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Saudi Arabia Announces Formation of 34-State 'Islamic Coalition' To Fight Terrorism

There is little information on what the coalition will actually do, and many of the nations enlisted to combat Islamist brutality have something of a reputation for it themselves.
December 15, 2015, 11:05am
Le ministre de la Défense saoudien Mohammed bin Salman avec le président égyptien Abdel Fattah al-Sissi en avril. Photo via Egyptian presidency/EPA

Muslim countries from across the globe are coming together to form a 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, according to a joint statement published on Saudi Arabia's state news agency SPA on Tuesday.

"The countries here mentioned have decided on the formation of a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism, with a joint operations centre based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations," the statement said.

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A long list of Arab countries such as Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with Islamic countries Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and African states such as Nigeria and Sudan were mentioned. "The Palestinians" were also listed as one of the 34 nations.

The announcement cited "a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on earth and aim to terrorize the innocent."

Shi'ite Muslim country Iran — Sunni Saudi Arabia's arch rival for regional influence — was absent from the states named as participants, as proxy conflicts between the two regional powers rage from Syria to Yemen.

Related: Saudi Arabia Has a Big Islamic State Problem

The United States has been increasingly outspoken about its view that Gulf Arab states should do more to aid the military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) militant group based in Iraq and Syria.

In a rare press conference, 30-year-old Saudi crown prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman told reporters on Tuesday that the campaign would "coordinate" efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. But he offered few concrete indications of how military efforts might proceed.

"There will be international coordination with major powers and international organisations … in terms of operations in Syria and Iraq. We can't undertake these operations without coordinating with legitimacy in this place and the international community," bin Salman said without elaborating.

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Asked if the new alliance would focus just on Islamic State, bin Salman said it would confront not only that group but "any terrorist organization that appears in front of us."

Some commentators were quick to argue Saudi Arabia and its cohorts might not be the most suitable group to lead a fight against Islamist brutality. "Many experts will argue that Saudi Arabia is at the heart of the problem when it comes to Islamist extremism," wrote Sky News Foreign Affairs editor Sam Kiley. "Its more extreme and potentially violent strand (of Islam), Salafism, is being spread around the globe by Saudi and Qatari-funded organisations, mosques and religious schools and there are no signs that a more liberal religious view of the world will emerge from Riyadh."

Related: Egypt's Military Is Killing Civilians in Its 'War on Terror'

Iyad el-Baghdadi, an Arab spring activist from UAE, pointed out that many countries included in the coalition are "prolific human rights violators," calling the announcement a Saudi "PR stunt."

Do ask me how I feel about an "Islamic anti-terror coalition" being headed by a country that competes with ISIS in public beheadings.

— Iyad El-Baghdadi (@iyad_elbaghdadi) December 15, 2015

The announcement was welcomed by Germany and Turkey on Tuesday morning, and it is likely other nations will follow suit. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab neighbours have been locked in nine months of warfare with Iran-allied rebels in neighbouring Yemen, launching hundreds of air strikes there.

The United States has increasingly said it thinks that firepower would better be used against IS, especially after a rash of attacks on Western targets claimed by IS in recent months.

As a ceasefire is set to take hold in Yemen on Tuesday alongside United Nations-backed peace talks, Riyadh's announcement may signal a desire to shift its attention back toward the conflicts north of its borders.

IS has pledged to overthrow the monarchies of the Gulf and have mounted a series of attacks on Shi'ite Muslim mosques and security forces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Related: 'Dogs Are Better Than You': Saudi Arabia Accused of Mass Abuses During Migrant Worker Crackdown