Kuwaiti defense minister meets MBS, discusses anti-terror cooperation

RIYADH: Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses for a group picture with other defense ministers of the 41-member Saudi-led anti-terror force during their meeting yesterday. — AFP

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 yesterday 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 Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the Saudi defense minister, said in his keynote speech at the gathering in Riyadh. “This ends today, with this alliance.”

The summit is the first meeting of defense ministers and other senior officials from the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, 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 Mohammed, 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 archrival, Shiite-dominated Iran, as well as Syria and Iraq, whose leaders have close ties to Tehran. Yesterday’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 Houthi 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.

The alliance aims to “mobilize and coordinate the use of resources, facilitate the exchange of information and help member countries build their own counter-terrorism capacity,” Sharif said. While the alliance officially includes Qatar, which is the target of a six-month boycott led by Saudi Arabia, organizers 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 Islamist extremism. Qatar denies the allegations. Saudi Arabia also made a point to put Qatar at the end of the list of 41 countries that belong to the anti-terrorism alliance.

Egypt, which sent a military official and not its defense 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 organization 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 Mohammed 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 Mohammed 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.

Meanwhile, Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled Al-Sabah met Prince Mohammed bin Salman yesterday on the sidelines of the conference. During the meeting, they discussed Kuwaiti-Saudi cooperation in the fight against terrorism and extremism. Sheikh Mohammad reiterated in a speech during the meeting that Kuwait’s eagerness to join the ranks of the alliance stems from its unyielding disapproval of the scourge of terrorism, and underlined efforts to “tighten the noose on terrorists all over the world”.

He said that it would behoove the Islamic military alliance to align their efforts to keep the menace of terrorism at bay, which in turn would prevent sectarian strife that threatens the region’s stability. The Kuwaiti minister stressed that collective efforts are needed to “prevent terrorist groups and militias from spreading their twisted ideological zealotry”. “Today, we send a vociferous message that no part of our society has been spared this plague of terrorism,” he added, citing the recent attack on a mosque in Egypt’s restive Sinai peninsula as tragic affirmation. – Agencies