CONCERNS that Iranian-backed militants in Bahrain could start using drone surveillance, assassination tactics and unmanned vehicles to smuggle in weapons have been expressed by American anti-terrorism experts.
The warning is contained in a comprehensive analysis published by the US Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC), based at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
It says Bahrain is witnessing a third generation of militants who, having been trained in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, have evolved from “detectable groups of amateurs” since 2011 to professionals carrying out Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks using “sticky bombs”.
“A third generation of militants is now arguably active and the insurgency picked up again in 2017,” states the analysis, which appears in the January edition of the CTC’s Sentinel publication.
“Though fewer explosive devices were detonated in 2017 (nine bombings) than in 2013 (10), the attacks caused seven security force deaths and 24 injuries in 2017 versus six security force deaths and seven injuries in 2013.
“The networks active in the summer of 2017 had access to multiple bomb-making workshops and cache sites.”
The report was compiled by Dr Michael Knights, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Washington Institute Stein Programme on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence director Dr Matthew Levitt.
It says there is evidence that terrorist cells in Bahrain are using prototype IEDs, supplied from abroad, as training aids and models for the domestic manufacture of such bombs.
“Causing more security force deaths in 2017 than 2013, attacks are increasingly set to occur when and where the fewest civilians are present, in part due to growing public disquiet over the collateral damage caused by bombings,” adds the report.
“The cells are not only undertaking remote-control IED attacks on police buses, but also new categories of targeted attack.
“Under-vehicle IEDs (so-called ‘sticky bombs’) are emerging in the militants’ arsenal.”
It cites examples of four sticky bombs seized between January and October last year in Daih and Karzakan.
Summarising attacks during the past seven years, it highlights the targeting of shopping malls, ATM machines, car dealerships, power stations, the airport, Bahrain Financial Harbour and the US Navy base in Juffair by violent offshoots of the Bahraini opposition movement.
“Bahraini authorities are increasingly concerned that militant cells seem to be arming and training to attack protected facilities or armoured convoys, possibly to strike government leadership figures,” it added.
The experts described the introduction of Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) devices as alarming and “a potentially game-changing weapon for Iran and its proxies to deploy in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf”.
They also pointed to the discovery of bags containing small arms and explosives, which were professionally water-proofed and attached to floating buoys, as evidence of a shift in smuggling tactics.
“Weapons smugglers appear to have shifted from direct delivery of weapons to the Bahraini mainland (by boat) to an indirect system of dropping water-proofed weapons in Bahraini waters, with militants undertaking pick-up themselves to lessen the risk to smugglers,” says the report.
“The next stage of this process is expected to be delivery by unmanned vessels, with Bahraini security officials stating that they anticipate the use of programmable drone boats to bring materials into Bahrain in the future in order to make it completely unnecessary for smugglers to risk penetrating Bahraini waters with manned craft.”
Meanwhile, the report highlights a shift in tactics from using “amateur bomb-throwers” to small cells of “externally trained terrorist operators”, with the 2013 emergence of groups controlled and financed from Iran.
“These organisations appear to have maintained quite small active-service memberships, with even the largest – Saraya Al Ashtar – limited to operating two or three attack cells and a similar number of bomb-making workshops at any given time,” it says.
“The narrowing down of active-service units may have been deliberate, replacing the insecure networks of amateur bomb-throwers with small cells of externally trained terrorist operators.”
The authors describe armed resistance by militants as being at an all time low in 2016, but suggest the loss of trained manpower may have triggered two prison breakouts and efforts by Iran in 2016 to 2017 to free key unit members.
However, they warn that Iran and its proxy militias in Lebanon and Iraq continue to provide training and IEDs to sleeper cells in Bahrain.
“Iran’s effort brought significant quantities of military high explosives into Bahrain and assisted Bahraini cells in developing IED workshops capable of churning out reliable, remote-controlled IEDs,” says the report.
“Bahraini militants have witnessed the attrition of two generations of fighters since 2011 and have emerged as a smaller, tempered movement with better operational security.
“Iran is adapting its resupply methods to cope with tighter maritime policing, using at-sea caching of weapons and perhaps drone boats.”
It also envisions future Iranian support for militants in Bahrain.
“Indicators of a more ambitious Iranian strategy in Bahrain might include assassinations of Bahraini security leaders, stockpiling of larger stores of small arms and ammunition, further prison breaks or weapons thefts and an expansion in the manpower pool of trained Bahraini militants available for use in a future uprising,” it warns.