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The Struggle for Information: Revelations on Mercenaries, Sectarian Agitation, and Demographic Engineering in Bahrain

[Image from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.] [Image from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.]

"No person may be punished on national security grounds for disclosure of information if (1) the disclosure does not actually harm and is not likely to harm a legitimate national security interest, or (2) the public interest in knowing the information outweighs the harm from disclosure."[1]

While controversy and interest rage around the treasure trove of information that Edward Snowden has leaked over the last year in order to expose the extent of US and British government surveillance, silence has marked past and recent revelations of the intrusion of the Bahraini regime into the daily lives of citizens and the socially destructive policies designed to ensure the survival of the monarchy. Over the past decade, conscientious people, both Bahraini and non-Bahraini, have taken on the Khalifa regime by revealing its darkest secrets. From exposing sophisticated schemes for sectarian agitation to uncovering the massive procurement of arms for repressive purposes, these revelations served both to confirm a perceived political reality and to reveal a ruthless system of violence and conspiratorial disciplinary tactics heretofore unimaginable. Overall, these leaks have facilitated a form of public accountability, with the predictable regime response being the “erasure of knowledge” rather than the redress of problems.

The individual acts of dissidence are thus critical events that highlight the relationship between censorship, knowledge, and the ability to mobilize for progressive change, as well as the “divide and rule” policy that centers on the instrumental use of sectarianism. The fundamental feature of this relationship is the power of regime mechanisms to foreclose citizen knowledge as a way of producing acquiescence and the limits of that power. While the Bahraini regime has invested significant amounts of oil rents in constructing mechanisms of censorship and knowledge suppression, these instruments have proven increasingly ineffective. New methods of information dissemination via the Internet and telecommunications networks have given activists, concerned government officials, and others the potential to “leak” and publish their information outside the strictly controlled state media. While the information that these whistleblowers have brought to light is inherently important, the act of unauthorized disclosure—by demonstrating the severely impaired ability of the Bahraini state to maintain its monopoly on information—has irreparably damaged the illusion of state omnipotence and thus encouraged further acts of dissent.

Revelations on the Use of Foreign Mercenaries

On 3 April 2014, the Bahrain Mirror published a leaked document from the Bahraini Ministry of Interior regarding the use of Jordanian mercenaries in Bahrain’s police force. Dated 11 February 2014, the document contains the names, salaries (which average about 3100 US dollars per month), and bank account numbers of the 499 Jordanian policemen now working in Bahrain. That Bahrain’s police force is made up of mercenaries from Jordan, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq is a well known albeit largely undocumented reality in Bahrain. We know for certain that there are ten thousand Pakistanis working in Bahrain’s security services alongside scores of Emirati police officers—one of whom was killed on 3 March, alongside a Yemeni and Pakistani. The Emirati officers were originally sent in a five-hundred-strong contingent as part of the GCC Peninsula Shield Force in March 2011 to quell protests, but how large this contingent has grown remains unknown. Others report that up to 2500 retired Jordanian officers are working in different security agencies, many of whom have been given Bahraini citizenship for their services.

The leaked document therefore not only validates what people have long known but also puts into perspective the scale of this phenomenon, which remains one of the most problematic aspects of the ongoing struggle. The outsourcing of Bahrain’s security forces to foreign mercenaries is an explicit strategy to distance all Bahrainis, regardless of sect, from institutional power and to create a state apparatus that protects the regime and collectively represses citizens.  It is the precarity and dispensability of the lives of foreign mercenaries that make this kind of outsourcing such a successful tactic for guarding against coups and the maintenance of regime power. They are disconnected from local social relations and national concerns, and at the first hint of dissent, they can be sent home and replaced because they have few, if any, recourses as foreigners. In 2013, 450 Pakistanis were deported after arriving in Bahrain to work for the army, possibly because of the threat of collective protest against the abusive working conditions.

