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Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic military alliance’ against terrorism makes no sense

Saudi Arabia announces the formation of a 34-state Islamic military alliance to "fight terrorism". Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters)

This week, Saudi Arabia announced that it was forming a new “Islamic military alliance" devoted to fighting global terrorism. The plan stemmed from the "keenness of the Muslim world to fight this disease, which affected the Islamic world first, before the international community as a whole," Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman told reporters during a rare news conference.

In many ways, this alliance seems designed to calm Western critics who have frequently complained that the Muslim world isn't doing enough to combat terrorism and extremism. However, the details of the planned alliance are more than a little unclear and have left some scratching their heads, unsure who exactly is in the alliance and what it is actually designed to do.

And as you can see, much of the reaction on social media hasn't been positive.

Saudi Arabia has tried hard recently to convince the West that it is taking the lead on tackling the problems of extremism and terrorism. But it's no exaggeration to say there are some perplexing aspects to this new alliance.

First, some of the countries apparently in the alliance claim to have never heard of it

A total of 34 nations have been declared as members of the alliance, but already some countries have come out to say that they never agreed to anything.

“We came to know about it (the alliance) through news reports," a senior official of Pakistan’s Foreign Office told the Express Tribune after the announcement. "We have asked our ambassador in Saudi Arabia to get details on it." Another unnamed individual told the newspaper that they were unsure whether they were part of any military alliance and noted that the country would not get involved in an alliance without United Nations backing.

Pakistan isn't the only country that got a surprise with the list. The governments of Malaysia and Lebanon have also suggested they knew little about the alliance that they were listed as a part of.

Other countries listed as being part of the alliance do not have Muslim majorities

Confusingly, while the Saudi government suggested its members came from "all over the Islamic world," a number of the countries listed as members do not have Muslim majorities. For example, over 80 percent of Uganda is Christian, while as much as 75 percent of Gabon is Christian. In Benin, the largest religion is Catholicism, and in Togo, the majority of the population holds indigenous beliefs.

These countries do have large Muslim minorities and ties to the Muslim world, including membership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (another alliance created at the behest of the Saudis). However, their involvement in the alliance is still surprising – especially when you consider the countries not in the alliance.

The Islamic State is one of the most well-funded terrorist organizations in the world. So where does it get its money? (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

A number major Muslim countries are not part of the alliance

Some of the most important Muslim countries in the world, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, are not part of the alliance. Why not exactly?

Well, in the first two cases, the reasoning seems depressingly obvious – both are Shiite majority nations.

The exclusion of Shiite nations in an alliance designed to represent the Islamic world seems to reinforce the belief that Saudi Arabia's alliance is motivated by a sectarian rivalry with Iran and not terrorism. Saudi officials deny this. “This is not a Sunni coalition or a Shia coalition,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference in Paris. Many people do not buy this (in Lebanon, government officials have had to assure the Shiite militant group and political party Hezbollah that it would not be targeted by the alliance).

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has been asked to join the alliance but has not made a decision at the time of writing, while it is not clear whether Indonesia has been asked to join yet.

It's unclear what exactly the alliance is aiming to do

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the alliance is just how vague it is. Jubeir has said that "nothing is off the table" when it comes to the alliance, which will not only have a military component but also tackle terrorist funding and ideology. What that means in practice is anyone's guess.

Saudi Arabia has also gone to lengths to suggest that the alliance would not be limited to attempts to fight the Islamic State, but would focus on terrorism in general. Some, such as Brian Whitaker of the al-Bab website, have argued that Saudi Arabia's definition of terrorism is worryingly broad. "Under a law introduced last year, virtually any criticism of the kingdom's political system or its interpretation of Islam counts as terrorism," Whitaker writes. Does this now apply to other countries in the alliance, too?

Many critics of Saudi Arabia say that for all its big talk in the fight against the Islamic State, the kingdom has proved unwilling to go after one of the key factors in the group's rise: the Saudi clerics who spread a radical Wahhabism that influences extremism around the world. There's a kernel of truth here – Saudi Arabia has certainly taken steps to stop the more extreme preachers, but it often seems just as interested in pushing a regional sectarian rivalry with Iran.

The problem is that that sectarianism often feeds further into extremism. And while this new alliance may appear to target terrorism, it's not hard to see it as an extension of the Saudi-led coalition currently fighting in Yemen – a war that sums up the sectarian quagmire currently engulfing the Middle East.

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