Bahrain: US State Department Documents Decline in Terrorism Last Year, Continued Rights Concerns

On 19 July 2017, the United States (US) Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT) released its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2016. Although the country report on Bahrain fails to assess the full impact of the kingdom’s increasing abuse of counterterror measures to target nonviolent activism and dissent, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the State Department’s continued engagement on combating terrorism in Bahrain and urges the Bahraini government to address the human rights concerns raised in the report.

The State Department finds that “terrorist attacks against [Bahrain’s] security forces declined in 2016,” with “at least three attacks result[ing] in casualties or injuries; only one of which involved explosives.” According to the report, Bahrain’s primary terror threats remain “violent Shia militants and ISIS sympathizers.” While Bahraini authorities continue to implement the kingdom’s expanded counterterror legislation and have reportedly begun drafting a “National Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy in line with the UN Secretary-General’s Preventing Violent Extremism Plan of Action,” they did not institute any significant new counterterror measures in 2016. The State Department additionally finds that while the kingdom is experiencing continued ISIS activity, “Bahrain has not contributed substantively to the [Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS] military efforts since 2014.” Though the Bahrain country report does not provide evidence of Iranian involvement in the kingdom, the report on Iran states that “on January 6, 2016, Bahraini security officials dismantled a terrorist cell, linked to [the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force] planning to carry out a series of bombings.” The veracity of these links has been questioned in independent media reports on the incident.

Ultimately, the report presents a mixed review of Bahrain’s counterterror efforts in 2016. It asserts that “the Bahraini government continued to make gains in detecting, neutralizing, and containing terrorist threats,” but also notes concerns that these anti-terror measures have led to human rights violations, including arbitrary deprivation of nationality and the misuse of the INTERPOL red notice system to “pursue politically motivated cases against mainstream opposition and Shia activists without a history of involvement in violent acts.” Furthermore, the State Department highlights that the kingdom’s broad anti-terror legislation allows for the criminalization of speech acts and nonviolent dissent: “in Bahrain, the potential politicization of terrorist finance and money laundering issues threatens to conflate legitimate prosecutions of militants with politically-motivated actions against mainstream, nonviolent opposition and Shia community, including Shia clerics.” This appears to be a reference to the government’s June 2016 decision to issue an un-appealable denaturalization order against Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s most prominent Shia religious leader, and to prosecute him for money laundering charges stemming from the traditional Shia practice of khums. Similarly, the report finds that the stalled national dialogue process has undermined effective counterterror operations: “The lack of trust between the government and opposition after several years of political paralysis may continue to complicate any government efforts to prosecute legitimate financial crimes, including the financing of terrorism.”

However, despite providing a more thorough analysis of relevant human rights concerns than the 2015 country report, the 2016 edition does not address the full breadth of the Bahraini government’s abuse of counterterror measures. It fails to acknowledge or explicitly condemn the scale of denaturalization, for example, with more than 450 individuals stripped of their citizenship since 2012, many of whom were ultimately rendered stateless and deported. The State Department also fails to note that amendments to Bahrain’s anti-terror and citizenship legislation allow the Ministry of the Interior to issue un-appealable denaturalization orders without trial, as in the case of Sheikh Isa Qassim, which violate international due process standards. United Nations (UN) human rights experts have repeatedly condemned Bahrain’s use of counterterror mechanisms to conduct arbitrary denaturalizations and the State Department itself released a statement expressing “alarm” over the government’s “practice of withdrawing the nationality of its citizens arbitrarily” in 2016.

Furthermore, the report does not express concern over the anti-terror law’s explicit criminalization of free expression rather than the mere risk of conflation, in addition to the excessive authority the legislation grants to Bahrain’s security forces. The 2006 Law of Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts allows authorities to prosecute individuals as terrorists for speech that can be construed as “threatening the Kingdom’s safety and security or damaging national unity or security of the international community,” for example. In 2013 and 2014, amendments to the law expanded the government’s power to suspend due process in terror cases, such as extending the pre-charge and pre-trial detention periods for terror suspects. Bahraini authorities have increasingly used these provisions to arbitrarily detain nonviolent civil society actors, including most recently Ebtisam al-Saegh, a prominent woman human rights defender who has been continually arrested and tortured by security personnel in reprisal for her work.

These problems have been further aggravated in 2017, with the government amending Bahrain’s constitution to allow military courts to try civilians in terrorism cases. It also directly contravened previous reform commitments by re-empowering the National Security Agency (NSA), the kingdom’s intelligence service, with domestic detention authority after the institution was deeply implicated in torture and extrajudicial killing.

Additionally, the State Department’s CT Bureau overstates the government’s attempts “to build outreach through initiatives such as the community police” to reduce tensions and “bridge the divide” between the Shia majority community and the “mostly Sunni (and non-Bahraini origin)…police force.” In its separate 2016 report on Bahrain’s implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations, the State Department stated that, according to the Bahraini government, a total of 1,500 community police had graduated from the Royal Police Academy by 2015. Though it went on to note that its “contacts have confirmed that Bahraini Shia have been among those integrated into the community police and the police cadets,” it found that this integration had not occurred “in significant numbers.” Moreover, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) determined that these new units play only a “marginal” policing role, and local activists report that community police personnel are unarmed and typically operate under the strict supervision of standard security forces. Community police are known to man checkpoints while armed Ministry of Interior officers observe from nearby vehicles, for example. Aside from the limited number of Shia community police, there is no evidence to suggest that Bahraini authorities have taken further steps toward incorporating Shia into the security forces, as the US Government has consistently advised. The Bahrain country report likewise omits growing evidence that sectarian discrimination in Bahrain’s police and armed forces, including the propagation of extremist discourse, has led to increased extremism among security personnel.

Similarly, while it notes that the Bahraini government has used unsubstantiated terror accusations to dissolve the country’s major opposition political groups, like the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the State Department does not assess how attacks on independent political and civil society have motivated militancy, despite reporting that “a sense of economic and political disenfranchisement…remained a primary driver of violent extremism in 2016.”

 “It’s positive that the State Department remains committed to countering violent extremism in Bahrain and is aware of some of the severe human rights abuses being committed in the name of fighting terrorism,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “But the CT Bureau should better coordinate with its counterpart in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to present a holistic picture of human rights and security in Bahrain. The US cannot effectively work with the Bahraini government to defuse extremism when the authorities label human rights defenders terrorists and use anti-terror laws to crush dissent. Any strategy that fails to take these factors into account threatens to inflame, rather than reduce, militancy and instability.”

In light of the Bahraini Minister of Interior’s recent visit to Washington to discuss further cooperation with American security officials, it is especially imperative that the US Government acknowledge the full scale of human rights violations associated with Bahrain’s counterterror efforts. ADHRB therefore reiterates its support for the State Department’s engagement on countering violent extremism in the kingdom, but urges it to further investigate and document abuses committed by the Government of Bahrain under the guise or in service of counterterrorism. Further, we call on the State Department and other US agencies like the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense to recognize the challenges posed by such abuses to achieving American anti-terror objectives in Bahrain, and to condition any continued collaboration on substantive security sector reform. To that end, we also call on the Government of Bahrain to take all necessary action to safeguard human rights while combating violent extremism, specifically by repealing or significantly amending the anti-terror law to decriminalize fundamental freedoms, bringing an end to arbitrary deprivation of nationality, and eliminating arbitrary detention, torture, and religious discrimination.