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.
Reuters
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.

Polarization

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

Unpaid Kurdish Fighters Sign of Economic Woes

Sharp cuts in Kurdistan's budget by Baghdad, falling oil revenue, coping with refugees, inflated public sector have hit regional economy hard More

Koreas Exchange List of Envoys for Family Reunion Talks

Officials will discuss date, venue and number of participants for reunion; Seoul hopes to hold event late this month More

China Targets 197 in Online Speech Crackdown

Nearly 200 punished for 'spreading rumors' online in ongoing crackdown on free speech More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 02, 2015 6:19 PM
Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.

VOA Blogs