National Security

New Islamic Counterterrorism Alliance Presents Opportunity and Conflicts

Prince Mohammad bin Salman vowed terrorists will no longer “tarnish our beautiful religion.”

Coinciding with the bloody terror attack on an Egyptian mosque killing 300 people during prayers, officials from 40 Muslim countries gathered in late November as part of the first meeting of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), alternatively translated as the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, also the Saudi defense minister, vowed to “pursue terrorists until they are wiped from the face of the earth” as part of his keynote address. He emphasized the rampant spread of Islamic terrorism in the attendees’ nations and the conspicuous lack of an alliance in fighting it, AFP reports. Prince Mohammad bin Salman vowed terrorists will no longer “tarnish our beautiful religion.”

The “pan-Islamic unified front” against violent extremism is formally titled the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, and counts 41 countries as members since Prince Mohammed announced his intention to found it in 2015. Though touting the common enemy is terrorism rather than religious rivals, the alliance is largely Sunni-majority or Sunni-ruled countries: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Uganda, Somalia, Mauritania, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and Turkey.

Shiite-dominated Iran is not a member and neither are its closely tied but battle-worn counterparts in Syria and Iraq. A common criticism of the alliance is that it may be more about countering Iran as it is countering extremists. Then again, Iran is considered the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism.

According to the AFP, Qatar is also part of the alliance though no officials were present at the meeting, likely due to it being the target of a six-month boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain following accusations of it being too close to Iran and supporting Islamist extremism.

the Kingdom is the birthplace of radical Sunni Islamic Wahhabi ideology which gave rise to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State

Another criticism of Saudi Arabia as a leader of counterterrorism is that the Kingdom is the birthplace of radical Sunni Islamic Wahhabi ideology which gave rise to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Additionally, wealthy adherents in Saudi Arabia are considered responsible for promoting violent extremism around the world, particularly to Europe, as well as critical funding for Al Qaeda in its nascent years.

Human Rights Watch for one has claimed that the counterterrorism alliance is ripe for abuse by Saudi Arabia, whose new law stipulates criticism of the King and Crown Prince is a terrorist offense and which elsewhere broadly and vaguely defines terrorism.

According to retired Pakistani general Raheel Shareef, appointed commander-in-chief of the new Islamic Counter Terrorism Alliance, the goal is to “mobilize and coordinate the use of resources, facilitate the exchange of information and help member countries build their own counter-terrorism capacity.”

It is too soon to tell whether or not the alliance will be effective when it comes to combatting Islamic extremism within its own turf or elsewhere, let alone whether or not it is a genuine effort. Nonetheless, it indicates a new chapter of counterterrorism in the Middle East North Africa region replete with new opportunities and concern for regional geopolitics and U.S. interests.

Sheena Hutchison

Sheena Hutchison is an OpsLens contributor with nearly a decade of experience in political analysis and campaign strategy. As a ghostwriter for a former Reagan-appointed ambassador to the United Nations, much of her work has focused on domestic and foreign policy issues, particularly those related to national security, immigration and counterterrorism. Sheena holds a BA in International Affairs with a regional concentration in the Middle East from The George Washington University and is pursuing a MA in Global Security Studies with concentrations in Strategic Studies and Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University.

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