By Noah Browning and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
MANAMA/DUBAI (Reuters) - At a wake in Iran's holy city of Qom in February, a small group of Bahraini emigres and clerics mourned a young militant killed in a gun battle with Bahrain's security forces.
The eulogy was delivered by an exiled Bahraini cleric who has called for the island's Shi'ite Muslim majority to uproot the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy in a holy war.
“The choice of resistance is widening and spreading on the ground,” said the cleric, Murtada al-Sanadi, who has been named by the United States as a "specially designated global terrorist" backed by Iran.
The ceremony shines a light on Iran's widening influence over an armed fringe of the opposition in Bahrain, a country with a strategic value that belies its small size. It hosts a U.S. naval base and is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, Iran's main regional rival. A quickening tempo of mostly crude bombing and shooting attacks has accompanied a government crackdown, which culminated last year in the dissolution of the main opposition bloc.
The dead 29-year-old militant, Reda al-Ghasra, was shot and killed when security forces ambushed the speedboat carrying him and fellow fugitives at dawn on February 9. Ghasra had just a few weeks earlier escaped from a prison where he was serving a life sentence for terrorism.
Ghasra's two brothers, both wanted on militant charges, also appeared at his wake in Qom. They played a recorded phone call of Reda saying his boat was on its way. The Bahraini government has asserted he was fleeing to Iran.
A confidential assessment by Bahrain security officials, reviewed by Reuters, names Sanadi as the leader of the Ashtar Brigades, a militant group that has carried out bombings and shootings directed at the kingdom's police. In a statement online, the group hailed Ghasra as a "martyr commander" on his death.
According to the security assessment, Sanadi tasked Ghasra with forming militant cells with Iranian help.
Iran's foreign ministry called Bahraini government accusations that Iran had any role in supporting Sanadi or the Ashtar Brigades in violent acts "baseless and fabricated." Sanadi did not respond to requests for comment.
An uprising by some in Bahrain's Shi'ite majority was quelled in 2011 with the help of a Saudi intervention.
Low-level protests followed. Clashes with police killed scores of activists and suspected militants, while Bahrain says 24 of its officers have been killed. Most clashes involve youths throwing rocks and molotov cocktails, but there has been a series of bombings in recent years. Opposition activists say these attacks show that a government crackdown is pushing Shi’ite youths into the arms of extremists.
An analysis of years of statements by Bahrain's public prosecutor on Ashtar Brigades suspects suggests that the group operates in cells of fewer than 10 young men overseen by emigre militants like Sanadi based in Iran.
Recruited on religious pilgrimages or study trips to Iran, Bahrain's prosecutor has said, the suspects were given weapons and explosives training in Iran or neighbouring Iraq. Iran denies the accusation.
Sanadi has powerful allies in Iran, where he has lived since he went into exile in 2012.
The official website of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published an editorial by Sanadi in December accusing the U.S. of helping repress Shi’ite activism in Bahrain.
The U.S. State Department put Sanadi on its proscribed "terrorist" list on March 17. His name appears alongside leaders in al Qaeda and Islamic State. The U.S. cited Sanadi's links to the Ashtar Brigades which, it said, "receives funding and support from the Government of Iran."
Bahrain accuses Sanadi of having organized deadly attacks on police and smuggling arms from Iran.
According to Bahraini security dossiers on Ghasra and Sanadi reviewed by Reuters, Bahraini authorities consider the Ashtar Brigades to be the armed wing of Sanadi's Islamic Wafa Movement, a political party that is banned in Bahrain.
Wafa and the Ashtar Brigades did not respond to requests for comment about their relationship. A Wafa party representative contacted by Reuters agreed to relay questions to Sanadi but did not ultimately reply.
Sanadi, the security documents say, receives funding from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and commissioned Ghasra to organize the military training of Bahraini militants in Iran by the IRGC and in Iraq by the Hezbollah Brigades militia.
The Ashtar Brigades announced an alliance with the Iran-backed Hezbollah Brigades via an online statement in February.
Sanadi spoke of his relationship with Ghasra in a communication to his followers on messaging app Telegram, dated in March and seen by Reuters. "I found him a lover of (Shi'ites), ready for the highest sacrifice and dedicated to the choice of resistance.”
Ghasra's brother Yasser, speaking to Reuters from Iran, acknowledged that his brother Reda was a fighter but denied he received Iranian help. He declined to comment on links between his brother and Sanadi.
PROUD TO BE AN ENEMY
Speaking to Iranian state TV channel al-Alam in March Sanadi said: "I'm proud that America considers me an enemy."
While not commenting directly on the state department accusations, he said the U.S. was using "so-called terrorism and ... an imaginary danger they claim is coming from the Islamic Republic of Iran" to sell arms to Gulf allies and maintain influence.
Sanadi is the only official of his party to have eluded a long-term jail sentence, though he spent six months behind bars amid 2011 protests on rioting charges.
Six months later he departed legally for Iran.
Chronicling his experiences in a prison manifesto called "Pain and Hope" published in Iran last year, he said he suffered torture and watched fellow detainees killed at the hands of Jordanian and other foreign officers he scorns as "mercenaries."
Bahraini security officials denied to Reuters that Sanadi suffered torture in custody. “There have been isolated abuses which have been investigated and addressed but this is not a systematic phenomenon,” said one official
In January, Sanadi called on Bahrain's opposition to abandon mostly peaceful protests in public squares and to take up arms. "From today and hereafter, the period has changed. We in the Islamic Wafa Movement announce that we have begun a new phase as a tribute to the martyrs: one grip on the squares and one grip on the trigger!" he said in a speech in Qom.
Iran's promotion of Sanadi appears to point to an endorsement of his agenda. Next to an Iranian flag and a banner reading "Death to the House of Saud," referring to Saudi Arabia’s rulers, Sanadi delivered a sermon at Friday prayers in the country's most prestigious mosque in Qom in September - an exceptional honor.
Sanadi also took to the main stage at a 2013 conference of Ahl al-Bayt, a Qom-based global fraternity of scholars founded by Khamenei in 1990. The meeting commemorated Bahrain's uprising. "We are truly thankful to the Iranians, especially the leader of all Muslims, Ayatollah Khamenei," Sanadi declared.
For his part, Iran’s Supreme Leader in a speech last summer warned that Bahrain government moves against top opposition figures was “removing an obstacle in front of the passionate, heroic Bahraini youth to fight against the ruling system.”
(edited by Janet McBride)