Journalism in the Public Interest

Revealed: America’s Arms Sales To Bahrain Amid Bloody Crackdown

New Pentagon documents offer a fuller picture of U.S. arms sales to the tiny Mideast nation.

A Bahraini Shiite protester is detained by riot police during a demonstration in September 2012. The U.S. has long sold military equipment to the small Mideast nation's government. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/GettyImages)

Despite Bahrain’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, the U.S. has continued to provide weapons and maintenance to the small Mideast nation.

Defense Department documents released to ProPublica give the fullest picture yet of the arms sales: The list includes ammunition, combat vehicle parts, communications equipment, Blackhawk helicopters, and an unidentified missile system. (Read the documents.)

The documents, which were provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and cover a yearlong period ending in February 2012, still leave many questions unanswered. It’s not clear whether in each case the arms listed have been delivered. And some entries that only cite the names of weapons may in fact refer to maintenance or spare parts.

Defense Department spokesman Paul Ebner declined to offer any more detail. “We won’t get into specifics in any of these because of the security of Bahrain,” said Ebner.

While the U.S. has maintained it is selling Bahrain arms only for external defense, human rights advocates say the documents raise questions about items that could be used against civilian protesters.

“The U.S. government should not be providing additional military equipment that could make matters worse,” said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East advocacy director for Amnesty International USA.

There have been reports that Bahrain used American-made helicopters to fire on protesters in the most intense period of the crackdown. Time magazine reported in mid-March 2011 that Cobra helicopters had conducted "live ammunition air strikes" on protesters.

The new Defense Department list of arms sales has two entries related to “AH-1F Cobra Helicopters” in March and April 2011. Neither the exact equipment or services being sold nor the delivery timetable are specified.

The U.S. is also playing a training role: In April 2012, for example, the Army News Service reported that an American team specializing in training foreign militaries to use equipment purchased from the U.S. was in Bahrain to help with Blackhawk helicopters.

Bahrain’s ambassador to the U.S., Houda Nonoo, said the country’s military has not targeted protestors. Bahrain’s military “exists to combat external threats,” Nonoo told ProPublica. “[T]he potential for U.S. foreign arms sales to be used against protestors in the future is remote.”

The Obama administration has stood by Bahrain’s ruling family, who are Sunni, during nearly two years of protests by the country’s majority Shia population. Bahrain is a longtime ally and the home to a large American naval base, which is considered particularly important amid the current tensions with nearby Iran.

The itemized arms sales list does not include dollar values but a separate document says military equipment worth $51 million was delivered to Bahrain in the year starting in October 2010. (That period includes several months before the protests began.)

The U.S. has long sold weapons to Bahrain, totaling $1.4 billion since 2000, according to the State Department. The sales didn’t come under scrutiny until security forces killed at least 19 people in the early months of the crackdown in 2011. (Dozens have died since then.) 

The administration put a hold on one proposed sale of Humvees and missiles in Fall 2011 following congressional criticism. But Foreign Policy reported that other unspecified equipment was still being sold without any public notification.

The new documents offer more details on what was sold during that period — including entries related to a “Blackhawk helicopter armament” in November 2011 and a missile system in January 2012.

In May 2012, the administration announced it was releasing some unspecified items to Bahrain’s military that “are not used for crowd control” while maintaining a hold on the Humvees and TOW missiles.

State Department spokesman Noel Clay told ProPublica, “We continue to withhold the export of lethal and crowd-control items intended predominately for internal security purposes, and have resumed on a case-by-case basis items related exclusively to external defense, counter-terrorism, and the protection of U.S. forces.”

The U.S. has also sold Bahrain a helicopter fit for the royal family.

In September, Missouri-based aviation services firm Sabreliner reported that, as part of an official government arms sale, it delivered to Bahrain a fully customized UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter for “a variety of missions including transporting heads of state.” The aircraft was outfitted with a “clam shell door” for ease of entry, a “new VIP interior,” and a “custom Royal Bahraini” paintjob.

In other recent developments in Bahrain, the country’s highest court this month upheld lengthy prison sentences for 13 high-profile activists accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

In a rare occurrence in November, a series of homemade bombs were set off in the capital of Manama, killing two and leading some observers to argue that the opposition is growing more militant. Also in November, an Amnesty International report found that despite government promises, “the reform process has been shelved and repression unleashed.”

This is, of course, how we handle things in many countries.  We sell whatever government wants to buy to harass its citizens while enforcing an embargo against the country’s people for things like encryption to evade the computer surveillance we sell.

