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Bahrain Special: The Air Show, the "Black Smoke" Campaign, and the Dark Arts of Regime Propaganda

And now a Bahraini story with many of the components of the year's political narrative --- suspicion, protest, and a regime, paying public-relations agencies to put out the "right" line, willing to exploit the spectre of the "sectarian"....

The Bahrain International Airshow began on Thursday. Continuing today, it is the first major international event in the kingdom since the crackdown on citizens calling for democratic reform. The al-Khalifa ruling family hope it will attract significant investment to the Kingdom while building close ties and relations with businesses, governments and militaries overseas.

The air show is an exclusive affair to which only 40 select corporations, each paying $160,000, have been invited. Even with Avaaz's campaign to encourage a boycott of the F1 Grand Prix, the Air Show is a much more significant, and cynical, event in the guise of entertainment. It provides a forum for networking such as this:

BDF Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa meets with British Defence Ministry Undersecretary Lord Astor and Defence Senior Advisor on Middle East Lieutenant General Simon Mayall. Also present at the meeting are British Ambassador to Bahrain Ian Lindsay and British Military Attaché Commodore Christopher Murray

A subsequent feature will consider the Air Show's place in the sale of arms to Bahrain and other member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including the interest of the United Kingdom, given that a British firm, Farnborough International, organises the event. Farnborough is a subsidiary company of A|D|S, "the trade organisation advancing UK Aerospace, Defence and Security industries". On Tuesday, A|D|S launched its "Flying Forward" campaign in the House of Commons, aimed at expanding the export of UK aerospace equiptment manufactured by companies such as BAE Systems, EADS, GKN and others. This comes at a time when British economic strategy is based on shifting from a net importer to a net exporter of goods --- a tricky proposition given the UK has very few major manufacturing industries left, with the notable exception of weapons and military systems.

For now, however, a look at the protests by Bahrainis against the Air Show, in particular, the burning of tyres to create vast plumes of black smoke to cover the sky (see Friday's Live Coverage).

Opposition activists in Bahrain have often used tyre-burning as a show of defiance and as a means of blocking roads. Yesterday's national tyre burning campaign was united under the banner "Mourning in the Sky". Many of these actions were led by the "February 14" youth movement, a loose coalition of activists seen by some as a much more confrontational wing of the opposition.

The "Mourning in the Sky" tyre-burning was predominantely a protest demanding the immediate release of opposition leader and founding member of the Al-Wefaq Party, Hasan Mushaima. Mushaima, who suffers from cancer, was sentenced to life by the regime last summer, accused of seeking to overthrow the Royal Family. The protest, in solidarity with the tyre burning in Dar Kulaib village against the Air Show, took place in locations across the country, including Sitra, Tubli, Karrana, Salmabad, Isa Town and Nuwaidrat.

Many activists, despite the cause, have concerns about the tyre-burning, seeing it as detrimental to their message and unlikely to create the broad, peaceful, coalition which they seek. This weakness is often targeted by security services, who act as agent provecatuers in order to prompt activists into violence. Last year, at least one undercover agent was discovered seeking to foment violence in a group of protesters, although the effort was rather lackluster.

On this occasion, the tyre-burning did bring a perhaps unwelcome result. "Western" media is often slow to report on events in Bahrain and can be blind to the daily attacks by security forces, the increasing number of civilian deaths from tear gas in residential areas, and the ongoing detention and abuse of political prisoners. Yesterday, however, articles about the black smoke protests, written by Reuters and the Associated Press and carried by major news organisations, proclaimed, "Bahrain protesters greet air show with black smoke from burning tyres". "The Stream" on Al-Jazeera also covered the story, albeit with some confusion, and missing some salient points.

These daytime tyre burning protests --- many of which only had the Bahrain International Air Show as a secondary concern --- obscured plans for another campaign targeted specifically at the event, the release of sky lanterns during the night.

