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Islamic Military Alliance
Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT)

Saudi Arabia made a splash on 15 Decmber 2015 when it announced the formation of a 34-country Islamic Military Alliance [or Military Alliance of Islamic Countries] against terrorism, followed with a massive military exercise that ended in March 2016. The Sunni Muslim coalition -- which includes regional power and NATO-member Turkey, the region's most populous state in Egypt, and nuclear-armed Pakistan -- appears formidable. Joining Saudi Arabia in the alliance are Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, Palestine, Comoros, Qatar, Cote d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Yemen. All the group’s members are part of the larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Jeddah.

The exclusion of Shi'ite-dominated Iran and Iraq, and their ally Syria, made it clear that Riyadh was not motivated by the desire to combat terrorism. The Saudis were motivated by their sectarian and geopolitical rivalry with Iran. Riyadh and Tehran backed opposite sides in ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen.

Karen Elliott House, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, wrote in 2016 that "The government’s tough stance against Iran also is popular with the conservative Wahhabi religious scholars who relish the rise of anti-Shia sentiment in the Kingdom. Many of the senior scholars share the view of Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century founder of the rigid brand of Islam that bears his name, that Shia are apostates who must be converted or killed. So the assertive Saudi posture has improved the government’s standing not only with the population, but also with the all-important religious establishment... "

Saudi Arabia appeared intent on reaching across the Red Sea to build alliances in the Horn of Africa, where piracy, drug and weapons smuggling, and terrorism threaten commerce in the world's busiest shipping lanes. This was evident during the Saudis' intervention in Yemen. Over the past year, they built a coalition of African partners to help dislodge Houthi rebels who were in control of most of the country, including the capital, Sana'a. Eritrea played a key role, although it was not technically part of the Saudis' 12-nation coalition. Eritrea allowed the United Arab Emirates to use an airbase and logistics hub in the port town of Assab. The two countries also shared intelligence.

While some of the biggest Muslim countries are outside the "Islamic" alliance, some of its members do not have Muslim majorities. For example, around 80 percent of the West African state of Gabon's population is Christian. In Benin, the biggest religion is Roman Catholicism, while the majority of people in Togo hold indigenous beliefs. All these countries, however, do have sizable Muslim minorities. The Saudi outreach included Sudan, a historical ally of Iran, which recently received approximately $5 billion in military aid from Saudi Arabia and was part of the Saudi coalition in Yemen. The Saudi arms deal with Sudan was a significant accomplishment in terms of countering Iranian influence in the African Horn region.

When Riyadh announced the military alliance on 15 December 2015, several of the countries listed as joining or invited seemed surprised. Afghanistan and Indonesia had both been invited to join the alliance but had not yet accepted by late March 2016. Ten other countries had been invited to join the alliance but had been dragging their feet.

Indonesia's Foreign Ministry said it had been invited to join a "center to coordinate against extremism and terrorism," not a military alliance. Lebanon's Foreign Ministry denied having knowledge of Saudi Arabia's creation of an Islamic antiterrorism coalition.

Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry was quoted in the daily newspaper Dawn as saying he had been surprised to read of Islamabad's inclusion. Pakistan, which has strong historical ties with Riyadh, later expressed support -- if not much visible enthusiasm -- for the coalition. Pakistan's role will be limited to providing training to troops from the participating countries, sharing intelligence on terrorist groups, and helping member states create counter-radicalization initiatives.

Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Asheikh, grand mufti and chairman of the Senior Scholars’ Commission and Ifta Council, said that the newly formed Islamic Military Alliance will defeat Daesh (the so called IS). He slammed Daesh, describing it as part of the Israeli army. “They cannot be considered as followers of Islam. Rather, they are an extension of Kharijites, who rose in revolt against the Islamic caliphate for the first time by labeling Muslims as infidels and permitting their bloodletting.” Referring to a recent threat by Daesh leader against Israel, the grand mufti said: “This threat against Israel is simply a lie. Actually, Daesh is part of the Israeli soldiers.”

On March 27, 2016 the Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces of the Islamic Military Alliance member countries underscored the importance of the military's role in fighting terrorism, coordinating military efforts, exchanging information, and planning and training of alliance countries personnel. This came in the Riyadh Declaration final statement of the first meeting of the Chiefs of Staff of the Military Alliance of the Islamic countries to fight terrorism, which was held in Riyadh.

The “North Thunder” military drill was launched in northern Saudi Arabia on 28 February 2016 with the participation of forces representing the Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Senegal, Sudan, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Turkey, Tunisia, Comoros, Djibouti, Oman, Qatar, Malaysia, Egypt and Mauritania, in addition to the Peninsula Shield Forces. The “North Thunder” received regional and international attention as the largest military drill in the world in terms of the number of participating forces as well as the breadth of the maneuver area. The drill focuses on training troops on how to deal with terror groups and how to transfer from traditional to low-intensity combat operations.

Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Naif, deputy premier and minister of interior, emphasized 15 March 2016 that the recently concluded “North Thunder” military exercise has reinforced the depth of Arab and Islamic cohesion as well as the ability of the participating countries to confront whatever threatens the peace and security of the states in the region. Crown Prince Muhammad praised the great role played in this regard by Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, second deputy premier and minister of defense.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman said that the presence of leaders and representatives of 20 friendly countries at the closing ceremony of the North Thunder military exercise proved their eagerness to further strengthen military ties. Thanking them for their attendance, the King said the North Thunder maneuvers raised the level of combat readiness and helped assess the ability to manage military operations to achieve the unity of ranks and ward off dangers facing Arab and Islamic nations.

The Saudis invited Pakistani retired army chief Raheel Sharif to take up the post of the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), he proposed coalition of 39 countries that will have its headquarters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. For many Pakistan’s military personals the coalition led by Saudi Arabia seems more like a pro-Sunni alliance against the Shiites rather than an Islamic coalition against terrorism.



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