Mercenaries in Bahrain: The cruel crackdown of the uprising

Mercenaries in Bahrain: The cruel crackdown of the uprising


1. Introduction

2. Bahrain: a general overview

2.1. Bahrain unleashes his three-headed beast

3. Mercenaries in Bahrain

3.1. Recruitment

3.2. Evidences, Reasons and Effects.

4. Mercenaries under the International Law


1. Introduction

Until very recently, in order to deny any engagement of their own countries in the crackdown of the Bahraini uprising, the political leaders implicated in the scandal of the employment of mercenaries in Bahrain released declarations that seem to fall on deaf ears. However, unofficial rumours started circulating through the media over the last decade, that mercenaries had been deployed by Bahrain to quell uprisings is an open secret ever since. Indeed, deployment of foreign personnel has been overtly attested since 2009, when Bahraini authorities sent delegations of security forces to Makran to recruit people from the region of Balouchistan, in Pakistan. But, it has been reported that the Al Khalifa family has long experience in recruiting from Sunni-majority countries even before 2009. The most targeted countries are, in order of relevance, Pakistan, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan being at the top.

This report aims at providing an overall analysis on the process of recruitment of foreign people by Bahrain authorities in order to curb the uprising, by trying to draw attention of the international community to the criminalise use of mercenaries in the country.

2. Bahrain: a general overview

Bahrain is a small island country situated near the western shores of the Persian Gulf. As for the last census in 2010, the population stood at 1,234,571, including 666,172 non-nationals who make up 50% of the population, with the non-Bahraini population’s rate almost doubled in over a decade. Among non-nationals, the vast majority (about 45.6%) comes from South and Southeast Asia: according to various media reports and government statistics dated between 2005 and 2009, the non-native communities comprise of roughly 290,000 Indians, 125,000 Bangladeshis, 45,000 Pakistanis, 45,000 Filipinos, and 8,000 Indonesians. Other Arabs cover only the 5% of the overall population.

As to the sectarian affiliation, Bahrain is a predominantly Muslim country. The population of Bahrain are predominantly Shia Muslims. Official estimates range from 75% in the past to about 65% at present. But, allegedly, these figures do not mirror the real composition of the society, due to the systematic attempt by Bahraini authorities to alter the demographic texture of the country through the “Bahranization” social engineering project, that aimed to swing the demographic balance against the majority. In this regard, Justin Gengler’s survey offers a more balanced picture of the Bahraini society, reporting a minor divide between the two components, by attesting the Shia Muslim rate at 57.6%, and the Sunni Muslims at 42.4%.

The Al Khalifa family, which is Sunni Muslim and generally not as religiously conservative as the leaders of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, has ruled Bahrain since 1783.

The Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, in position since Bahrain’s independence in 1971, is considered aligned with the family hard-liners, led by the Minister of the Royal Court Khalid bin Ahmad bin Salman Al Khalifa and his brother the Commander of the military (BDF) Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa. The two brothers, also known as the Khawalids are fierce opponents to any reconciliatory policy and have extensive control upon the security and intelligence services and the judiciary. Collectively, the harder liners within and outside the royal family assert that concessions made to the majority since 1999 caused the latter to increase political demands rather than satisfied them.

Opposition to the monarchy has been portrayed by it and its supporters as sectarian in nature, however it should be noted that Sunnis, Shias and Salafis are all part of the opposition. Nevertheless some aspects of persecution against opponents has taken a sectarian turn and has played to an anti-Shia Muslim audience in the wider Gulf, and as part of US policy against Iran.

2.1. Bahrain unleashes its three-headed beast

In addition to the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF), composed of over 13,000 people, two public security forces have played a key role in the government’s crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising. The first force is called the National Guard. It is a separate military force under the command of the Minister of Interior, serving both as defence force against external threats and as a security force against internal threats. It was established in 1997, and consists of about 2,000 personnel, the majority of which consists of non-Bahraini personnel, recruited heavily from Pakistan along with a smaller percentage coming from neighbouring Arab countries, such as Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

The second force is the Special Security Force Command (SSFC), a paramilitary law enforcement body under the command of the National Security Apparatus (NSA), serving as the investigating authority in Bahrain. The NSA first appeared in May 2002, and its authorities overlap the Ministry of Interior and the judiciary system, while it extends its influence to the Central Informatics Organisation, the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Social Development. The NSA is not accountable before the Council of Representatives or any other monitoring body. Its role as an executive arm of the Supreme Defence Council, considered the highest authority in the country, is “to preserve the national security”, by monitoring and detecting all activities that might harm the security of the Kingdom or its institutions and systems. It develops necessary security plans to face all normal and exceptional circumstances in cooperation with the specialised government bodies. Thanks to the amendments of 2008, the National Security Apparatus’ powers have been reinforced, forasmuch as it was granted jointly the security jurisdiction of the public forces, independent of the National Guard and the military, and the judicial jurisdiction of the public attorney, which can investigate all crimes falling under the National Security Apparatus’ mandate. Further, its members cannot be prosecuted by either the criminal or the civil courts, but only by the military court that lacks transparency and independence.

