U.S. Should Parallel U.K. Designations of Dangerous Iran-Backed Militias
Recently, the Arab League formally condemned Iran’s interference in Bahrain, citing the Islamic Republic’s support for domestic terrorist groups in the kingdom. Iran-backed terror cells have waged a grinding insurgency in Bahrain since 2011, prompting Western countries to take note and even designate some militias as terror entities. But the United States and its allies have yet to coordinate these actions.
Al-Ashtar Brigades is the most conspicuous of the groups, having claimed responsibility for roughly 20 bombings against security personnel since its establishment 2013. Al-Mukhtar Brigades is also prolific, having claimed a number of attacks against security forces, including with the use of IEDs. Al-Mukhtar Brigades is also reportedly active in Syria, fighting for the Assad regime. Smaller groups, such as the Popular Resistance Brigades and the Jund al-Mahdi Brigades, have claimed car bombs and the use of C4 explosives in Bahrain since 2013.
Several other groups, such as Waad Allah Brigades and al-Haydariyah Brigades, are suspected of being front groups for al-Ashtar Brigades; the Bahraini government has said as much. The overlap obfuscates their structure by Iranian design, which enables Tehran to hide its role in supporting these groups – and makes it difficult for authorities to distinguish organizations from cells. Many other suspected front groups, such as the Jundallah Brigades or the Sa’sa’a bin Sohan Brigades, claim some attacks and then fade into obscurity. This is also a deliberate tactic from Tehran, which enables the regime to conceal its influence while promoting the appearance of a large and organic Shiite opposition movement.
All of this has made international terrorism designations more complicated. For example, when the UK government designated al-Ashtar Brigades and al-Mukhtar Brigades in December 2017, it also designated Ashtar’s various front groups. Indeed, the Home Office proscribed Waad Allah Brigades, Islamic Allah Brigades, Imam al-Mahdi Brigades, and al-Haydariyah Brigades in the same stroke. However, when the U.S. State Department followed suit in July 2018, it only designated al-Ashtar Brigades, and its listings did not match those listed by UK. None of Ashtar’s aforementioned front groups, nor al-Mukhtar Brigades, were targeted in the State Department’s designation.
Bilateral designations between the U.S. and UK send an important message of unity, and set an example for other Western allies. Such unity is important now in support of the Trump administration’s policy of combatting Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East, and in defending Saudi Arabian and Bahraini security. As Washington prepares to ramp up financial pressure against Iran in November with the return of sanctions, Iran’s terrorist proxies will also come under scrutiny. Augmenting the U.S. terrorism designation lists to match those of our allies – assuming the intelligence can be verified – is a relatively easy way to turn up the heat.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Gulf. Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal. Follow them on Twitter @varshakoduvayur and @Weissenberg7.