RIYADH – Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince vowed to “pursue terrorists until they are wiped from the face of the earth” as officials from 40 Muslim countries gathered Sunday in the first meeting of an Islamic counter-terrorism alliance.
“In past years, terrorism has been functioning in all of our countries… with no coordination” among national authorities, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who is also the Saudi defence minister, said in his keynote speech at the gathering in Riyadh. “This ends today, with this alliance.”
According to Saudi Gazette, Crown Prince Muhammad pledged that extremists will no longer ‘tarnish the name of our beautiful religion’. “The biggest danger of terrorism and extremism is the tarnishing of the reputation of our beloved religion . … We will not allow this to happen,” he said.
“Today, we start the pursuit of terrorism and we see its defeat in many facets around, the world especially in Muslim countries. We will continue to fight it until we see its defeat.”
He said the members have gathered to pledge to do ‘all that we can until terrorism is uprooted and is erased from the face of the Earth’. “Today we affirm that we will fight terrorism until it is eradicated completely,” the crown prince said.
He said the meeting sends “a strong signal that we are going to work together and coordinate together to support each other.”
The meeting was held under the theme ‘Allied against Terrorism’. This marked the official launch of a pan-Islamic, unified front to support the global struggle against terrorism and violent extremism.
The summit is the first meeting of defence ministers and other senior officials from the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), which officially counts 41 countries and identifies as a “pan-Islamic unified front” against violent extremism.
The alliance was announced in 2015 under the auspices of Prince Muhammad, whose rapid ascent since his appointment as heir to the throne in June has shaken the political scene across the region.
The alliance groups largely, although not exclusively, Sunni-majority or Sunni-ruled countries. It excludes Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival, Shiite-dominated Iran, as well as Syria and Iraq, whose leaders have close ties to Tehran.
Sunday’s meeting coincides with an escalation in tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, particularly over wars in Syria and Yemen and the political structure of multi-confessional Lebanon. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting armed groups across the Middle East, including Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah and Yemen’s Huthi rebels.
The meeting also comes as several military coalitions, with backers including both Iran and key Saudi ally the United States, battle to push the Islamic State group from its last remaining bastions in Iraq and Syria.
The alliance meeting in Riyadh brings together Muslim or Muslim-majority nations including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Uganda, Somalia, Mauritania, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and Turkey.
Retired Pakistani general Raheel Sharif has been appointed commander-in-chief.
Addressing the gathering, General Raheel Sharif said almost 70,000 terror attacks took place in recent years, killing 200,000 people. Many countries in the Islamic world were impacted and Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan suffered the most. “The vision of the IMCTC is to have a collective response to terrorism,”
“The IMCTC is not against any country, sect or religion ,” he said, adding that efforts will be made to promote the moderate form of Islam.
In a statement provided to media ahead of the Riyadh meeting, General Sharif said: “The biggest challenge in the 21st century, especially in the Muslim world, is confronting the dangerous phenomenon of terrorism. “The IMCTC encompasses an integrated approach to coordinate and unite on the four key domains of ideology, communications, counter-terrorism financing, and military, in order to fight all forms of terrorism and extremism and to effectively join other international security and peacekeeping efforts.”
Quoting sources, Gulf News reported that Gen Sharif is likely to play an important role in reaching out to international bodies, including NATO, to build alliances.
Gen Sharif said the alliance aims to “mobilise and coordinate the use of resources, facilitate the exchange of information and help member countries build their own counter-terrorism capacity.”
“A number of our member countries are under tremendous pressure while fighting well-established terrorist organisations due to capacity shortages of their armed forces and law enforcement agencies,” said Gen Raheel Sharif, at the event.
“The IMCTC will act as a platform to assist member countries in their counter terrorism operations through intelligence sharing and capacity building.”
Gen Raheel Sharif joined the alliance as its top commander in April this year. According to IMCTC, the former chief “presents the Military Domain, which aims to assist in the coordination, of resourcing and planning of military CT operations, facilitate the secure sharing of information, and encourage military CT capacity and capability building.”
Core areas that the IMCTC seeks to address have been identified as ideology, communications, counter terrorist financing and military.
While the alliance officially includes Qatar, which is the target of a six-month boycott led by Saudi Arabia, organisers in Riyadh said no Qatari officials were present at the meeting. Qatar’s flag was also absent.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain abruptly cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in June, accusing the emirate of being too close to Iran and supporting extremism. Qatar denies the allegations.
Egypt, which sent a military official and not its defence minister to the Sunday meeting, is reeling from a Friday attack on a mosque that killed more than 300 people during prayer time.
While IS has not claimed responsibility, Egyptian authorities say the organisation is the main suspect as the mosque is associated with followers of the mystical Sufi branch of Sunni Islam, whom IS has branded heretics.
Prince Muhammad said Friday’s “painful event” was a reminder of the “danger of terrorism and extremism”. “Beyond the killing of innocent people and the spread of hatred, terrorism and extremism distort the image of our religion ,” he said.
Since his sudden appointment as crown prince, Prince Muhammad has moved to consolidate power, announcing crackdowns on both terrorism and corruption. A corruption purge saw around 200 Saudi elites including princes, ministers and business tycoons arrested or sacked earlier this month.
Dastgir attends meeting in Riyadh
Staff Reporter from Islamabad adds: Federal Minister for Defence Khurram Dastgir Khan, along with a five-member delegation, participated in the first meeting of defence ministers’ of the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh, said a statement issued here.
In the meeting, the defence minister acknowledged and appreciated the efforts of the Saudi leadership in building partnerships to counter the scourge of terrorism and extremism.
The defence minister highlighted Pakistan’s key role in the global fight against terrorism and showcased Pakistan’s successful counter-terrorism operations and the comprehensive National Action Plan.
Reaffirming Pakistan’s historical and fraternal relations with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the defence minister assured Saudi Arabia and the participating countries, of its support and cooperation within the mutually agreed framework of the IMCTC.
‘We won’t let extremists tarnish our religion’