Saudi-led alliance vows to ‘eradicate’ terrorism
London- Defence ministers and officials from 40 Muslim-majority countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have officially launched a military alliance, vowing to end terror attacks in their regions.
The gathering in Riyadh of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) was two days after a terror attack targeted a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai, killing more than 300 people.
“We will not allow them (terrorists) to distort our peaceful religion. Today we are sending a strong message that we are working together to fight terrorism,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz said at the meeting. “Today we affirm that we will pursue terrorism until it is eradicated completely.”
The November 26 gathering marked the official inauguration of the alliance, which was set up in 2015 to counter the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups. The coalition’s military command is headed by Pakistani General Raheel Sharif, who served as Pakistan’s army chief from November 2013-November 2016.
“A number of our member countries are under tremendous pressure while fighting well-established terrorist organisations due to capacity shortages of their armed forces and law enforcement agencies,” Sharif said on IMCTC’s Twitter account.
The alliance “will act as a platform to assist member countries in their counterterrorism operations through intelligence sharing and capacity building,” he added.
The meeting’s closing declaration stressed the need to fight terrorism in various domains — including education and digital media — and not be confined to military action.
“The ministers uphold their determination to address terrorism through education and knowledge, to highlight correct Islamic concepts and to establish the truth of moderate Islam, which is consistent with human nature and common values, and peaceful and just coexistence with the global community that ensures security and prosperity,” the statement read.
Qatar, which was part of the original coalition in 2015, was not present in Riyadh, following charges by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt six months ago that it supports terrorism. Doha denies the allegations, which it says were politically motivated.
The Arab quartet recently added the Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars and the International Islamic Council (IIC) to its blacklist of entities allegedly linked to terror.
“The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam,” wrote James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in his blog Mideastsoccer.
Iran and countries that are perceived as being under its sphere of influence — such as Syria and Iraq — were not invited to join the alliance. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of being a chief sponsor of terrorism, a charge denied by Tehran.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Crown Prince Mohammed labelled Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “the new Hitler of the Middle East.”
“This alliance is a clear signal to the Arab-Islamic world that Saudi Arabia still wants to set the main agenda in regional policy and, of course, another instrument of containing Iran,” Sebastian Sons, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told the German media outlet DW.
Even if the intention is to contain Iran, however, it remains unknown whether the alliance as a whole would act against Tehran.
“The final declaration… suggested that it would be up to the member countries to decide the extent of their participation in the coalition, something that would provide enough room to Pakistan to maintain a delicate balance in its ties — both with Saudi Arabia and Iran,” wrote Kamran Yousaf in the Pakistani newspaper the Express Tribune.
Pakistan’s role in the alliance is important because the IMCTC is led militarily by a Pakistani general and many Saudi troops reportedly receive training from Pakistani personnel stationed in the kingdom. Islamabad, however, does not wish to sour its relations with Iran.
“The current Pakistani Army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, was in Tehran in the first week of November, assuring the Iranian leadership about Pakistan’s role in Saudi Arabia,” wrote Kunwar Khuldune Shahid and Saikat Datta in Asia Times.
“According to several diplomatic sources, General Bajwa assured the Iranians to stay neutral, while also offering help on missile technology and a visit by Iranian scientists to SUPARCO, Pakistan’s official space agency.”