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US Adds Iran-backed Bahraini Militant Group to Terror List

Asian workers walk past images of political prisoners plastered on a wall in Malkiya village, Bahrain, Nov. 4, 2015. Bahrain says it has arrested 47 suspects and seized explosives in a counter terrorism operation, and has again alleged Iranian involvement in militant attacks.

Al-Ashtar Brigades, a Bahraini Shi'ite militant organization with ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has been identified as a specially designated global terrorist organization by the United States, the U.S. State Department announced Tuesday.

A statement from the State Department said al-Ashtar Brigades earlier this year adopted the IRGC branding and pledged loyalty to Tehran. It accused the group of enhancing Iran’s agenda in the Gulf region and working to overthrow the U.S.-backed government of Bahrain.

“From Africa, Europe, North America, Asia, and the Gulf, Iran is using terrorist proxies to extend its malevolent influence and upend international peace and stability,” said the department's counterterrorism coordinator Nathan A. Sales.

“Al-Ashtar is yet another in a long line of Iranian sponsored terrorists who kill on behalf of a corrupt regime. Today’s designation serves notice that the United States sees plainly what Iran is trying to do to Bahrain through its proxy, the terrorist group Al-Ashtar,” Sales said.

The Shi'ite Saraya al-Ashtar, or al-Ashtar Brigades, was established in 2013 with the main goal of resisting the monarchy in the small Arab island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. It claims to represent the angry voices of the country’s Shi'ite population who, despite being an overwhelming majority, are ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa clan.

The group is held responsible for about 20 attacks in Bahrain, mostly against police officers and security forces. It also has conducted attacks outside the country, including a March 2014 bombing in the United Arab Emirates that killed two local police officers.

Axis of resistance

In January 2018, the group changed its logo to reflect Iran’s IRGC branding and announced itself as part of “the Axis of Resistance,” a term used by Iran and its proxies across the Middle East that refers to groups opposing the influence of the U.S. and its allies.

The State Department said the organization’s members have received weapons and explosives from Iran and have been trained at IRGC-funded camps in Iraq.

The State Department’s statement added that the group’s leaders have been taking sanctuary in Iran to avoid prosecution by Bahraini authorities.

The designation Tuesday will sanction the group to limit its ability to carry out attacks and prohibit any dealings with it.

“These designations support a larger campaign to deter Iran’s malign behavior and stop its support for terrorists around the world,” the statement said.

The U.S. government has imposed a series of sanctions against the Iranian regime and its allies in the Middle East and beyond since May when the U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Monday blacklisted Malaysian sales agent Mahan Travel and Tourism Sdn Bhd for ties with the sanctioned Iranian airline Mahan Air.