proxy push

Iranian proxy from Bahrain joins efforts to destabilize the region

An unverified claim by the Al-Ashtar Brigades that it launched a drone strike against Israel last month is a sharp indication that Iran is working to broaden its proxy war against the Jewish state

Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Two unidentified men are carrying a model of Iran's first-ever hypersonic missile, Fattah, by a motorcycle during a gathering to celebrate the IRGC UAV and missile attack against Israel, at Palestine Square in downtown Tehran, Iran, on April 15, 2024.

An unverified claim by an Islamist terror group with roots in Bahrain that it launched a drone strike against Israel last month is a clear indication that Iran is working to broaden its proxy war against the Jewish state with new fronts across the region, analysts and experts on Iran and its militant offshoots told Jewish Insider last week.

The Al-Ashtar Brigades, a U.S.-designated terror group originating from the Gulf state but not based there, said in a statement on May 2 that a week earlier it had targeted the headquarters of Trucknet Enterprises, an Israeli transportation company with headquarters in Eilat, which provides services between countries that are signatories to the 2020 Abraham Accords.

While Israeli authorities did not confirm such an attack took place, over the past eight months – since the Hamas-led Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel – there has been an increase in drones, rockets and missiles being fired towards Israel from the east and south by an increasing number of Iranian-backed groups.

On April 13, Iran — which is now in a state of mourning over the death this week of its president, Ebrahim Raisi — launched a full-scale missile attack against Israel directly from its territory. That was thwarted by a coalition of mostly regional countries led by the U.S.’ Central Command but Israel’s northern border continues to be battered daily by the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, Iran’s closest terror ally, based in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s attacks have significantly intensified in the past few weeks, with at least a dozen Israeli civilians and soldiers killed.

From the south, most of the projectiles have been attributed to the Houthis, an Iranian-backed militia based in Yemen, who have disrupted global shipping routes via the Red Sea. And from the east, most likely Iraq, the attempted attacks – none of which have succeeded in hitting Israeli targets – come from an array of extremist groups that are believed to be receiving funding, arms, and orders directly from Tehran.

The newest addition is the Bahraini-born group: Al-Ashtar.

Yossi Mansharof, a fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy who tracks Iran and its Shiite militias, told JI that the group’s sudden inclusion in Iran’s so-called “Axis of Resistance,” was a “signal.”

“This the first time that the whole apparatus of the Iranian proxy allies are operating together against Israel – you have the Houthis, Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and some Iran-backed militias operating in Syria and now you have the Bahraini dimension of the Iranian proxy also seemingly joining the war,” he said.

“Iran is looking to project its power,” Mansharof continued, pointing to a 2019 statement by the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ operational branch about besieging Israel from all its borders.

“Iran wants all the countries in the region to accept its hegemony,” he said, adding that it was also likely seeking to damage ties between Israel and Bahrain, which have been strained by the war in Gaza.

There was no indication that Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash would have any impact on Iran’s proxy war. 

Founded in 2013, Al-Ashtar’s main focus until now was on the long-running struggle between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim populations in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The group, which is also Shiite, has been seeking to instigate a popular uprising in the Gulf country against the ruling Al Khalifa family and has claimed at least 20 attacks in the country in recent years.

“Bahrain is a small island with a large Shia population, about 50-70%, while the ruling dynasty is Sunni,” explained Ilan Zalayat, a Gulf researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

Iran, which is also majority Shiite, has been helping its co-religionists in Bahrain to agitate against the country’s leadership since its own Islamic revolution in 1979, Zalayat said. While none of its efforts have been successful, the 2011 Arab spring saw mass protests by the Shia population in Bahrain. Those were quickly put down by the country’s rulers, he said.

Mansharof explained that although Al-Ashtar is “the main proxy of Iran in Bahrain,” most of the group’s members, particularly its top leaders, have been expelled from the country and are currently based in Iran.

“It seems impossible for such an attack to have been launched from Bahrain,” Mansharof said, adding, “If they truly managed to launch an attack against Israel last month then most likely it happened from Iraqi territory.”

He noted that recent Arabic media reports have indicated that the group dispatched some of its operations to Iraq and that the group had received training from Iranian-backed militias based there.

“On its website, the militia declares its strong affiliation with the Iranian regime,” Mansharof explained, adding that it also has close ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Despite its allegiance with Tehran, however, Mansharof said he did not believe that Al-Ashtar had received any sophisticated weaponry from the Iranian regime, or arms powerful enough to reach Israel from Bahrain. In a video released by the group claiming to show its attack on Israel, the militants are seen using a drone resembling Iran’s Samad line of long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, according to reports.

While Al-Ashtar’s main focus is Bahrain, it has made previous threats against Israel, as well as against the U.S., which maintains a strategic naval base in the Gulf state. In March, the State Department issued sanctions against the group in a move it said underscored “the U.S. government’s commitment to target destabilizing forces and threats emanating from Iran, including those threatening our regional partners.”

Mansharof said that Al-Ashtar represented only a small minority of the Shiite population in Bahrain, while the majority were more focused on economic issues and pushing for greater integration into the country.

He said Iran’s mobilization of its proxies, particularly in moderate states in the Middle East, was an opportunity for Israel to “promote a regional coalition” to work against Tehran.

“Everyone in the region – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE – is worried by Iran’s terror apparatus,” Mansharof noted. “Even if Israel and Saudi Arabia cannot normalize ties, the circumstances could lead to a situation of cooperation anyway because Iran is now threatening stability in Bahrain.”

He said stability in Bahrain was a vital interest for Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries in the region that had managed to stop Iran from gaining a foothold.

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