Missing Considerations of the Counterterrorism Alliance

The first meeting of the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition (IMCTC) took place on November 26, 2017, in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh under the aegis of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who founded IMCTC in December 2015. Few doubt the importance of a Muslim coalition to fight the scourge of terrorism that, for decades, has been a pivotal phenomenon in international affairs and has undergirded much of the international community’s relationship with the Muslim world. What is curious, however, is the timing of this meeting, which comes while MbS consolidates his domestic grip and tries to influence regional developments, using confrontation with Iran and its proxies as a preferred method. Importantly, the meeting came as the so-called Islamic State (IS) is being driven out of one foothold after another in Syria and Iraq and its self-declared caliphate is being dismantled and destroyed.

Indeed, the meeting may only be seen as the Muslim countries’ recognition of MbS’s ascension to the leadership position in Saudi Arabia and thus as head of the Muslim Sunni world that the kingdom wants to lead. It should be remembered that the coalition does not include such Muslim states as Iran and Iraq, both majority-Shia countries, and may not welcome the services of others, like Qatar, that are considered to have run afoul of the Saudi leadership. In other words, the meeting was a political opportunity to affirm a new leadership and to set a new political agenda, one that may go beyond fighting terrorism and serve to coordinate counter-Iranian policies and activities and limit interactions with Qatar—after almost six months of the Saudi-led blockade on the peninsular nation.

Of course, the attack by militants thought to belong to IS on a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai, which killed 305 worshippers, gives credence to both the necessity of the coalition, whose Muslim populations are first and most victims of extremist violence, and to the need for a clear vision about how to pursue a successful campaign against those who perpetrate it. With 41 countries as participants, there is no doubt that the coalition has the wherewithal to mount the necessary campaign against a small minority of extremists wreaking havoc on the lives and fortunes of millions. The coalition is also concentrating on such efforts as wresting control of interpreting Islam, fighting extremist financing, sharing intelligence, and coordinating political strategies.

But going headlong with the current state of affairs as led by Saudi Arabia robs the coalition of important elements of success. These include a return to emphasizing unity among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), facilitating a reasoned approach to de-escalating matters with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and reaffirming the centrality of the Palestine cause to both Muslim and Arab undertakings in the future.

GCC Unity

It is difficult to fathom how a coalition to fight extremism in Muslim societies can succeed without addressing the current gaping hole in intra-GCC relations. When the IMCTC was inaugurated in 2015, GCC armed forces (which Oman joined a year later) were rightly considered pivotal to the military campaign that the alliance promised to wage; and they performed well against terrorist targets in Syria and Yemen. GCC governments also coordinated fully about the messages of a tolerant Islam, a continuing mission emphasized by the first meeting of the coalition in Riyadh. GCC finance authorities were dedicated to fighting the funding of terrorism, a task that remains difficult today. Muslim governments are also committed to doing what is necessary to lift Muslim societies out of poverty and providing needed socioeconomic development.

In fact, nothing changed since December 2015; indeed, some of these lofty goals—specifically those of interpreting Islam as a message of peace, fighting financing, and improving people’s lives—seem to have become more necessary as IS meets its eventual fate on the battlefield. But how can the coalition continue to implement these objectives if at its core––i.e., within the GCC––is a rift caused by unsubstantiated accusations against Qatar as a funder of terrorism? As it stands, Qatar is the only GCC state to have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States about that very issue, and it has received American accolades for accomplishing much in that regard, unlike its GCC challengers. How can the coalition endure and be effective if three GCC states––Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain––continue to thwart Kuwaiti and American mediation efforts to put the GCC crisis to rest? For all intents and purposes, Kuwait has reluctantly suspended its efforts temporarily while the Trump Administration has decided to let the GCC resolve its issues by itself. Just as importantly, how can the IMCTC be united if the GCC is disunited and one of its constituent members, Qatar, is under a strict siege? Qatar, which did not attend the meeting, was mentioned last on the list of the Riyadh meeting participants because of how it is perceived by the blockading countries.

All of these considerations limit the effectiveness and cohesiveness of the counterterrorism coalition since political considerations dominate the coalition’s formation and mission. The unity of the fight against extremism and terrorism requires that the countries causing the rift within the GCC––namely, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain––to reinforce their commitment to GCC unity and to ameliorate the conditions leading to disharmony and discord among the council’s members.

De-Escalation with Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran has used its assets and relations to destabilize the strategic environment in the Arabian Gulf and around the Levant, which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries consider essential for their national interests and security. Fomenting political discord has been a potent practice since 1979; it grew more dangerous only when sectarian divisions became the norm after the instability brought about by the protest movements and ongoing civil conflicts in some Arab states in the post-2011 period. It is a foregone conclusion that Iran has exploited extant conditions in the Arab world to advocate for a status quo that is anathema to the Arab Gulf countries. But that it supported and used Arab forces––parties, militias, and constituencies––and persists in doing so, was and continues to be considered by the Arab status quo states, led by Saudi Arabia, a direct threat that can only be faced with vigorous resistance and heightened alert.

