Paul Pillar

Meager Prospects for the Muslim Counterterrorist Alliance

The leaders of Saudi Arabia in particular, but also several other participants in the 34-nation anti-terrorism coalition that the Saudis put together and was announced this week, want to tell us that they are against terrorism and that they are pulling their weight in opposing it. Beyond such messaging, this new group of states—which mostly are Muslim-majority nations and all of which are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—is unlikely to amount to much.

This is not to say that such a grouping couldn't contribute to counterterrorism in useful ways. The potential contributions include military contributions, which for better or for worse are what immediately get thought of when people think about counterterrorism, and which have been a focus of a trip into the Muslim world this week by the U.S. secretary of defense. Majority Muslim countries tend to carry less of the historical and ideological baggage that Western countries carry when applying military force in other Muslim countries. To the extent that the new grouping encourages some practical sharing of counterterrorist information that might also be useful, although the most usable such information gets shared in channels much more restricted than a 34-nation group. And certainly when it comes to aspects of counterterrorism that usually come under the heading of the battle of ideas, the West is at even more of a disadvantage compared to what Muslim majority countries could do.

But as for exactly how the potential will be converted into actual and useful action, one's hopes should be tempered by the vagueness of the declared program of the grouping and of what the Saudi foreign minister had to say about it.

A fundamental and underlying limitation is one that also affects much discussion of counterterrorism in the West: that terrorism is not, as the term often gets used, some discrete and identifiable bunch of bad guys, but rather a tactic that can be and has been used in pursuit of greatly different goals by different people. And so among Muslim nations as well as among others, the concept of counterterrorism gets exploited and batted in different directions by governments with different agendas centered on other issues. One has only to look at the mess in Syria to see this dynamic at work.

Our hopes also ought to be tempered in noticing the absence from the announced group of the majority Shia nations of Iran and Iraq (and, not surprisingly, Syria). This is a sign that sectarian and nationalist rivalries have affected the thinking behind the new grouping at least as much as any common commitment to curbing terrorism.

For the Saudis, who are the lead players in the new group, the role of Wahhabism both as a foundation of their own regime and as an ideological precursor of the radical Sunni varieties of jihadism that contribute most of the terrorism-related headlines and concerns today continues to be a major impediment to full and effective Saudi counterterrorist efforts. This is true whether the action is unilateral or is wrapped in a multilateral context such as the newly announced coalition. The fragile legitimacy of the Saudi regime is part of what is in play once a battle of ideas goes beyond the de-radicalization of individuals and gets to more general ideological underpinnings of political violence.

Now that the new group has been announced, Western governments should feel uninhibited about pressing it to make real contributions to counterterrorism that are consistent with Western interests. But we shouldn't expect a whole lot to happen in response.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to the National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet