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Feb 14, 2013 | 14:23 GMT

The Increasing Radicalization of Bahraini Protesters

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition groups have finally agreed to hold talks with the government, even as a mostly Shiite-led protest movement enters its third year. At the same time, however, a significant segment of Shiite opposition appears to be growing more radical.

One protester has already been killed by police on the two-year anniversary of the protests in Bahrain, and even as Wefaq, Bahrain's most important Shiite political party, joins the talks with the government, militant groups pursuing a greater confrontation with the Sunni regime of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa are continuing to target government infrastructure.

Wefaq had held 18 of seats in the Bahraini parliament (a plurality, though it was outnumbered by Sunni parties), but its members resigned after the protests began. Since then, it has staged weekly demonstrations and marches throughout the city, advocating for increased Shiite rights and calling on the prime minister to step down. During this time, the group has never fully participated in a national dialogue proposed by the government. Wefaq now has agreed to participate in talks currently under way between the Bahraini government and several other opposition groups.

Although the national dialogue likely will not yield significant or concrete results for the Shiite opposition, Wefaq's participation is noteworthy. In a way, it signals a diminishing threat to the al-Khalifa government from the mainstream Shiite opposition. Despite the group's participation, its leaders have continued to hold weekly illegal rallies and are planning another demonstration for Feb. 15. Wefaq rallies are not violent, but they are often co-opted by more radical Shiites who are part of the decentralized and youth-led February 14 Movement, one of the most active opposition groups in staging attacks.

The February 14 Movement, named for the day in 2011 on which the Bahraini protests began, has adopted increasingly violent protest tactics while demonstrating an unwillingness to be pacified by more mainstream groups. The group often targets security infrastructure, police forces and government workers, most commonly with Molotov cocktails and other arson-related methods. In the past, rebels associated with the February 14 Movement have even demonstrated the capability to construct and deploy homemade improvised explosive devices. One such explosive device was detonated near a police checkpoint in the Shiite village of Akr on April 9, 2012, injuring seven police officers.

In preparation for the anniversary of the first protests, a homemade explosive device was detonated at a mall in the town of Isa on Feb. 12, causing only material damage. The attack was likely spurred by calls from Wefaq and the February 14 Movement to boycott the purchasing of any goods on Feb. 14. The February 14 Movement issued a much more menacing threat Feb. 13, warning all airlines to cancel flights to and from Bahrain International Airport on Feb. 14. The group said the runway would be unsafe for planes beginning at 6 a.m. and told travelers they should cancel their trips for their own safety.

This is the first such threat levied against Bahrain's airport, and the group has built a reputation for following through on its threats. The attack on a police checkpoint came three days after the group warned it would soon begin to detonate explosive devices in sensitive government areas. Similarly, after issuing threats against foreign workers in Bahrain, the group began staging arson attacks against vehicles and businesses owned by South Asian expatriates.

However, the group has not always managed to achieve the results it has sought, likely because it lacks the necessary weapons, materials and expertise. For example, militants associated with the February 14 Movement conducted a string of attacks during the Bahrain Grand Prix Formula One event April 20-22, 2012. While it did stage attacks against security forces and struck the vehicle of the Sahara Force India Formula One Team with Molotov cocktails, it did not succeed in its stated goal of shutting down the race.

Based on the February 14 Movement's demonstrated tactical capabilities, a successful attack against aircraft or the runways at the heavily secured Bahraini International Airport is unlikely. However, it may be able to attack softer targets such as vehicles or checkpoints from the airport into the city of Manama. The airport is located on an island northeast of the mainland, requiring travel through Manama and the surrounding Shiite villages, providing the group with several targets leading up to the international airport.

As the al-Khalifa regime mends its ties with mainstream Shiite opposition groups, it will be able to demonstrate to the international community, and to other Shia complaining of a lack of rights in the country, that the government has largely mitigated the potential consequences of the Arab Spring. However, pacifying mainstream Shiites will do nothing to placate more radical groups such the February 14 Movement. These groups' goal is still the complete removal of the Sunni government, and their violent threats will thus continue.

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