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US designates anti-government Bahraini organisation as terrorist group

Mike Pompeo says Saraya al-Mukhtar has received support from Iran and plotted to attack US personnel in Bahrain
Saudi-led forces crushed a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain in 2011 (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

The Trump administration has designated Saraya al-Mukhtar, a Shia Bahraini group, as a terrorist organisation, the US State Department said on Tuesday.

Washington blacklisted the group as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organisation, accusing it of "posing a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism that threaten the national security and foreign policy of the United States".

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saraya al-Mukhtar "reportedly" received financial and logistic support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

"The group has plotted attacks against US personnel in Bahrain and has offered cash rewards for the assassination of Bahraini officials," Pompeo said in a statement.

Normalisation

The designation freezes the group's assets in the United States, makes it a crime to provide material support to the organisation, and bars US citizens from doing business with it.

"This action notifies the US public and the international community that Saraya al-Mukhtar poses a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism," Pompeo said. 

"Designations of terrorist organizations expose and isolate them and deny them access to the US financial system. Moreover, designations can assist the law enforcement actions of other US agencies and governments."

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The announcement comes weeks after the Bahraini government signed a US-brokered normalisation deal with Israel. Washington has been bestowing diplomatic rewards on Arab countries that formalise diplomatic ties with Israel.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, linked Tuesday's designation to normalisation.

"The activities of Saraya al-Mukhtar have significantly diminished since 2018 but the Trump administration is standing by those Arab allies who normalised with Israel," Macaron told MEE.

"While Morocco got US recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara and Sudan was delisted as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Trump administration is showing support for Bahrain in a designation that has no real impact whatsoever."

The Bahraini government, which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, welcomed the US designation on Tuesday.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain commends the relentless efforts undertaken by the United States of America in combatting all extremist terrorist organizations, stressing the importance of concreted international efforts and taking serious action to eradicate terrorism in all its forms," the ministry said in a statement.

Rights abuses

Bahraini courts have previously sentenced suspects allegedly linked to the group to years in prison and revoked their citizenship.

In 2017, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, Saraya al-Mukhtar was included in a list of "terrorist groups" that the Riyadh-led bloc said were linked to Doha. The Qatari government has vehemently denied supporting militant groups.

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Several militant groups accused of ties to Iran sprung up in Bahrain after a 2011 pro-democracy uprising in the kingdom. But while sporadic attacks have targeted security forces, the armed opposition failed to turn into a full insurgency that would threaten the royal family's grip on power.

In 2018, Washington designated al-Ashtar Brigades - another Bahrain group it said was linked to Iran - as a terror group. The United Kingdom labelled both al-Ashtar Brigades and Saraya al-Mukhtar as "proscribed terrorist organisations" late in 2017.

Tehran had enthusiastically cheered for the Bahraini protests in 2011. The island kingdom has a majority-Shia population ruled by Sunni royals.

The uprising was subsequently crushed by UAE and Saudi-led forces that deployed to the island at the invitation by Manama.  

The tiny monarchy has since jailed prominent opposition activists, journalists and rights defenders. 

Earlier this year, rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, called on the government in Manama to release all political prisoners amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Authorities must now speedily release those who never should have been in jail in the first place, namely all prisoners of conscience who remain detained solely for exercising their right to peaceful expression," Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s Middle East director of research, said in a statement in April. 

"We also urge the authorities to step up measures to ensure full respect for the human rights of all those deprived of their liberty."