Vienna- The men who built the secret bomb factory had been clever — suspiciously so, Bahraini investigators thought, for a gang known mostly for lobbing molotov cocktails at police. The underground complex had been hewed, foot by foot, beneath the floor of a suburban villa, with no visible traces at street level and only a single entrance, hidden behind a kitchen cabinet.
But the real surprises lay inside. In one room, police found $20,000 lathes and hydraulic presses for making armor-piercing projectiles capable of slicing through a tank. Another held box upon box of the military explosive C-4, all of foreign origin, in quantities that could sink a battleship.
“Most of these items have never been seen in Bahrain,” the country’s investigators said in a confidential technical assessment provided to US and European officials this past fall that offered new detail on the arsenals seized in the villa and in similar raids that have occurred sporadically over nearly three years.
In sheer firepower, the report said, the caches were both a “game-changer” and — matched against lightly armed police — “overkill.”
The report, a copy of which was shown to The Washington Post, partly explains the growing unease among some Western intelligence officials over tiny Bahrain, a stalwart US ally in the Arabian Gulf and home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Six years after the start of riots in Bahrain, US and European analysts now see an increasingly grave threat emerging on the margins of the events: heavily armed militant cells supplied and funded, officials say, by Iran.
Signs of growing militancy have been cropping up for years, with arrests of masked operatives planting roadside bombs and seizures of weapons and explosives smuggled into the country by land and sea. But until recently, Western officials have been cautious in accusing Iran of direct involvement in the unrest, citing inconclusive or unreliable evidence, as well as fears of further roiling sectarian tensions.
Bahraini officials frequently accuse Tehran of inciting violence. Despite credibility problems raised by Bahrain’s human rights record, Western intelligence agencies are seeing a new boldness by Iran in supporting armed insurgents in the kingdom, according to multiple analysts from the United States and two Western European governments.
Documents and interviews with current and former intelligence officials describe an elaborate training program, orchestrated by Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, to school Bahraini militants in the techniques of advanced bombmaking and guerrilla warfare.
A wide variety of increasingly sophisticated weaponry — much of it forensically linked to Iran — has been discovered in Bahrain over the past three years, including hundreds of pounds of military-grade explosives that almost certainly originated in Iran, US and European intelligence officials say.
The efforts appear to mirror similar ongoing operations to build a network of pro-Tehran militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria, several analysts said.
“We are seeing more evidence of an Iranian destabilization effort,” said a US intelligence official with years of experience monitoring Bahrain’s civil and political unrest.
“Bahrain sometimes overstates the facts,” the official added. “But this is real.”
The mounting evidence has prompted unprecedented steps by US and European governments targeting alleged leaders of Bahraini Shi’ite militant groups.
On March 16, German authorities ordered the arrest of a Bahraini man — a 27-year-old Shiite asylum seeker living in Berlin — under international warrants accusing him of being a terrorist operative for the al-Ashtar Brigades, a Bahraini Shiite militant group that has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against Bahraini police officers.
On March 17, the US State Department imposed sanctions against two leaders of the same Bahraini group, formally designating the men as “global terrorists.”
The official announcement specifically accused Iran of backing the group as part of its “destabilizing and terrorism-related activities in the region.”
And on Wednesday, the Trump administration moved to lift a freeze on the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain, reversing a decision made last year by the Obama administration to protest Bahrain’s outlawing of al-Wefaq, the country’s main opposition party.
The White House action, heavily criticized by human rights groups, suggests a new willingness to overlook a certain behavior by key Arabian Gulf allies in the service of maintaining a strong defensive shield against future Iranian aggression.
In last month’s sanctions announcement, the State Department sought to calibrate its message, insisting that US officials would continue to press Bahrain to “clearly differentiate” its response to real terrorist threats from its dealings with peaceful demonstrators and political opposition groups.
But it flatly accused Tehran of intervening directly to make the problems worse.
“Iran has provided weapons, funding and training” to Bahraini militants, it said.
But were the explosives found in the villa real, or were they a prop used to justify arrests of Shi’ite opposition leaders? On the matter, Matthew Levitt – a former FBI counterterrorism analyst who has met with top Bahraini officials to discuss the weapons caches, said complaints about the country’s poor human rights record made it difficult for outsiders to assess whether the claims were real.
But in the final analysis, he said, the evidence from weapons caches pointed to a real threat: Iranian-sponsored terrorism.