The running joke in Bahrain is that you can expect to be arrested by a Pakistani, interrogated by a Jordanian, tortured by a Yemeni, and judged by an Egyptian, but at least you can expect your fellow prisoners to be Bahraini. The mercenaries referenced in the joke are understood as having been given a privileged status by the regime vis-à-vis Bahraini citizens. The incentives commonly listed for carrying out the regime’s dirty work include being relatively well-paid, being offered Bahraini citizenship as part of political naturalization, and being given housing and access to government services for family. This popular view of foreign security forces certainly fails to differentiate between different ranks and nationalities in terms of privilege, homogenizing their status. Indeed, while the joke reveals something of the reality of mercenary security forces in Bahrain, it serves better to demonstrate the success that the regime has had in alienating these foreign soldiers/police from the citizenry and disguising any commonality they might have in terms of class position and political status. As Fahad Desmukh argues, “[t]he regime is trying to pit abused foreign workers and working-class Bahrainis against each other to justify its brutality.”

The regime’s spokesperson, the State Minister of Information Affairs, initially confirmed the presence of Jordanian mercenaries but then retracted the statements and altogether denied any such presence. After the document became public, the regime set up a committee to investigate the source of the leak, which it allegedly traced back to the Arab Bank. Subsequently, security forces arrested a Bahraini employee of the Arab Bank and charged him with leaking official documents, a crime punishable by a prison sentence and a substantial fine, along with two others

Revelations on Sectarian and Demographic Engineering: The Bandargate Report

This is neither the first nor the last case of unauthorized disclosures in Bahrain's contemporary history. In 2006, five years before the ongoing uprising began, Dr. Salah al-Bandar—a British-Sudanese former senior adviser to the Bahraini Cabinet Affairs Ministry—published a report entitled “The democratic choice and the mechanisms of exclusion” that outlined logistical mechanisms of the regime’s sectarian divide-and-rule policies—a scandal that became known as "Bandargate." The 216-page document gives details of a "secret organization [operating] outside the rule of law" whereby five operatives were paid at least 2.7 million dollars to run an elaborate scheme of sectarian agitation and demographic engineering through mass naturalization; the establishment of government organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs); a secret intelligence cell; internet forums and websites instigating sectarian hate; payments for election rigging and supporting extremist Sunni candidates; and the subsidization of “new converts” from Shi‘a to Sunni Islam. This revelation confirmed what many had long believed: that sectarianism was to a large extent intentionally engineered through state policies and institutions.

[The Bandargate Cell. Image from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.]

Following the Bandargate report, the regime immediately deported Salah al-Bandar to the United Kingdom. It also banned the media from any reference to or mention of Salah al-Bandar and threatened to prosecute any journalist who did so. When it became clear that journalists in Bahrain were not willing to publish the original documents, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights published them on the organization’s website. While the shocking revelations caused widespread discontent, the Bahraini opposition, weak as it then was, did not fully capitalize on the report. Despite the ensuing distrust of those in power and the apparent election rigging, al-Wifaq and Waad—two officially registered opposition societies—actually ended their parliamentary boycott, participated in the 2006 elections, and failed to raise the issues of the report in parliament. Bandar, who was deported to the United Kingdom, is until today met with both intrigue and suspicion by both loyalists and the opposition. His report, unfortunately, is also under-researched, which means that the history of sectarian instrumentalization by the regime is largely ignored as an important context for and causal dimension of the uprising in Bahrain.

Given the culture of impunity, those implicated in the Bandargate affair were, predictably, never held accountable for their actions.  In fact, given the gag order that the regime issued at the time, many of the agents provocateurs and others mentioned in the report were protected, promoted over time, and, most disturbingly, resumed their sectarian roles with a vengeance following the February 14 uprising. They came to be known as “Bandar’s cell” (khaliyat al-bandar). To understand these roles is to understand how the post-February 14 crackdown was the perfect opportunity for the completion of the Bandargate project. The regime intensified its efforts to exacerbate sectarianism—from taking control of the distribution of scholarships and regaining control of the health ministry, to using the state newspaper, Alwatan, to fan sectarian hatred and employing more subversive activity via the notorious Twitter account Hareghum (“the one that burns them”), which was singled out in the BICI report for “harassment […] amounting to hate speech and incitement to violence.” At the height of the crackdown this Twitter account became the voice of a sectarian witch-hunt, rooting out the “traitors” that “betrayed” the country through a campaign of snitching. The close relationship between this account and the state security apparatus is evidenced by the fact that Bahrainis would learn about the arrest of their loved ones via the Hareghum account (as happened to one of the authors), and this became the only official acknowledgement of arrest until they appeared at the military tribunals in 2011.