Noticeably, the NSA is in the forefront of the crackdown of the protests by operating through its executive arm, the Special Security Forces, successively founded in 2005. The SSF is a paramilitary force, headed by high ranking officers from the King’s family or other Bedouin tribes that are in political alliance with them. Remarkably, the NSA and SSF are formed on sectarian basis. Indeed, the percentage of Shia Muslim citizens employed at the NSA does not exceed 4%, and they work as informants and in the low level jobs. In the same manner, the majority of the personnel (90%) of the SSF, which adds up to more than 20,000, is recruited from outside of Bahrain, from countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. Reportedly, there are no Bahraini Shia Muslims among the ranks of the SSFC.

3. Mercenaries in Bahrain

Over the years, the majority of these non-Bahraini recruits were granted Bahraini citizenship within the hidden ongoing project of demographic sectarian change to marginalise the Shia Muslim citizens in Bahrain. Accordingly, it has been reported that the votes of new naturalized citizens were used effectively to marginalise the opposition in the elections of the Council of Representatives in 2006 and later on.

3.1. Recruitment

More and more often, Bahrainis have complained that the riot police and special forces do not speak the local dialect, or in the case of Baluchis from Pakistan, do not speak Arabic at all and are reviled as mercenaries. Officers are typically Bahrainis, Pakistanis, Syrians or Jordanians. According to an analyst for the Arab Media, Ali Mehr, Bahrain, while initially recruiting from Baloch, is now recruiting former soldiers from all over Pakistan. Also, there appears to be the presence of Iraqi Ba’athists who served in Saddam Hussein’s security forces and seemed to have been recruited after the US-led invasion in 2003. Once more, during the recrudescence of February 2011, the Bahraini revolt was crushed with the help of outsiders coming from the Gulf Cooperation Council troops, composed mainly of Saudi and Jordan mercenaries native to Pakistan. Further, only recently the Al-Wifaq party revealed that Bahrain met 5000 Syrian refugees in the Syrian camp Zaatari, and 5000 Sudanese to work in the security services.

Even though the public estimates of foreigners recruited in the Bahraini public security forces are a closely guarded secret, it is possible to affirm that the vast majority of them are native to Pakistan, whose overall figure varies from 7,000 to 10,000 over a police force of 25,000. They have been recruited directly through Pakistani internal recruitment channels or imported with the Gulf Cooperation Council troops. According to Pakistani officials, a further new 1000 security personnel have signed up last month (March 2014).

Recruitment of Pakistanis has been evidenced also since March 2011, when the Fauji Foundation, the Pakistani armed forces’ welfare body, placed an advertisement calling for Pakistani ex-riot police and other military and security specialists to be recruited in the Bahrain National Guard. In addition, on the statement it was said that a delegation from the Bahrain National Guard would be visiting Pakistan for the purpose of selecting the Pakistani personnel in the week from March 7 to March 14. Further, in May, on the back of the visit to Islamabad by senior Saudi and Bahraini officials, at least 2,500 former servicemen were reportedly brought to Manama.

The same trend seems to be confirmed once more this year when on March 18 the king of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, arrived in Pakistan on a three-day visit, formally for enhancing economic cooperation between the two countries. Yet, it is evident that realistically this has been again a move to seek military assistance to curb growing protests. As proof of that, the king led a 21-member delegation, with his top defence and internal security chiefs, which made an unprecedented and ostensibly unmotivated visit to the Joint Services Headquarters (JSHQ) in Rawalpindi. As noted by Dawn, the Joint Services Headquarters, the principal headquarters of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, is a highly unusual place for an official visit by foreign heads of state.

3.2. Evidence, Reasons and Effects.

There are many reasons behind the use of foreigners in the riot police. Firstly, they are less likely to sympathize with the citizens for they speak a different language. In this regard, many videos have been posted in internet by demonstrators while they are taunting the mercenaries in Manama by yelling at them slogans in Urdu or other languages. Secondly, the mercenaries belong to a different Islamic confession, Sunnism, as opposed to the majority of Bahrainis. The Bahraini authorities have exploited sectarian differences and have tried to mark out a sectarian divide in Bahraini society and appeal to a larger sectarian narrative being fuelled in the region by Saudi Arabia in particular. Many testimonies from Pakistan, for example, said that they were called for jihad against Shia community resident in Bahrain. Thirdly, mercenaries can inspire more accountability than locals in term of loyalty to the Bahraini rulers, for they are reliable to whoever hires them, especially when they are promised to benefit from pay scales they could never attain at home. In this regards, of particular interest comes the testimony of Mr. Khan, a 29-year-old university graduate from the north-western city of Peshawar, in saying that in 2011 he had been offered almost $400 a month to work for Bahrain’s security forces, seven times what he got in a Peshawar factory making matches. According to the Shia Post, salaries have been on the increase with the expected amount of salary is set around 100,000 Pakistani rupees a month, besides other perks and privileges including free medical facilities and accommodation.