However, this resistance is coming at a very high cost for Saudi Arabia and its allies. The Saudi-led war against Yemen’s Houthis, which the kingdom considers to be Iran’s proxies, has not produced the required victory, despite the expenditure of treasure, materiel, and reputation. Indeed, as things stand today Yemen may be seen as a net loss in strategic terms, compounded by divergent interests with the UAE there. Saudi Arabia’s interference in Lebanese affairs and MbS’s pressure on Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign from his post have not produced a pliant Lebanese state. Indeed, they may have added to Hariri’s prestige in the country but, tragically, also buoyed Iran’s proxy Hezbollah and its influence. Finally, the kingdom’s wish now to support the Trump Administration’s dangerous approach to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is shortsighted since scuttling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would allow Iran to return to enriching uranium and spinning centrifuges, only a short distance away from Saudi Arabia’s shores.

Undeniably, it is hard for Saudi Arabia and its allies to accept Iran’s incursions and malign activities in the neighborhood, and this clearly necessitates an Iranian self-critical appraisal of such policies. But the kingdom’s leadership may do well to refrain from engaging in actions that allow Iran to feel justified by its interference, whether in Yemen or in the Levant.

There are possible ways to de-escalate with the Islamic Republic. One is to soften the rhetoric about Iran as a threat and to offer starting a meaningful dialogue about shared interests in stability and security. Another is to invite Iran to join the Islamic counterterrorism alliance, which would give Tehran a role to play in a pan-Islamic forum. It would be hoped that softening the rhetoric, starting a dialogue, and emphasizing common goals within the IMCTC would lead to serious discussions about Yemen, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iraq, all arenas of discord.

Keeping Palestine Central

Fighting terrorism and extremism requires, first, addressing the conditions that make their existence possible. While the much-heralded coalition focuses on the military as the main counterterrorism instrument––with additional efforts focusing on political, economic, religious, and social tools of combat––it is important that it also concentrate on resolving the continued plight of the Palestinian people. The absence of a just resolution to the Palestine question keeps it alive in the hearts and minds of Arab and Muslim populations as a grave injustice committed against their fellow Arabs and Muslims. This would in turn allow the success of violent extremist discourse in recruiting fighters and causing further instability and insecurity. Both as a pan-Arab issue and one that affects millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, or in destitution in the besieged Gaza Strip and in refugee camps, the dilemma remains pivotal to much of what afflicts the Muslim world and a serious issue to address.

However, it was disappointing that the coalition meeting in Riyadh opened with a video containing footage from a clash between Palestinian fighters and Israeli occupation forces in the Bethlehem area in 2001 as an example of ongoing terrorism. On the one hand, it was unfortunate that the coalition participants, all invitees by the Saudi Arabian government, were made to look as if they considered Palestinian resistance an act of terrorism, thus succumbing to Israeli interpretations and abandoning the work to redress Palestinian rights and grievances. This would be a catastrophic development for the Arab and Muslim worlds. On the other hand, perhaps this was a simple mistake resulting from negligence or incompetence, which may be just as calamitous and points to the poor level of knowledge and organization in a conference of this importance. Only when the touted counterterrorism alliance fully comprehends the importance of Palestine to its mission of defeating extremist violence will it have a semblance of a chance at winning its mandate.

Important Steps Forward

If the recent meeting of the IMCTC is truly meant to chart the course for a vigorous effort to reclaim Islam from the bloody fingers of extremists and help rid the Muslim world, and the world at large, from the scourge of terrorism, it may have failed to address important considerations for its success. At heart, the coalition must start by tackling the reasons for the continued folly of blockading Qatar and by accepting necessary practical compromises through an open dialogue helped by Kuwaiti mediation. Further, Islam is not a monopoly for Sunnis and should not be expropriated as such. Finally, helping Palestinians achieve their national right to an independent state must remain tantamount to all Muslim efforts to fight extremism since the Palestinians’ continued dispossession is an essential grievance used by extremists in their murderous efforts.

Moreover, if the meeting in Riyadh were a mere photo op that Mohammed bin Salman used to achieve a political goal as the undisputed power center in Saudi Arabia and the putative leader of the Muslim Sunni world, then it is not hard to judge it as a failure. Fighting extremism is a collective effort that should be separated from political machinations. As the Islamic State approaches full defeat in the Levant, and Muslim countries prepare themselves for confronting IS’s offshoots in other parts of the Muslim world, both Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners must eschew self-serving practices and be ready with openness and unity to achieve that daunting task.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here