Along similar lines, it would be well worth looking at Marie Colwin’s death in Syria, which I notice nobody seemed to want to do.  Contrast that with the media obsession with Daniel Pearl’s murder.

More relevant to the subject at hand, though, I wonder how the timeline of shipments relates to the Bahrain’s use of public relations firms in this country.

Scott Derkach

Jan. 15, 2013, 5:27 p.m.

Here, have some more democracy American style.

That’s fewer weapons our government has to use against us when we wake up from our deep sleep and do what’s necessary—only a matter of time—

I think this also reflects the U.S. commitment to the build-up of our strategic base, NAS Bahrain and the port where our ships rest. It is rarely mentioned when discussing such things as arms sales and the reluctance of the U.S. to criticize the Bahrain’s egregious violations of human rights and the freedom of press. In 2012, we doubled the size of the naval station at the cost of $581 million dollars. Hard-earned tax dollars at work! This is often our double-bind. We believe we must have the base for operations in the ME. Because of this, we betray all the fundamental democratic inspirations, the bed-rock principles of a free people. We desert the Bahrain people yearning for freedom and protect the Bahrain’s Royal family, in order to assure our strategic needs. It’s our M.O.

Such covert deal has been happenning at all available corners worldwide for decades. No big deal, no new revelation.  (vzc1943)

In the name of Capatlism. Its big business selling arms. From American companies to big wig politician who almost always have there hand in the cookie jar..

How can this surprise us? The US is providing unlimited military assistance to Israel to kill Palestinians in their land.But the US public has remained silent and will remain silent in the foreseeable future.Selling arms to Bahrain has nothing to do with democracy.The Government of Bahrain is using its riot police to contain Iran inspired terrorist groups who want to see Iran style govt. in Bahrain.The country is marching towards democracy unlike its neigbours, so unless there is a foreign agenda, demand for democracy is a cover for another big sectarian agenda.Opposing Bahrain supporting another Iraq in Bahrain.

In a related story, President Obama says Congress must pass legislation to keep military style weapons out of the hands of mass killers.

Hi! I live here in Bahrain and I’m always pleased to read fake information about the country I leave in. Ask you a question, Westerners are aginst Iran (nuclear Shia threats), against Syria (alawite Shia regime) and youl would like to convince us bahraini Shia could be so democrat and different. look in Ira last year 200 death penalty (gay, religion, love affairs) and just 5 in Bahrain since the sixties1.
Do you think we are idiot or crazy?
I am astonished to read this! Do you think they use gunships to manage the crisis! You’re not serious. Do you even know the difference between military weapons and police gears. How do you want to give a chance to the law and order at least to do the job without tear gas? There is no war here even if the Shia refuse to join negociations because the issue is sectarism first. What about tottures by the gentle shia rioters, what about the massacre of poor asian workers killed by shia good fellows, what about the discovery in June of clandestine explosive home made laboratory and the making of powerful devices??

Stephanie Palmer

Jan. 16, 2013, 6:55 a.m.

No wonder we’re hated around the world.  Ebner, the defense department, and the administration are full of crap. This is the country that has imprisoned the health care workers who helped the protesters who were badly hurt by the government soldiers with the weapons this country provided.  Isn’t it bad enough for us that the NRA is able to buy so many legislators?  Do we need to spread this destructive nonsense everywhere else?

We always hear that the weapons are for external use & its for the army etc, like its gonna make us feel better!! Do u have any idea what the army does to people?!? Do u have any idea what the Saudi invading army did/still do in #Bahrain? no u dont, so spare us the silly excuses you use to finance murdering us & maybe one video will open your eyes a bit, this is what Bahrain army does with US Automatic Weapons, use this code in Youtube url “fwnUQcKXmMM” video watched by more than 2 million

Take away the citizens guns via a false flag “mass shooting” while providing guns for the oppressive regime in Bahrain and elsewhere around the world. Not a plan? Not an overall strategy of arming “security” forces who enforce fascist/corporate agenda, making the rich richer while ensuring regular people cannot defend themselves…against their own governments….which are the _real_ danger to people around the world.

Muhammad NaIya

Jan. 17, 2013, 4:35 a.m.

Naturally since the best democratic options of the US administration is the flow of cheap oil. The strongest supporter of sectarianism in the Middle East -Saudi Arabia- is a ‘permanent friend’ of the US and we all know the type of democracy the Ibn Sauds practice globally. It is only when things go awfully wrong that the scapegoats -Iran, Syria, N. Korea et al- move to frontline to face the misdirected wrath of the West and the Media as terrorists/sponsors of terrorism and undemocratic regimes!

