December 17, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Deciphering the Saudi Islamic Military Coalition

• In a press conference, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the formation of a 34-member Islamic coalition to fight terrorism

• In theory, the coalition could be an effective force at countering violent extremism; however, history and current rivalries suggest that it may exacerbate sectarian tensions

• Several countries on the list expressed surprise at being included in what had heretofore been informal discussions about the need for such a coalition

• Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, with his extensive counterterrorism experience, would have been the obvious choice to make the announcement.


The surprise December 14 press conference by Saudi Arabia announcing the formation of a 34-member ‘Islamic military coalition’ to fight terrorism was evidently a surprise to several of the countries listed as members. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi defense minister and son of King Salman, stated that he made the announcement 'out of keenness to achieve this coalition as soon as possible.' Soon after the announcement, officials from Pakistan, Malaysia, and Lebanon expressed surprise at being listed as official members of the military coalition. While supportive of the idea, these officials admitted that there remained many questions and legislative steps to resolve before joining. On paper, the member nations include: Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, LebanonLibya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, NigeriaPakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, TunisiaTurkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

The new Islamic military coalition would have its headquarters in Riyadh, and would provide military, intelligence, logistics, and other support to members as they needed it in the fight against terrorism. The announcement specifically did not focus on fighting just the so-called Islamic State; the Deputy Crown Prince used ‘terrorism’ as an amorphous term. The Saudis' definition of terrorism includes Hizballah which, awkwardly, is part of the Lebanese government—one of the nations prematurely listed as a member state. It remains to be seen what definition of terrorism will be used moving forward. By focusing broadly on violent extremism and violent ideology across the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia, the coalition could do a great deal of good if it avoids the usual pitfalls of sectarianism and competing interests. Given the history of failed unity efforts—and the region’s explosive tensions—the odds of a successful coalition are long.

The states missing from the coalition provide more reason for skepticism. Significantly, the coalition does not include IranIraq, or Syria, though the latter two countries are the most obvious battlefields in the fight against the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, sees Iran as its greatest enemy. Algeria, with one of the more powerful Arab militaries, is also notably absent. If the coalition actually becomes operational, it will need to take steps to avoid being seen as a coalition of Sunni against Shi'a; Iran has already denounced the move as purely sectarian.

The rushed nature of the announcement and the lack of a defined enemy are not the only sources of confusion and intrigue surrounding the proposed coalition. It is notable that neither King Salman nor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef made the announcement. For such a sweeping international initiative, it would be customary for the head of state to make the statement. Crown Prince bin Nayef has extensive experience with counterterrorism and regional initiatives, and would have been an obvious choice to make the statement.

Mohammed bin Salman stated that the coalition would only act with the permission of the host government wherever intervention was required; such a stipulation essentially rules out significant operations in Syria and Iraq. Though the Deputy Crown Prince was not specific about the types of intervention the coalition would engage in, he did discuss combating terrorist financing as well as countering violent ideology. During a later press conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir would not rule out ground forces, though again under what authority and where is unclear.

The optimistic view is that this initiative—however oddly launched—is a badly needed first step towards a more local approach to the many systemic drivers of violent extremism. A truly unified approach to countering the violent ideologies tearing many countries apart would be a far greater accomplishment than any feasible military option. A more realistic view is that the initiative will struggle to avoid what has ailed so many Arab coalitions; sectarianism, parochialism, and competing self-interests.


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