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Saudi troops seen during Exercise Northern Thunder

Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Anti-Terrorism Effort: A Coalition of the Willing or an Anti-Iran Front?

Kamal Alam and Wajahat S Khan
Commentary, 6 December 2017
The Gulf Region, Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
Saudi Arabia’s new Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition has been hailed as an historic organisation which will not only serve a military purpose but also take the ideological fight against those who use terror in the name of Islam.

The launch of Saudi Arabia’s new Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) went practically unnoticed in the West as much of the focus was on the current turmoil in the Middle East.

However, for the countries involved – and particularly the three dominant players of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan — the initiative is considered a significant event that could alter the course of the region.

The IMCTC is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) brainchild. The first hint of its formation came in March 2016 with the region’s largest ever military exercise, Northern Thunder. Hosted by Saudi Arabia, more than 300,000 soldiers took part and over 2,000 fighter aircraft took part in Northern Thunder.

In early 2017, the idea of an Islamic NATO was floated by Riyadh, based on the unity of the Muslim ‘ummah’ – a fraternity of Islamic communities ­– which would ensure that their destiny lay their own hands rather than relying on the West.

The IMCTC is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s brainchild

The timing made sense. MbS was emerging as a key player while Saudi Arabia felt increasingly alienated by Barack Obama’s White House over his administration’s support for the Iran nuclear deal at a time when Riyadh was balking at Tehran’s growing regional influence.

Riyadh welcomed the election of Donald Trump, with Saudi Arabia being the new US president’s first destination on a foreign visit. Furthermore, Trump’s message — that regional countries should take control of their own destiny rather than relying on the US — was already being put into effect by the IMCTC. Trump in his early days reached out to President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi of Egypt and held him out to be a core part of the new strategy that would allow Muslim countries to fight terror themselves.

However, questions remain: What is the IMCTC’s role? Will it have operational teeth, or will it be a political tool wielded by the Saudis against the Iranians?

And while the IMCTC pushes the ‘ummah’ unity narrative, some major Muslim nations are missing from the coalition, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria, causing fears that it is merely an anti-Shia ‘Sunni bloc’. These fears were exacerbated by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation announcement in Riyadh – later retracted – over the power of Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. Moreover, the world’s most populous Islamic state, Indonesia, has so far declined to join, along with Algeria, which has the largest Muslim military in Africa.

However, the new commander of the coalition, General Raheel Sharif — who retired in 2016 after serving as the powerful army chief of Pakistan, the coalition’s largest and only nuclear-armed force – clearly rejects this anti-Iran narrative.   

‘This coalition is against terrorism. It is not against any country, sect or religion’, he said in Riyadh. As he laid out the main objectives of the coalition —  fighting terrorism tactically as a military force, targeting terror financing and countering the psychological warfare by the radicals – Sharif was clear about the IMCTC’s mission,

We all have different strengths. For example, the Jordanians are great in urban counterterrorism. The Pakistanis are well versed at operating in rural, less developed areas. Thus, resourcing will be key. Using the resources of militaries which have enough – such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to help out nations with less, such as those in Africa, will optimise the coalition. Of course, intelligence sharing will be the key building block of our operational capacity, and will also translate into greater gains, like ending the war in Afghanistan.

However, despite the reassurances, with Qatar being denied trade access routes by the Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis, and as Yemen descends even further in a cycle of violence, the region can ill-afford another major division.

With the IMCTC, the Saudis, with the backing of Egypt, Pakistan and others, have taken the first step towards fulfilling Trump’s request that they rely more on themselves than on the West

Pakistan is playing a key role in soothing frayed nerves. While the anti-terrorism coalition was being launched, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Tehran to allay its fears over the coalition.

Photographs of Bajwa saluting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and signing long-term security arrangements with the Iranian military were greeted in Tehran.

And here, perhaps, lies an indication of what this Saudi-inspired military formation is all about. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has said that,

Saudi Arabia feels safe, or at least it should, when its wings are all right. ‘Saudi security’ is based on an old strategy that withstood the change of times, leaders and the world around it; a strategy that always needs a strong Pakistan in the east, and a powerful and stable Egypt in the west, while maintaining good and distinctive relations with both countries so that it could safely advance with its foreign relations

With the IMCTC, the Saudis, with the backing of Egypt, Pakistan and others, have taken the first step towards fulfilling Trump’s request that they rely more on themselves than on the West.

Among the IMCTC’s first steps, Nigeria and Somalia will be offered capacity-building support, training and even troops in a quest to stabilise the wider Middle East. Sharif is also busy drawing up plans for divisions, brigades and troops strength, even as joint training exercises get more streamlined.

Meanwhile, with the full support of MbS – Sharif praised him as ‘one of fertile mind, and energy’ – the region could soon see a ‘Muslim-centric’ approach to ending conflicts and countering radicalism.

The IMCTC has stated its goal to ‘take Islam back’ from non-state, radical actors by beating them at their own game. The presence of senior Islamic clergy at the IMCTC launch reinforces this intention.

However, whether this coalition will stabilise the Middle East or just exacerbate existing schisms remains to be seen.

Kamal Alam and Wajahat S Khan

Wajahat S Khan is an Emmy-nominated producer for NBC News, correspondent for The Times and national security correspondent for Dunya News. He tweets @wajskhan

Banner image: Saudi troops seen during Exercise Northern Thunder. Was the exercise the starting point of the Saudi-led IMCTC? Courtesy of Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

Author

Kamal Alam
Visiting Fellow, Pakistan

Kamal’s research focuses on Pakistan defence issues, Pakistan military’s relationship with the Arab States, Syrian Army and the non-Arab... read more

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