Insight: Bahrain's pipeline bombing

On November 10, photos and videos began circulating of a massive fire in Buri, Bahrain caused by an explosion of an oil pipeline. It wasn’t until the following day that the Ministry of Interior confirmed that the explosion was no accident, but a deliberate attack attributed to “terrorists in direct contact with, and under instruction from, Iran”. In the immediate aftermath, Saudi Aramco was forced to temporarily suspend oil transport through the pipeline but which has since resumed.

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Oddly, although no claim for this specific incident emerged, the Tehran-linked al-Ashtar Brigades did release a statement the same night claiming responsibility for an as-yet unconfirmed IED targeting security personnel near the al-Sahla Highway in Jid Hafs, some nine kilometres northeast of Buri.

The Buri pipeline bombing marks a rare but not entirely unprecedented attack against either a non-security related target or one related to oil infrastructure. Although the vast majority of Shiite militancy in Bahrain has targeted security personnel and installations, there are exceptions. At times, IEDs have struck civilian vehicles, whether purposely or inadvertently, including on Sitra Island in February of this year that wounded a married couple and a similar incident in al-Eker in July 2016 that killed one woman and injured her three children. Clearly intentional attacks also occurred at other civilian locations: February 2015 saw a homemade bomb in an al-Maqsha gas station restroom injure two policemen, while local militant group al-Mukhtar Brigades claimed responsibility for targeting a restaurant that same month, describing it as the “economy of the occupying regime”.

Like that restaurant attack, the perpetrators likely perceive oil as supporting the current Bahraini government and, therefore, a legitimate target. But the Buri incident targeted a pipeline, not a restaurant or even gas station.

Although this does not necessarily indicate an intended shift in modus operandi both because it is only one incident and because Shiite militant groups in Bahrain have successfully attacked non-security targets in the past, its impact was notably different. Causing even just a temporary shutdown of oil transport from Saudi Arabia goes well beyond repercussions of arson or localised IEDs, while simultaneously attracting substantially more attention. Whether intended or not, this attack thus does represent an escalation.

So why now? Given known links between Tehran and Bahraini militants, a regional component cannot be completely dismissed. Targeting a Saudi-Bahraini pipeline amid tensions related to Lebanon could be a message that these groups are able to hurt an important ally. At the same time, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are a frequent occurrence, and similar attacks were not seen in the aftermath of Yemeni conflict, Qatari blockade, or al-Nimr execution, to name a few.   

Alternatively, the precedent of periodic non-security-related attacks suggests that it could have simply been one of opportunity. The fact is that despite the size of the resulting fire, it was not particularly more sophisticated. Multiple past IED attacks, security raids that uncovered explosives labs, and interdictions of explosive materials means that Bahraini militants have and continue to be capable of constructing such devices, an ability that has been linked to Tehran by both local and international officials. Moreover, pipelines are notoriously difficult to secure given their length, making a successful attack noteworthy but not necessarily indicative of improved or new tactics.

The absence of a claim may also be intimately tied to the reason why attacks against non-security targets are not common despite the clear ability to successfully execute them. Take the size of the explosion (large) and location (close to a residential area) of the Buri bombing as an example. Militant groups can’t survive without recruiting members and placing civilians in danger hampers that ability. In other words, targeting police is one thing, but causing a large explosion and fire that could have been much more deadly than it was, is another.

Author: Miriam Eps, Analyst Team Lead