Evidence and testimonies on the role of the mercenary troops in the crackdown of the uprising are redundant. Many of them have been repeatedly recorded while arresting and harassing protestors in the streets, or while using excessive force in suppressing protesters, penetrating areas with a Shia majority with tear gas and rubber bullets, damaging properties, houses and mosques. For all these reasons, foreign public security forces are to be considered mercenaries to all intents and purposes. Indeed, as mercenaries, they were brought selectively from outside the country, they are used for security or military purposes outside the regular security and military bodies, they are trained and prepared in a special manner, and they are provided with careers and advantages not provided to Bahraini employees, such as housing, travel expenses and family reunifications.

Unwisely, the leaders of all the countries involved in the scandal, either Bahrain or Arab countries or Pakistan, neglect the effects that their irresponsible policy may lead to. Firstly, in terms of integration, the “new citizens”, as they are often referred to by native Bahrainis, live in isolated communities and are rarely offered language and cultural immersion courses, and consequently are seen as foreign usurpers. Last but not least, deployment of mercenaries can spark an escalation in violence as a result of the confrontation of the two fronts, along the fault-line that divides Bahrainis and non-Bahrainis, and Sunnis and Shias. Recent incidents seem to lead in this direction. According to the Pakistan Embassy in Bahrain, only a few days ago one Pakistani policeman died during a blast in a town (Daih), and recently another 5 have been killed in clashes between the security forces and protesters, which caused also 40 injuries. There are concerns that many Pakistanis, who are guest workers doing jobs that have nothing to do with the police, such as construction, could be vulnerable targets of an ever-growing hostility from Bahrainis and “the others”.

4. Mercenaries under International Law

The first mainstream international humanitarian law instrument to deal specifically with mercenaries was the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions that Bahrain ratified in 1986. In art. 47, it provides the most widely accepted definition of mercenary, by which:

2. A mercenary is any person who:

(a) is especially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;

(b) does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;

(c) is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;

(d) is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;

(e) is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and

(f) has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

Article 47 of Additional Protocol I has been scathingly criticized as it was intentionally narrow in its scope of application: accordingly, for an individual to be classified as a mercenary, he must meet all the six requirements (a) to (f) provided in the article. Then, the possibility of finding an individual who falls within all the definitions provided became highly unrealistic.

Further, the definition of mercenaries seems restricted to persons who are employed in armed conflicts, and it applies exclusively to international armed conflicts. At this point, some considerations need to be made with regard to the notion of armed conflict. Firstly, an armed conflict can involve two different countries, but also two conflicting forces within the same country. In this regard, the article 1 of Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, relating to Non-International Armed Conflict, would apply to conflicts between the Government and rebel forces, or between two rebel forces, or to other conflicts that have all the characteristics of war, but that are carried out within the confines of a single country. Indeed, the Protocol shall apply to:

“All armed conflict which take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol”.

Yet, the character of armed conflict seems to be imperative and implicates that both confrontational forces in the conflict must be internally well-structured and military equipped as usually militias are. As a result, it does not cover all those cases of “internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts”.

Alternatively, the 2001 UN Mercenary Convention, ratified only by Saudi Arabia and Syria with reservations, provides a much lower threshold for assigning ”mercenary” status to an individual, in article 1, part 2:

2. A mercenary is also any person who, in any other situation [that is, not in the context of an armed conflict]:

(a) is specially recruited locally or abroad for the purpose of participating in a concerted act of violence aimed at:

(i) overthrowing a Government or otherwise undermining the constitutional order of a State; or

(ii) undermining the territorial integrity of a State;

(b) is motivated to take part therein essentially by the desire for significant private gain and is prompted by the promise or payment of material compensation;

(c) is neither a national nor a resident of the State against which such an act is directed;

(d) has not been sent by a State on official duty; and

(e) is not a member of the armed forces of the State on whose territory the act is undertaken.

As evident, there are some significant differences between international humanitarian law and the mercenary-specific UN convention. Firstly, the latter regulates all those cases where the deployment of mercenary troops is a matter of fact, regardless the nature the conflict per se. The second major point of distinction is that, unlike Protocol I, the UN convention spells out more significant consequences for the mercenary troops in terms of criminal sanctions, either in relation to the mercenary himself or to the recruiting actors. To conclude, in the current status quo, neither can the uprising fulfil the armed conflict requirement, nor can mercenaries in Bahrain be punished as the Protocol I falls short of prosecutorial mechanisms.


