Five men arrested in November in connection with a plot to blow up the only bridge connecting the island of Bahrain with Saudi Arabia and to assassinate Bahraini politicians are allegedly tied to Iran's Revolutionary Guard and reportedly received military training in Syria, according to information leaked to the media by authorities.
The charges are the latest salvo in a regional struggle for power between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and come just after the U.S. revealed an alleged plot by Iran's Revolutionary Guard to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.
Bahrain, a small, oil-rich island in the Persian Gulf that is home to the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been rocked for nearly a year by anti-government protests in which dozens have died. Though its ruling family is Sunni, the majority of its population is Shiite Muslim. In March a Saudi-led Gulf military force was sent to Bahrain to back up local security forces. The establishment has accused Iran of exploiting the country's sectarian divide and inciting the protests that erupted in February, an accusation Iran has denied.
In November, authorities in Bahrain announced they had arrested the five alleged plotters, all Bahraini citizens, who were reportedly planning to blow up the King Fahd bridge, the main causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, in addition to the Bahrain Interior Ministry and the Saudi embassy in Bahrain's capital, Manama. The men were also allegedly planning on assassinating Bahraini members of parliament and journalists.
Four of the five men were arrested in neighboring Qatar as they were crossing by car en route to Iran, according to a statement by the Bahrain ministry of interior. "They admitted to leaving Bahrain illegally, encouraged by others to head to Iran through Qatar and Syria, in order to establish an organization in Bahrain that would carry out terror attacks on vital infrastructure and target personalities," according to a November statement from the Bahraini Interior Ministry.
Qatari customs officials found "maps of vital Bahraini infrastructure," as well as a "laptop containing sensitive security information," plane reservations to Syria and "large sums of U.S. dollars and Iranian currency," according to the statement.
Officials: Bahrainis Trained in Syrian CampIn new information leaked to al-Arabiya, a Saudi-backed pan-Arab cable channel, Bahraini authorities now claim that the men were arrested while en route to Iran to train with the Revolutionary Guard, the elite paramilitary force controlled by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and to receive a religious fatwa for "defensive jihad" against the Bahraini establishment.
Sources confirmed to ABC News that post-arrest interrogations had led to the new allegations, and also claimed that the men had spent time in a military training camp on the Lebanese-Syrian border, where they were reportedly taught how to blow up buildings and carry out assassinations. Experts believe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is closely linked to the country's ruling clerics, established the camp in 1983 to train members of the then-nascent Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah. Both the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
In November, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the U.S. had disrupted a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and alleged that the plan was "conceived, sponsored [and] directed from Iran" by a faction of the government. A member of the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard was charged in the criminal complaint.
The crisis in Syria has been seen as another important battleground between Iran and the Saudis, with Iran reportedly providing much needed financial assistance to the Syrian regime through its other regional ally Iraq, just as Saudi Arabia has led the Arab League's incremental isolation of the Assad regime.
The alleged plotters are set to appear in court in February. Though they acknowledge that they left Bahrain without going through the proper border authorities, the men deny the rest of the accusations.
The year-long unrest in Bahrain has killed at least 50 people. A report published in November by an independent panel of human rights experts appointed by Bahrain's king found that security forces used excessive force and used systematic torture in detention. The commission also found no evidence of a "clear link between the events in Bahrain and Iran."