Ambassador Houda Nonoo

Jan. 17, 2013, 12:32 p.m.

ProPublica, the highly respected independent investigative journalism organization, has stumbled badly in its recent reporting on U.S. military sales to Bahrain .
An article written by Justin Elliot and posted Tuesday January 15th on their website misleads its readers by omitting easily available facts that would have disproved the pre-conceived thesis of his piece. The article was re-posted by The Guardian and on a blog entitled “Informed Comment.”
This article was anything but well informed of the facts.
Most seriously, the article wrongly states that helicopter gunships—sold to Bahrain by the U.S. — had been used to attack peaceful protesters during the events of February and March 2011.
The Bahraini Embassy in Washington issued a statement to the author refuting the premise of his article. However, Mr. Elliott chose not to include the full statement in his report.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report –universally accepted as highly credible—was harshly critical of the government on many issues. However, the report explicitly found that the BDF did not use excessive force against protestors. Continued assertions to the contrary are untrue. The author ignored this fact as well.
The truth is that helicopters Bahrain purchased from the U.S. were used during the unrest for surveillance only. Certainly, any allegation that helicopters were used to attack our own people is factually inaccurate.

The article also cites an unverified and unattributed Time Magazine report published in 2011 as his proof. This report has been repeatedly proven to be false. And seeing as though the author has not offered any additional reporting to back up his allegations, they must be discounted.
ProPublica’s article falsely describes the events in Bahrain as a “bloody crackdown”—suggesting the military is shooting Bahraini protestors with live ammunition because of their political views. Mr. Elliott cites no information to support this wrong and vicious description. This image is categorically untrue, and puts the events taking place in Bahrain in a false context. These inaccuracies should be corrected.

Jan. 17, 2013, 10:56 p.m.

At what point in time and space does Corporatocracy become synonymous and one with America itself? It was my understanding that America is the People of America, and the corporations selling arms abroad to suppress and destroy democracy is the Corporate Right, a faction within America.

Justin Elliott

Jan. 18, 2013, 11:59 p.m.

In response to ambassador Nonoo’s comment above: While Bahrain’s government has denied using excessive force against protesters, human rights organizations have extensively documented the government—including the Bahrain Defense Force—doing exactly that. That’s why we used the phrase “bloody crackdown.”

Human Rights Watch has said the Bahrain Defense Force “was in charge of the comprehensive crackdown on largely peaceful protests during 2011.”

One of the group’s reports found that on Feb. 18, 2011, “security forces and the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) fired live ammunition and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters marching towards the Pearl Roundabout—then occupied by BDF tanks.”

Human Rights Watch further implicated BDF in abuses at a hospital treating protesters in March 2011.

Even apart from the findings of human rights groups, the ambassador’s characterization of the report by BICI—the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was paid for by Bahrain’s government—is selective to the point of inaccuracy.

She writes that “the report explicitly found that the BDF did not use excessive force against protestors.”

At one point the BICI report does say: “The Commission concludes that in general the BDF did not use excessive force.”

But elsewhere the 500-plus-page report also says there were “allegations of excessive use of force by BDF units” relating “to four cases of death that occurred during the events of February/March 2011.” The report says that military prosecution absolved BDF in these cases but that the investigations “were not effective [and] did not satisfy international standards.”

And the report’s findings related to the broader security forces is unsparing: “In many cases, the security services of [Bahrain] resorted to the use of unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage to property.” It also found that “many detainees were subject to torture.”

On the question of the use of helicopters, the contemporaneous reports we linked to in Time and the New York Times speak for themselves.

The hypocrisy the US continues by supporting the “unelected” Crown Prince Khalifa (40 year reign over Bahrain) is disgusting! These Kings/Sheiks/Prince/dictators of these 6 Gulf Cooperation Council aka the 6 Gulf OIL Council for these 6 rich countries who control 1/2 the world oil. The US Navy’s 6th fleet is in Bahrain!  All foreign journalist are banned from Bahrain! Why is that? March 14, 2011, the Saudi’s sent their troops, tanks and helicopters to attack protesters in Pearl Roundabout.  What happened to all the Doctors, nurses, and medics arrested at the Salmaniya Hospital for treating the wounded protesters?  Recall the President’s speech, “We have an obligation to support democracy?” that was said about the US supporting “groups” of unknown rebels/mercenaries/militia in Libya! Anyone who has watched the documentary “Shouting In the Dark,” gets the other side of the story.

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