Bahrain’s Jihadist Dilemma

In recent years Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have waged crackdowns on local Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movements and their alleged sympathizers under the banner of combating “global terrorism.” These governments claim that the MB’s rhetoric, espousing peaceful democratic reform, is disingenuous, and that it is actually committed to violently overthrowing the Gulf’s monarchies.

At the heart of the issue is these Gulf governments’ belief that the MB’s alternative interpretation of Islam’s role in politics — in which the ballot box serves as the means to acquire political power — threatens the legitimacy of these distinctly undemocratic monarchies. The real threat is what the MB represents in terms of political reform at a time when citizenries from Morocco to Kuwait have demonstrated against their governments’ authoritarianism, corruption, and economic policies.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Bahrain’s government has nurtured a political alliance with the Bahraini MB, primarily rooted in a sectarian agenda that serves a unique purpose in Bahrain, the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state with a Shi’ite-majority population. For years, Bahrain’s MB has played an open and prominent role in Bahraini civil society while functioning as a charity organization. The MB operates a political wing (Islamic Minbar) that holds seven seats in the parliament. Some members of the ruling Al Khalifa family are deeply connected with key figures in the Brotherhood and Bahrain’s government even reportedly funds Islamic Minbar.

The pains that the Al Khalifa family take to avoid alienating Islamic Minbar are best understood within the context of Bahrain’s Arab Awakening. Since 2011, Islamic Minbar has played a critical role in uniting Bahrain’s Sunni Islamists behind the monarchy that faces steadfast Shi’ite opposition.

However, recent geopolitical developments in the GCC and the wider Middle East are complicating this political alliance.

Bahrain has grown increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia in terms of Manama’s domestic and foreign policies. Saudi security forces (in addition to those of the UAE and Kuwait) played a pivotal role in the crackdown on the Bahraini Shi’ite protestors in March 2011. Bahrain has also come to view Saudi Arabia as an increasingly important ally vis-à-vis Iran at a time when the Bahraini and Saudi governments share paranoia of the U.S. and Iran reaching a rapprochement at the expense of Washington’s alliances with Sunni Arab states. Such fears have increased in light of recent events in Iraq. Authorities in Manama may therefore be challenged to maintain a domestic alliance with Islamic Minbar in an effort not to anger the leadership in Riyadh.

While in Pakistan earlier this year, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister defended Manama’s decision to avoid labeling Islamic Minbar a terrorist organization, given that the group had respected the monarchy’s authority, never posed a security threat, nor belonged to any transnational movement. Yet, he simultaneously acknowledged Bahrain’s acceptance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s perceived need to designate the MB as a terrorist organization. The foreign minister wrote on Twitter that “the Muslim Brotherhood is a global movement with a single approach and is spread throughout the world, and will be dealt with according to the law of each country and the covenants to which it is party.”

Bahrain’s decision in March to join Saudi Arabia and the UAE and recall its ambassador to Qatar, as well as to provide financial and moral support to Egypt’s military after the 2013 coup, further underscored Manama’s ambiguous position on the MB’s role in the region. Ultimately, such contradictions can be interpreted as strategic, given Manama’s vested interest in maintaining Saudi backing, while sustaining the alliance with Islamic Minbar in the face of Shi’ite opposition.

Since its establishment in 2002, Bahrain’s main Salafist movement — Al-Asalah Society — has traditionally maintained staunch loyalty to the monarchy, avoided political activism, and refrained from becoming associated with international causes (much like Salafist movements in other Middle Eastern countries). However, Al-Asalah has evolved to become increasingly active in Bahrain’s political landscape by forming a political wing that won six seats in the 2006 parliamentary election. The group’s leader justified the entrance into politics by asserting doing so prevented a greater “evil” from occurring (such as Bahrain’s Sunni minority losing power).

At the same time there is reason to believe that Al-Asalah is indeed becoming increasingly focused on transnational causes. For example, as of July 2013, Abdelhalim Murad, the group’s MP, reportedly organized 1,640 Bahraini jihadists to travel to Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. In August 2012, Murad reportedly entered Syria via the Turkish border to meet with Suqur al-Sham and Liwaa Dawud, two radical jihadist groups.

The incarceration of six Bahrainis at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with the Bahraini government’s announcement that between 2003 and 2012 it uncovered cells within Bahrain that were fundraising for al Qaeda, and training militants to target Western interests in the gulf state (which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet), has raised doubts about Bahraini Salafists’ loyalties to the Khalifa family and its strict focus on domestic affairs.

There is indication that authorities in Manama are increasingly concerned about blowback from the Syrian crisis. Like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is taking action to prevent its citizens from traveling to Syria to join the ranks of other Mujahideen forces committed to toppling Assad’s government. In May last year, Bahrain’s Interior Minister called on young Bahrainis to “stay away from regional and international conflicts and instead focus on developing yourselves, your country, and your society.”

The de facto establishment of a caliphate — ruled by the world’s most powerful jihadist militia, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — in portions of Syria and Iraq last month only raises greater concern that young Bahraini jihadists will have new incentives and opportunities to fight in regional battles, especially if ISIS can maintain its territory and establish a launch pad for like-minded terrorist groups in the heart of the Middle East. It also raises into question just how effective the Bahraini government — and indeed all the GCC governments — can be in stemming the flow of sympathetic fighters to the ranks of ISIS and other militant jihadist groups.

Like other GCC members, Bahrain’s position on the sectarian conflicts in Syria and Iraq is confusing and at times contradictory. Certain actions indicate that Manama is committed to supporting the Syrian rebellion, particularly given that the ruling monarchy shares the ISIS agenda of countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East. At the same time, Manama is concerned about militant jihadists returning to the Gulf to point their guns on the ruling monarchies, which many hardline Takfiris view as corrupt puppets of Western powers.

The Bahraini government places a high value on Sunni Islamists such as Islamic Minbar that are committed to backing the monarchy and maintaining staunch loyalty to the Al Khalifa family. The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and the rapid development of ISIS, have demonstrated that the multifaceted conflicts in the Middle East have become that much more difficult to control, and threaten to impact the Gulf’s political landscape.

Despite Riyadh’s interest in pressuring Manama to join the campaign to eradicate the MB from the Gulf, it appears doubtful that Bahraini officials will make moves that would risk either pushing the Islamic Minbar members closer to international jihadist forces or weakening the Sunni monarchy vis-à-vis the Shi’ite opposition. For that reason, Bahrain finds itself in an increasingly untenable position. If it misplays its hand, or events in the region outpace the government’s ability to manage domestic politics, the Bahraini government could find itself facing a dire crisis in the near future.

This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.