As we noted on Wednesday, this was not just a planned protest gesture; it also revealed the creative and playful ways by which many in the opposition have sought to put across their message. This video, for example, giving instructions on how to make a sky lantern (and a nice potato meal in the process), humourously satirisises the attempts by pro-regime supporters to paint the opposition as terrorists.

The tyre-burning protests yesterday occurred during the daytime, well in advance of any planned release of sky lanterns. Many regime supporters were quick to hijack the term "sky lanterns" for the black smoke, in a concerted effort to frame this as the dominant action against the Airshow.

And this may not have been an immediate reaction --- it is possible that pro-regime activists not only anticipated the tyre-burning but were waiting to work it into a narrative of the opposition movement as fire-loving thugs, bent on violent civil disturbance in the streets of Bahrain and led by Nabeel Rajab, the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

First, a connection. We had noticed a pro-regime account on social media putting out the call for an assembly today at the Al-Fatah Grand Mosque in the centre of Manama:

This is far from the first gathering at the mosque: last week the demonstrators, who were joined by at least two police officers in uniform, called for detainees and opposition figures to be hung:

Later that day in Manama, protesters were violently attacked by security forces, one of whom reportedly called the marchers "animals" just before the assault.

The same account that put out the call for a pro-regime assembly has played a highly suspicious role this week over the "black smoke" protests. Expecting those demonstrations, it launched a campaign calling on its followers to write letters to assorted human rights organisations to discredit Nabeel Rajab, with images of tyre-burning prominent:

The account --- most likely Bahraini in origin, given the regular English-language spelling errors --- is also the account responsible for creating and distributing many hate-filled videos that began appearing at the start of this month. Each is normally "branded" with a short title and a still, accompanies by a package of images spread across Twitter and Facebook by multiple accounts. The videos have also been noted on Twitter by Saqer al-Khalifa, the Bahraini regime's media attache in Washington, who has spent the past few weeks telling US journalists and opinion makers that Iran is funding a fundamentalist Shia uprising in the kingdom.

On Thursday, an English-language report on Twitter, from a pro-regime account, suggested at 1200 GMT that there was black smoke in four sites in Bahrain: Sitra, Diraz, Barber, and Dar Kulaib. Soon, another pro-regime account extended that list to include A'ali, Budaiya, and Saar. These pro-regime accounts posted several pictures of black smoke, but none of them had any easily identifiable landmarks, or often indeed showed anything but sky, from which the location could be pinpointed. Furthermore, these accounts seem to have missed the actual "Mourning in the Sky" tyre-burning in Tubli, Karrana, Salmabad, Isa Town, and Nuwaidrat.

The above photographs, taken by people at tha Bahrain International Air Show and just outside it, all show smoke from tyres lit in one village: Dar Kulaib, next to Sakhir Airbase ("A" on the map).

The proximity of the air show to Dar Kulaib is an essential point that has been missed in reporting so far. The village has been the site, over several months, of a nasty campaign of sectarian harassment, with security forces working in collusion with militia to target Shia living there. The campaign ratcheted up in intensity in December and early January, with activists documenting incidents like the following, where police stood permitted a young man to throw a Molotov cocktail at a group of protesters:

Dar Kulaib is also next to the circuit of the proposed Bahrain International Grand Prix circuit. Its proximity to the two major international events the regime is hoping will revive its tarnished image makes the sectarian campaign, with the possible tacit support of Bahrain's leaders, even more significant.

All the media outlets who reported the "black smoke" failed to differentiate between the Air Show protest in Dar Kulaib and the "Mourning in the Sky" protests across the country. Equally, all of them failed to note the peaceful "Sky Lanterns" demonstrations planned at nighttime.

Meanwhile, the pro-regime accounts began a new campaign. Some of the tweets were sectarian in nature, some complained of suffering from smoke inhalation which was worse than tear gas, and others attacked Nabeel Rajab.

Both the media coverage and the pro-regime exploitation of "black smoke" played into the framing of the deviant opposition. Worth remembering here is the way in which the "Western" media has been framing the political situation in Bahrain over recent weeks. To recap:

1) Continually missing out the actual opposition movement, which has been active in villages across Bahrain for many months. BBC correspondent Frank Gardner gave a good example of this in December: "Meeting both King Hamad and the head of Bahrain's main opposition party in London today, I heard, perhaps predictably, both sides of the story."

2) Painting the situation in Bahrain in sectarian terms: as a Sunni government facing a Shia revolution. Nabeel Rajab, for example, is routinely described as a "Shia activist" or similar, when in fact he is secular, from a mixed family.

3) Painting the protesters as being involved with violence in some capacity, chiefly saying they throw Molotov cocktails. The latter detail, especially, is often added to news reports and so it was interesting to see it spun by David Cracknell, who represents Big Tent Communications, one of the PR companies who works for the Bahraini government: "Despite what those who do not know Bahrain well some times think, freedom of expression and right to assembly is entrenched in the constitution – hundreds of demos go ahead each year without trouble. But currently some vandals have started ambushing police patrols with Molotov petrol bombs, yet the police have a policy of non-engagement where possible so as to avoid injuries and fatalities."

4) Noting fears over Iran and alleging Iranian financial and logistical support for the opposition, and the protection Bahrain provides as a bulwark against Iran.

All of these speak to --- in muted tones --- the message promulgated online by many regime supporters. This is also the same message being sent out through the English-language propaganda videos, such as "The Molotov Movement", which have been growing in number since the start of January and are clearly targeted at an English-speaking audience inside and outside Bahrain. This included Saqer al-Khalifa's promotion of a video that YouTube pulled on the grounds of its "shocking and disgusting" content.

The account that has been producing and distributing these videos uploaded two new videos on Tuesday, which are very different. I copy them below, having uploaded them to a different YouTube account:

Both videos, shot at night, purport to show opposition protesters lighting tyres and throwing Molotov cocktails against the police. This is why these videos are interesting and also possibly faked:

1) This account, typically, spreads its content far and wide. Once it has uploaded a video --- which in recent weeks have all been English-subtitled, and branded as if they are intended to communicate a particular message (for example, "The Molotov Movement" as a descriptor of protesters) --- the account contacts other pro-regime supporters who then circulate it widely, targeting it at media organisations and journalists, as well as people who have shown an interest in Bahrain. They attempt to manipulate Twitter algorithms by using hashtags to create top trends, and to drown out streams that people might follow (eg, #Bahrain, #Feb14, etc).

2) So far, this account has barely circulated these videos, sending only to certain regime supporters.

3) The videos are filmed at night which means, coupled with the masks the protesters are wearing, that it is very difficult to make out exact details. There are also some interesting edits in the first video, which raises the possibility that it happened over different nights.

4) In the first video, it is suspicious that the police do not retaliate in any significant fashion. Indeed, they barely react. Given the willingness of security forces in Bahrain to use tear gas on even peaceful gatherings, this might be seen as unusual behaviour.

5) The cameraman in both instances is remarkably calm and steady, suggesting that there are no great fears of being caught. This is perhaps most curious in the video with the police, as the cameraman does not react with any sign of nerves when the situation seems to turn.

The public relations campaign in Bahrain is a fierce and increasingly ugly one, which brings in a multitude of competing interests seeking to frame the situation for their own purposes. For regime supporters working to spread a certain message to the West, it is about obfuscating any apparent excesses by the monarchy and their forces and amplifying the alleged threat posed by the opposition, using sectarian rhetoric both for Bahrainis and expatriates.

What is particularly troubling about the "black smoke" campaign is its possible links to more nefarious purposes, connecting propaganda, targeted at the Shia community, with violence.

COMING SOON: A return to the night of 22 December 2011. On that day, security forces blanketed the country in tear gas. While an EA corrspondent was talking with Bahraini citizens choking in their homes from the effect of the tear gas, a regime supporter sent EA a video purporting to show protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at security forces. On that same night, three different police officers were filmed throwing Molotov cocktails....

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