Third Time’s A Charm: Will Saudi’s newest coalition work?

Thirty-four states join Sunni anti-ISIS alliance.

Saudi boys paint a mural depicting Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on October 29 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi boys paint a mural depicting Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on October 29
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Islamic State has criticized a formation of 34 Sunni Muslim nations as “morons and fools” after Saudi Arabia announced it would form a grand coalition to confront the growing threat of terrorism in the world. The group accused the alliance of “colluding with crusaders” and threatened to attack them in response.
Saudi Arabia’s alliance comes just weeks after a string of attacks in Europe, America and the Middle East that have been linked to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Mohammed bin Salman, defense minister of Saudi Arabia, told journalists gathered for a press conference that a coalition of 34 states would be formed with a joint operational headquarters located in Riyadh.
Islamic extremism is a disease which has damaged the Muslim world, Salman said, making a point to note that the coalition would not be limited to targeting just ISIS, but all terrorists. “Any terrorist organization that appears in front of us, we will take action to fight it,” the minister declared.
However, given the fact that in the past Saudi Arabia was described by Hillary Clinton in leaked US diplomatic cables as one of the single greatest funders of terrorism in the world, the sincerity of Salman’s statements might be questioned. The coalition has more to do with curtailing Shi’ite influence in the Middle East than it does with confronting terrorism, analysts say.
Riyadh itself is not linked to ISIS and never has been, though it might have connections to Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al-Qaida’s affiliate), Aviv Oreg, former head of the “Global Jihad” desk with Israeli military intelligence, told The Media Line. Individual Saudi donors and civil society organizations, on the other hand, do fund ISIS and other terrorist groups, Oreg, who now runs a civilian intelligence consultancy firm CeifiT, said.
“Saudi Arabia has always been a fertile ground for jihadists – the majority of Al-Qaida fighters were Saudi,” Oreg explained, noting that interestingly this is not true of ISIS, which takes more recruits from other Middle Eastern countries.
The prevalence of the ultra-conservative Wahhabist branch of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia has frequently left the country open to accusations of extremism.
In an effort to counter Iranian Shi’ite influence in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia started the spread of Wahhabi charitable organizations as far back as the 1970s, Oreg said. These organizations acted as a conduit through which Sunni jihadists could operate, although their proliferation was never the intention of the government, he added.
Ephraim Herrera, an expert on Islamic extremism and author of Jihad – Fundamentals and Fundamentalism, was less convinced of the Saudi regime’s sincerity in this regard. “You will never see the Saudi Arabian government funding terrorism. You have evidence that Saudis linked to the government are funding [it], but the government is very careful not to be caught by the intelligence services of the West,” Herrera told The Media Line. The lack of effort by the government to prevent its citizens from funding the Islamic State appears at odds with the statements of intent of its defense minister.
Among the 34 members of the coalition are Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan, all Sunni nations. Noticeably absent are Iran, Iraq and Syria, three governments that arguably are fighting hardest against ISIS but were presumably not invited to the party on account of their being Shi’ite.
A number of the Sunni states joining the Saudi initiative are already part of two separate coalitions conducting air strikes, one against the Shi’ite Houthi in Yemen and the second against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
States signing up to the newest coalition will not necessarily contribute military assets or personnel.
Defense Minister Salman suggested that the coalition would aim to tackle terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan, though he did not specify how.
Saudi Arabia is not the only member of the new anti- terrorism formation with a questionable track record in fighting terrorism.
Turkey has “turned a blind eye” to ISIS activities and has allowed new recruits to flow over its southern border to bolster the group, though it does not have direct links with the extremists, Oreg said. The single most effective act of the new coalition would be to seal Turkey’s southern border, the former intelligence chief argued.
Neither is Pakistan known internationally for its efforts to curb terrorism. Oreg pointed out that both the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, had links to ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Islamabad’s commitment to the anti-ISIS coalition appeared further undermined by initial media reports that Pakistan’s foreign minister had been surprised by his country’s inclusion in the announcement of the coalition. A spokesperson for Pakistan’s foreign ministry the next day cleared up the confusion, saying, “Yes, we’re part of it.”
But a war against terror is not the main point of the coalition, Herrera suggested, explaining, “You have to understand – the main war is the war between the Shi’ites and the Sunni.” Saudi Arabia, he noted, sees Iran as far more of a threat to its security than Islamic State. ISIS, which controls a small patch of territory and has an army of Toyota pick-up trucks, is far less dangerous than the might of the full Iranian state in Saudi’s estimation, Herrera said.
In fact, against the creep of Shi’ite influence, ISIS is actually an asset, which is likely to mean the coalition will have little success in tackling the spread of ISIS-backed terrorism, Herrera suggested. “There is no intention of stopping the Islamic State because it is the only army fighting on the ground against the Shi’ites,” the author concluded.