News / Middle East

Bahraini Shi'ite Youth Risk Radicalization as Political Talks Stall

An anti-government protester throws tear gas canister fired by riot police during clashes after the funeral procession of Ali Abbas and Ahmed Al Mesjen who died when their car exploded in the village of Maqsha west of Manama, April 22, 2014.
An anti-government protester throws tear gas canister fired by riot police during clashes after the funeral procession of Ali Abbas and Ahmed Al Mesjen who died when their car exploded in the village of Maqsha west of Manama, April 22, 2014.
Dozens of black-clad, masked men parade through Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslim villages, some holding petrol bombs and others denouncing al Khalifa, the Sunni Muslim monarchy that has ruled the Gulf Arab island since the 18th century.

A few masked men jump through a ring of fire and crawl under barbed wire in what looks like a desert training zone. Hands work at what looks like a home-made bomb.

Scenes like these, broadcast in online videos in recent months, might once have been dismissed as a cry for attention by groups from Bahrain's big Shi'ite community seeking to shore up a flagging cause for democratic reform.

But they have coincided with a spread in sometimes lethal home-made bomb attacks, suggesting a growing radicalization among Shi'ite youth.

To be sure, the parades do not match either in size or armed might those of paramilitary Shi'ite militias elsewhere in the Middle East such as Lebanon's Hezbollah or Iraq's Mehdi Army. Nor do the bombs disturb everyday life in most of Bahrain, where explosions tend to target security forces in the mainly Shi'ite villages, far away from the capital.

But there are fears that a deadlock in political efforts to solve a three-year-old standoff is deepening frustration among young Shi'ites, with the more hotheaded of them seeming beyond the control of the mainstream al Wefaq opposition movement.

"We are fighting for our rights and nobody can stop us. The youngsters will continue what their fathers, brothers and uncles started," a 21-year-old man who gave his name only as S. A. told Reuters in the Shi'ite village of Janabiya. "Many of us have lost a member of the family; that has became a norm. But we are fighting back and will kill whoever is killing us."

The strategically vital kingdom, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has wrestled with low-level but persistent civil unrest since a Shi'ite-led uprising was put down in 2011, becoming a front line in a region-wide tussle for influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran across the Gulf.


Many of the youth in the videos hold the flag of the February 14th Youth Coalition, an internet-based group that has been organizing anti-government protests since security forces quelled mass demonstrations of February-March 2011, inspired by the "Arab Spring" wave of popular revolts against autocracy.

February 14th, named after the launch date of the 2011 uprising, has been declared a terrorist organization by the authorities along with two little-known groups: Saraya al-Ashtar (Ashtar Brigade) and Saraya al-Muqawama (Resistance Brigade), compounding the atmosphere of confrontation.

Demonstrators drawn mainly from the Shi'ite community have kept up small protests almost daily, demanding the Sunni ruling family create a constitutional monarchy.

Some of the protests turn violent, with police firing tear gas, stun grenade and birdshot at youth burning tires and throwing rocks, metal rods and petrol bombs at security forces.

The violence is mainly in Shi'ite villages well away from Manama where businesses and expatriates are hardly affected.

Yet, there is a risk of a deadly attack that could plunge Bahrain into a more brutal cycle of violence. Tension simmers with no solution for the grievances cited by the Shi'ite community, particularly the youth many of whom say they have members of their families either shot by police or in jail.

Bahraini Shi'ites complain of political and economic marginalization, an accusation the government denies.

Justin Gengler, a Bahrain expert at Qatar University, says the risk of youth radicalization is "a predictable consequence".

"When a large segment of the population feels that so-called 'representative' institutions are stacked against them, and that no viable avenue of reform exists, then it is not surprising that they would turn to extra-political means of affecting change," he said.

"The unrest is contained, it is managed to a great extent," said a Western diplomat, who asked for anonymity.

"But there is a sense, I think, that if they don't come to a political solution, it could be a big event that would set it off, and it could develop into sectarian [violence]. It is one
of the greatest fears."

Diplomatic and security sources in Manama cite increasing evidence of Iranian support for some "violent" anti-government groups in Bahrain. They point to a foiled attempt to smuggle explosives and arms, some made in Iran and Syria, into the country by boat last year.

"The evidence is irrefutable, the Iranians are involved," said the Western diplomat, who added that groups behind the attacks were getting better in making deadly explosives.

Iran has always denied accusations of fueling the unrest, yet it champions the cause of Bahrain's Shi'ite opposition.

Video of bomb attacks

The online videos include footage purportedly of some of the bomb attacks that have killed or wounded policemen in recent months. In one video, masked youths run with petrol bombs which they throw at an armored police vehicle. The car, on fire, drives away and the youth shout "Allah Akbar" (God is great).

Parts of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's speeches, or songs calling to "answer the call of the Coalition", are sometimes played in the background of other videos.

Reuters could not independently verify the videos. Some commentators have pointed out that they could have been made by government loyalists to mobilize support for the authorities.

Yet analysts, security and diplomatic sources say the recent spike in the frequency and deadliness of bombing attacks, mainly on policemen, indicate a greater level of experience and training by the attackers than two years ago.

Mohammed al-Sayed of Citizens for Bahrain, which identifies itself as an online moderate movement, said there is growing concern that radicals from both Sunni and Shi'ite communities are gaining ground.

"If it's policemen today, then it's civilians tomorrow that would be targeted," he said.

"Another main concern among Bahrainis is that children are being exploited. They are blocking roads, burning tires and even carrying bombs in some areas. If this is what we will be facing in the future of Bahrain's youth, what will happen in 10 or 20 years and how polarized and radicalized would they become?"

During this year's Formula One Grand Prix race, a home-made bomb exploded in a car in a busy commercial district of Manama.

No casualties were reported and the F1 race was unaffected. But the blast took place near a government security building, despite tight security around the country because of the race, raising fears of possible high-profile attacks.

A meeting between Bahrain's crown prince and opposition leaders in January pulled reconciliation talks back from the brink of collapse but mutual mistrust runs deep. Little progress has been made since and the opposition said talks were "frozen".

"The political crisis is deep and will not be solved with superficial talks that aim to waste time and continue human rights violations," opposition groups said in a statement last week. Information Minister Samira Rajab said on April 27 the talks were continuing, according to state news agency BNA.

"It is a political game," said a Wefaq member who asked not to be named. "They want to pressure the opposition to negotiate and lessen their demands. But we worry that the more violent the authorities become, the more violent the people will also become.

You May Like

Video Egyptian Journalists Call for Press Freedom

Despite release of al-Jazeera journalists and others, Egyptian Journalist Syndicate says some remain imprisoned More

Turkey Survey Indicates Traditional Distrusts, Shift to the West

Comprehensive public opinion survey also found a large majority of those interviewed distrust all countries other than country’s neighbor, Azerbaijan More

Pakistan Court Upholds Death Sentence in Blasphemy Killing

Highest court upholds sentence of Mumtaz Qadri convicted of 2011 killing a provincial governor for criticizing country’s controversial blasphemy law More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs