In the last month, I have seen several reports and images of violence in Bahrain that I dismissed as "minor", in relation to other news and pictures. These reports included smashed windows of cars, graffiti daubed on neighbourhood walls, and vandalism to the outside of homes.
I was wrong to set aside these items. I was blind to the significance that they all came from a single, somewhat isolated, village in the south of the country: Dar Kulaib.
I failed to recognise the signs of a continued campaign of harassment. I missed indications that the attacks on Dar Kulaib may be a strategic attempt by the regime to provoke retaliatory violence, re-framing the opposition movement for democratic reform as a faction advocating sectarian conflict --- a re-framing the regime has repeatedly sought, and failed, to achieve since February.
The allegation is that a large group of individuals, known to the police, have been harassing citizens of Dar Kulaib with increasing frequency and without any noticeable intervention by authorities. The campaign, specifically targeting the Shi’a population, includes a Molotov cocktail attack on Al Emam Almuntatha Mosque on 1 January. Residents, fearing a strategic abandonment by the security forces, believe they are being encouraged to take the law into their own hands --- this action will then be heralded by the regime as an example of lawlessness in the Shi'a community.
On 25 December, we posted footage and and photographs taken in Dar Kulaib the day before. Scott Lucas wrote:
A series of images and first-hand reports from Bahrain last night pointed to a new phase in the conflict between security forces and protesters. It appears that, whether or not the police requested assistance, they have been joined by plainclothes men in the use of force and intimidation.
The main location was Dar Kulaib. Police mingled with men hurling stones and other objects and then the force, armed with sticks and metal rods, moved into the village, damaging vehicles and property.
A video accompanying those words --- dark and sometimes difficult to make out --- is now supported by footage shot in Dar Kulaib in daylight on 6 January. In a street confrontation between protesters and police, a young man appears from behind the security forces and throws a Molotov cocktail at the protesters. The police confront him and guide him away from the area, but essentially treat him with kid gloves.
The citizens of Dar Kulaib put out a statement last Friday calling for support. They highlight the attacks against them on 23-24 December and point to a sustained campaign which began on 31 December. After noting the attacks on property and a series of threatening letters to residents, the statement continues:
Those attacks been done by a group of around 500. They committed crimes, involving violence and threats, as well as intimidation of the citizens and vandalizing their properties, smashing the windows of their houses and their cars. Those groups used Molotov cocktails, rocks, iron rods, wooden sticks, and other means of destruction and intimidation, as well as shouting indecent insults and sectarian verbal abuses. All of this was happening in the presence and the sight of general security officers, who were present at the crime scene and even seen talking to those vandals directly. This can been seen clearly from the videos and pictures that been taken by the village residents. Despite that, not one of those vandals has been arrested or interrogated, although they are known to the police. There were also known people with them from current MPs and previous election candidates from Muharaq and other areas. Remarkably, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) has been publishing statements almost dailyon every small security incident in Bahrain even if it was small, but it absolutely ignored the attacks on our village and nearby areas as if we are inhabitants from Mars or another country in the Antarctic!...
Elders have also met with the Major Tariq AlHassan, the director of public security in MOI [Ministry of Interior], this evening and he promised that the situation will be resolved. However, at the time of the meeting a group of vandals throw Molotov cocktails and rocks on houses and the passing cars. We have presented and documented the details of the attacks in order to prevent falling in the sectarian conflict that some are trying to drag us into. But at the same time we view the MOI as holding final responsibility for resolving the attacks that have occurred and still continue on the village. We will be forced to start protecting ourselves and our properties from any external attack if the MOI has abandoned protecting its citizens.
The statement asks the Ministry of Interior provides the identity of the attackers and accurate information as to the reasons behind the assaults, in light of the fact that the assailants are known to the police. The resident also ask for measures to be put in place to protect them against future attack and compensation to those who had their property damaged.
Yesterday the Ministry of the Interior announced that the recent events in Dar Kulaib "required the interference of the security forces" and "legal measures were used to prevent further clashes". It remains to be seen what these measures are and what effect they will have.
The video shot on 6 January raises a secondary concern beyond the apparent collusion it documents. Pro-regime supporters are very keen to point to footage of young men throwing Molotov cocktails as evidence of the violence allegedly meted out by the opposition. However here, clearly, this young man is not only throwing a Molotov cocktail at opposition protesters, but he is doing so with the tacit support of the security forces.
This is troubling not just at the level of violence, but on the level of discourse. The Bahraini regime is aware that its often vicious treatment of its citizens appalls outside spectators. Rather than correcting this brutality and mistreatment through reforms, it has turned to propaganda and public relations firms to communicate a counter-narrative. The outside world is wising up to these tricks, with exposes on Qorvis, Bell Pottinger, Lockheed Martin and other firms creating continued waves of outrage. However, what perhaps has been overlooked is the internal propaganda: the messages communicated via the State to its own residents.
Trying to explain the continual, brutal, and routinely indiscriminate violence from security forces, regime supporters have had to ratchet up the attacks on the opposition. They seek to demonise a huge swathe of people as "thugs" and “liars” or simply different --- an "other" --- from those who back the regime. Such verbal attacks often come with a nod and a wink: "other" routinely translates as Shi'a.
Is the regime --- and its propaganda machine --- seeking to ignite sectarian tension, using Dar Kulaib as a case study? Is this the village where the discussion of democratic reforms and equal representation meets a whipped-up, reactionary climate of fear to block any possibility of those changes?