Foreign recruits are increasingly seen by Bahraini protesters, especially from the Shia community, as “the repressive arm of the state”, and they risk being drawn into a civil war of sectarian nature. That the Khalifa family, mostly with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, is trying to foment the sectarian division in the country for its own interests is a well-known fact, and it has been extensively discussed in the preceding paragraphs.

The international community should firmly condemn the use of mercenaries in Bahrain and push the issue to top of human rights priorities in the 2014 agenda. At the present, Bahrain is legally bound only to Protocol I and II to the Geneva Conventions. To some extent, both documents aim at regulating the status of mercenaries but only for the purpose of depriving the mercenary of combatant or prisoner-of-war status. Accordingly, nations who are party to these treaties are required to try legal solutions at a domestic level, by enacting and enforcing legislation that criminalise the use of mercenaries. However, Bahrain does not dispose of appropriate internal measures, neither does it prove willing to find a more practical solution to the treatment of mercenaries. In this regard, the ratification of the UN Mercenary Convention by Bahrain is highly recommended.


[1] However, in the last few days, it seems that most political leader admitted that Bahrain is recruiting policemen from abroad. In this regard, please see: Manamavoice,  رئيس الحزب الحاكم في باكستان: جيش البحرين صغير لذلك هم طلبوا من باكستان المساعدة, available at See also 

[2] BCHR, 24 MAY, 2009:  استمرارالسلطاتالبحرينيةفيالاستعانةبالمرتزقةلمواجهةالتحركاتالمطلبيةالشعبيةيوديلتناميالعداءللأجانب available at: 

[3] See BCHR Report, Mar, 2011: “Bahrain Urgently Recruits More Mercenaries Amidst Political Crisis”, available at




[7] March 2009, BCHR: “Bahrain: Dangerous Statistics and Facts about the National Security Apparatus”, available at 

[8] 25 JAN, 2009, BCHR: “Granting the National Security Apparatus the power of General Attorney and immunity from prosecution before Civil Courts”, available at 

[9] March 2009, BCHR: “Bahrain: Dangerous Statistics and Facts about the National Security Apparatus”, available at 

[10] Ibid

[11] Bandar report. See also, See BCHR Report, Mar, 2011: “Bahrain Urgently Recruits More Mercenaries Amidst Political Crisis”, available at 

[12] Dawn News, March 2014, available at 

[13] The Guardian, February 2011, “Bahrain security forces accused of deliberately recruiting foreign nationals”, available at 

[14] Al-Wefaq Website: 

[15] From World street journal: 

[16] The advertisement states that a BNG delegation is visiting Pakistan from March 7 to March 14 to recruit people from the following categories: officers (majors), Pakistan Military Academy drill instructors, anti-riot instructors, security guards, and military police as well as cooks and mess waiters. Civilians were required as security guards, while the rest of the categories required experience in the military or security forces. The requirement for anti-riot instructors was NCOs (non-commissioned officers) from the Sindh Rangers or officers of an equivalent rank from the Elite Police Force

[17] The add was placed both by Fauji Foundation and Bahria Foundation, the former is run by the Defence Secretary while the latter is headed by the Chief of the Naval Staff. The ad called also for riot control instructors, army drill instructors, retired military police, non-commissioned officers, and army-cooks, See Al-Jazira, July 2011, “Pakistani Troops aid Bahrain’s crackdown”, available at: See also Dawn Newspaper, “Bahrain recruiting former military men to quell protests”, available at 

[18] Ibid, Al-Jazira. See also, BCHR Mar, 2011: “Bahrain Urgently Recruits More Mercenaries Amidst Political Crisis”, available at 

[19] International Business Time, March 2014, “We Are Not Sending Troops To Gulf States To Help Fight Assad In Syria: Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif”, available on 

[20] The Diplomat, April 2014, “Pakistan and the Sunni Gulf”, available at 

[21] The Wall Street Journal, March 2011, “Bahrain’s Foreign Police Add to Tensions”, available at 

[22] The Shia Post, March 2014, “Hiring Of Pakistani Fighters For Bahrain Angers Iran”, available at 


[24] Dawn News, March 2014, available at See also The Shia Post, March 2014, “Hiring Of Pakistani Fighters For Bahrain Angers Iran”, available at 


[26] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, art.46, p. 2. The law is available at The UN Mercenary Convention is available at 

[27] Diplock Committee, Report of the Committee of Privy Counsellors Appointed to Inquire into the Recruitment of Mercenaries (UK Cmnd. 6569, 1976), at [7]

[28] Bahrain ratified the Protocol II on 30/10/1986

[29] Article 2 of Protocol II to the Geneva Convention

[30] As to UN convention, article 2 says: Any person who recruits, uses, finances or trains mercenaries, as defined in article 1 of the present Convention, commits an offence for the purposes of the Convention

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