Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh – AFP
By Imtiaz Gul
The 41-nation Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) formally kicks off Sunday with the meeting of a Council comprising Defence Ministers of the member countries under the theme of ‘Allied against Terrorism.’
Its four stated core objectives, as spelt out by its top commander Gen Raheel Sharif – former Pakistan army chief – are ideology, communications, counter terrorist financing, and to effectively join other international security and peacekeeping efforts.
The Riyadh meeting coincides with the internal power struggle led by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (aka MBS), who has managed to chuck out major opposition through his blitzkrieg against dozens of princess and key members of the ruling clique. He is also the boss of General Raheel Sharif.
Surprisingly, MBS, in his recent interview, has branded Ayatollah Ali Khameni – the Supreme Leader of Iran – as the ‘new Hitler in Middle East’, whereas lauded Donald Trump for his stance on the Middle East.
However well-intentioned, the IMCTC’s objectives mask a new phase of brutal geo-politics, this time directly led by Saudi Arabia – all in the name of counter-terrorism and ideology. But it badly smacks of power-politics aimed at Shia Iran and its allies, and thus a questionable endeavour on multiple counts.
Firstly, in the absence of Shia Muslim nations, the IMCTC essentially remains an alliance of Sunni denomination, led by a country that has meanwhile publicly disparaged Tehran as a terror-abettor.
Secondly, the IMCTC defense ministers’ meeting comes at a time when geo-politics is sweeping the entire region; where anti-Bashar al Assad US-Saudi Arabia backed non-state actors under the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – albeit disunited – are still vying to topple the Syrian government. Through the IMCTC, Saudi rulers are trying hard to garner support from most Muslim countries including Pakistan to the context of their relentless war on Yemen.
Thirdly, Russia, on the other hand, has managed to draw Turkey and Iran closer for a concerted, joint effort to diffuse tensions in the region and to seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis around President Bashar al Assad.
As part of this campaign, President Putin is inviting some 1400 tribal leaders from inside Syria for a grand meeting on December 2 talks in Sochi. The meeting also includes representatives of the Syrian government, Turkey as well as official opposition but the Russians are unsure whether the flag-bearers of HNC will participate.
The larger picture betrays intense jostling between two streams of geo-politics for space and influence in the region; Russia and Iran remain committed to the Damascus regime. Turkey is determined not to allow any independent Kurd state – unlike the US-Saudi-Israel led alliance that is out to undo Bashar al Assad and clip the Iranian influence in the region. It is all about geo-politics right now.
Fourth, the terrorist financing part of the stated objectives seems disjointed and disconnected from ground realities; a lot of cross-continental work has already been done in the lead of the United States and scores of new regulations have choked the formal funding avenues but that constitutes only a fraction of the funds that flow into terrorist-extremist networks. Even a cursory look at the Pakistani philanthropic landscape suggests that countless “God-fearing” businessmen, industrialists and individuals, who evade taxes, happily donate millions to private organizations including religio-political groups. And for this they do not use formal banking channels. Instead, hefty cash hand-outs flow from private kitties into the coffers of these organizations.
How do you prevent business/property tycoons from financing madaris (religious seminaries) and parties which are ideologically aligned with groups such as Al-Qaeda? Name any religious, religio-political or terrorist organization in Asia or elsewhere which doesn’t draw ideological inspiration from Al-Qaeda or its regional franchises? Most of the groups running mosques and madaris – directly or otherwise – do serve as the social support network, that is, facilitators for nearly all those terrorist/militant organizations which are inimical to the West, India and Israel and base their “mission” in a self-righteous religio-ideological narrative.
Lastly, the “ideology” part of the objectives stands as distinctively hollow; the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition plans to counter “extremist ideologies” that serve as the precursor to terrorism. What ideology? How would these countries reconcile conflicting definitions of extremism and terrorism? For Saudi Arabia, Iranians (Shias) are terrorism sponsors. Iran, Russia, Turkey i.a. hold out the same charge, condemn others for pursuing the same. All have been fighting proxies and protégés of others as “terrorists.”
The concept of Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition therefore seems paradoxical, dicey and clearly driven and defined more by geo-political jostling for influence than by a sincere bipartisan expression of intent against all proponents of terror and extremism.
The author is Executive Director, CRSS.