National Security

United States Designates Iran-backed Militant Group in Bahrain a Terrorist Organization

Iran-backed militants are trying to overthrow government of Bahrain

IRGC forces in 2007

The United States designated an Iran-sponsored militant group in Bahrain a terrorist organization Tuesday in an effort to stop the Islamic Republic from extending its grip in the Middle East.

Al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB) was established in 2013 with the primary objective of toppling the government of Bahrain. The terrorist group has received weapons and explosives from Iran in its efforts to desolate the Bahraini regime. AAB also adopted Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in January 2018 to mimic the Islamic Republic's military strategy and further demonstrate Iran's influence on militant groups operating within Arab states in the Persian Gulf.

"Al-Ashtar is yet another in a long line of Iranian sponsored terrorists who kill on behalf of a corrupt regime," coordinator for counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales said in a statement. "Today's designation serves notice that the United States sees plainly what Iran is trying to do to Bahrain through its proxy, the terrorist group Al-Ashtar."

AAB has conducted more than 20 attacks in Bahrain since its inception, including the deadliest attack in Bahraini history—a March 2014 bombing that killed three police officers. The Bahraini government officially declared the militant group a terrorist organization in June 2017.

The Department of State is attempting to crack down on Iran's proxies in the Middle East and has placed heavy sanctions on AAB. All of the militia's properties exposed to U.S. jurisdiction will be stopped, and Americans are barred from participating in any negotiations with the group. The United States has also deemed it a crime to provide any type of support to AAB.

Some experts see this latest designation as a reassurance that the United States is committed to fighting Iran's efforts to establish control in Arab states. "The State Department's designation of al-Ashtar Brigades as a terrorist organization demonstrates that the U.S. government recognizes the extent of the Islamic Republic’s threat to American interests and allies," Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Whether President Trump is serious about stopping Iran from extending its influence in the Middle East will hinge on his commitment to keeping U.S. troops in Syria. [These] troops are critical in blocking the Islamic Republic from finishing its long-sought land bridge connecting Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean."

The move comes on the heels of President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in May. Trump called the deal negotiated by the Obama administration "horrible" and "one-sided" at the time of his announcement. The United States reinstated sanctions that were suspended under the deal, and it plans to impose more economic penalties by November, specifically limiting Iran's ability to export oil.

This is the second time the State Department has condemned AAB for its links to terrorism. The Department also classified two affiliates of the organization, Ahmad Hasan Yusuf and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawai, as terrorists in March 2017.