Some Bahrainis even argue that the seeds of the 2011 uprising were sown when the Bandargate cell was formed and subsequently uncovered in 2006. The regime’s manufacturing of sectarian identity politics and demographic engineering schemes exacerbated extant feelings of humiliation and disenfranchisement among the majority Shi‘i population and of anger among both Sunnis and Shi‘a, appalled by the level of manipulation and corruption of those named in the report directly, and of the regime overall. There is no doubt that identity politics existed throughout the postcolonial period in some measure. What is so damning about the Bandargate revelations is that this system of discrimination and internecine conflict was the result of the regime's intentional and calculated process of social engineering.

Revelations on the Repression of Dissent

While those who commit human rights violations do so with great impunity, Bahrainis who stand up to state authoritarianism and reveal its excesses are summarily convicted, often without the legal burden of proof since coerced confessions suffice. One such case is that of Hassan Salman, who was arrested in May 2009 and sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly disseminating and publishing information about Bahrain’s National Security apparatus on the anti-regime website Bahrain Online. The website published a list of individuals who work with the National Security Agency, including the mukhabarat (secret police), and who were responsible for most of the abuses documented by human rights organizations. Salman’s lawyers tried unsuccessfully to argue that the public prosecution never proved the confidentiality of the published names, especially given the discovery that a local bakery was found to be wrapping bread in similar documents containing police details as well. Indeed, the information was public and accessible. They also argued that the publication of those names never caused any harm to anyone. The published list has since become the basis for rare public statistics that prove discrimination against Shi‘a citizens in employment in the security services. The revelations here showed that Shi‘a employees constituted only four percent of the agency, mostly in low-level jobs such as paid informants.

[Image from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.]

More recently, Bahrain Watch received a secret document that the Ministry of Interior's Purchasing Directorate issued in 2013, inviting proposals to supply the ministry with almost two million tear gas canisters. The Korean company that won the tender later confirmed the actual deal involved three million tear gas canisters worth twenty-eight million dollars. Korean authorities eventually cancelled the shipment after the "Stop the Shipment campaign" succeeded in exerting enough pressure on them. Despite over two years of well-documented tear gas misuse against nonviolent protestors and bystanders in Bahrain, outlined in a legal case brought by Bahrain Watch, this secret document affirmed many Bahrainis’ fears that the state was stockpiling unprecedented amounts of tear gas. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, tear gas has become the weapon-of-choice in Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, Sudan, and other states, not only in Bahrain. The tear gas industry today is a multi-billion dollar one, with the Middle East’s internal state security market segment increasing by eighteen percent, reaching a value of 5.8 billion Euros in 2012 alone.  

Advancing the Struggle for Information

The need to balance between national security needs and the public’s right to information and accountability has been a topic of great discussion since Chelsea Manning leaked US military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. The latter incident even culminated in a set of legal principles known as the “Tshwane Principles” that have been used to defend Snowden's right to asylum and protection. Despite the lack of such legal protections in places like Bahrain, the practice of unauthorized disclosure continues. In Bahrain, disclosures have provided insight into the logistics of the state’s divide-and-rule strategy and its instruments of sectarian engineering. It is certain that even greater resources have been devoted to the political economy of cooption over the past few years as the regime attempts to end the revolutionary upheaval. Globally, the logics of the “national security state” continue to expand, making unlawful disclosures of information increasingly important acts of dissent. They are an important form of resistance that seeks to undermine state control and, as we have seen, can help to change the course of history by challenging and disrupting state legitimacy, an issue at the core of the Arab uprisings. The need for such disclosures of state secrets amplifies the divergence between the interests of a government and its citizen and highlights the breakdown in the social contract between the state and its people. Such knowledge serves to confirm governments’ overreach that most people already suspect and inspire campaigns that may stop such acts from happening again. It may also be amplified to help articulate broader narratives of grievance that serve as the basis for progressive social mobilization.


[1] Principle 15: General Rule on Disclosure of Secret Information in The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1996/39 (1996).

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