in the 50s and 60s, and which has been downplayed but probably not abandoned during the era of the “Islamic Republic.” In all Arab states with large Shiite populations, the influence of Iran is a hotly debated topic. In Lebanon, for example, strong ties between Hezbollah and Iran and its Revolutionary Guards are beyond question, but the degree of independence the organization has from Tehran is not really known and hasn't been tested in many years. The relationship between Iran and Shiite political parties in Iraq has proven extremely complex. Some of those that were very close to, and indeed based in, Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, but have risen to national political prominence since the US invasion, have distanced themselves from Iran as they have had to assume responsibility for governing a country that does not have a Shiite majority and has its own independent culture and national interests. On the other hand, the organization led by Muqtada Sadr, which was originally more nationalistic and skeptical of Iranian intentions, appears to have been strongly drawn into the Iranian orbit, and Sadr himself relocated to Iran, ostensibly for purposes of religious higher education and clerical advancement.

In the 90s, the Bahraini government accused Iran of having established a “Hezbollah Bahrain” to organize a coup against the royal family, but the evidence was scant and, although there was a serious uprising, the real existence of such a plot — let alone a Bahraini version of Hezbollah or a campaign of terrorism by such an organization — remained highly questionable. Bahraini Shiites have launched protests and uprisings, including rioting, on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century, notably in the 1950s and 1990s, but never turned to a campaign of urban terrorism. I'm certainly not arguing that it's inevitable that such a phenomenon will develop now, but I think the strong possibility can only be discounted by people who are not paying attention or thinking critically. By totally closing down all political space in the manner they have, the Bahraini government and its GCC allies, especially Saudi Arabia, have presented a golden opportunity for any extremists within the Bahraini Shiite community inclined to conclude that there is no other way forward.

Assuming there are extremist Bahraini Shiites who are beginning to consider this option seriously, given that all other alternatives appear to be most unwisely and foolishly foreclosed by the government's extraordinary overreaction, the question of Iran's influence and role becomes exceptionally important. If such a group were to approach Tehran with a request for support for this kind of campaign, would the Iranians find it in their strategic interests to help in any way, including indirectly through the Lebanese Hezbollah? Would they give it a wink and nod, but ask not to be involved directly or indirectly? Would they strongly warn against any such move for their own purposes? It's impossible to answer these questions. More importantly, would all Bahraini Shiites considering this extreme option abandon the idea of a campaign of urban sabotage and/or terrorism if strongly discouraged, for whatever reason, by Tehran? The biggest problem with modern urban terrorism is that it only requires a tiny handful of people with rudimentary knowledge, armed with a combination of readily available household items and both deep ruthlessness and extreme recklessness to begin the process.

History suggests that the beginning of such a movement need not be spectacular or particularly ambitious in its destructive acts. A handful of people with Molotov cocktails or other crude devices taking to the streets around the same time on a given evening in strategic locations are capable of stoking extreme panic under such circumstances. The government and its allies have already overreacted to peaceful protests and arrested moderate and extremist opposition figures alike, shutting down all political space. The goal of even a modest opening salvo of urban terrorism or sabotage is typically to provoke an overreaction on the part of the authorities being targeted, and in this case that seems virtually guaranteed. The calculus would then be that the overreaction would seem to justify the sabotage or terrorism in the eyes of many people who otherwise might have been disapproving, allowing the movement to grow, gain strength and develop over time to the point that it becomes a real threat to national security and political stability. In other words, it requires a wise and calm government to defuse a modest outbreak of urban terrorism by small groups of extremists, but an overreaction generally plays precisely into their hands and turns a manageable security situation into an unmanageable one. The Bahraini government and its allies have already succeeded in turning a manageable political situation into an unmanageable one. Why should they be expected to react in a more rational, constructive and prudent manner to a violent security threat, however limited and symbolic?

What I'm suggesting is that all the conditions for a campaign of urban terrorism and sabotage are in place right now in Manama. It may or may not gain the support or even approval of Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, or any other outside forces. But that wouldn't necessarily stop it from launching itself in a modest, limited manner. This then has the capacity, and under the present circumstances I fear even the likelihood, of spiraling out of control if there are unwise overreactions by the authorities.

Thankfully at this stage such a scenario is entirely speculative. Indeed, I've rarely engaged in a piece of speculation I more heartily hoped would prove to be misinformed or misguided, or more strongly wished for events to move in a very different direction. It's hard to imagine anything more frightening in the Gulf at this stage, but it's also very easy to imagine it happening. The political opportunity is there. Given an extremist mindset, which some, especially aggrieved, people all over the world have, the logic presents itself ineluctably. It doesn't require external support and wouldn't necessarily acquiesce to external prohibitions. It doesn't require a large group or sophisticated knowledge or equipment either. The door for just such a scenario has been opened wide, and — I'm deeply pained to say — when a political space like this is presented over an extended period of time, eventually somebody usually ends up walking through that door and taking possession of that space.