What does ‘terrorism’ in IMCTC stand for?

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All shades?

Former chief of army staff and current commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), General Raheel Sharif recently claimed that the largely Sunni Muslim alliance “is against terrorism… not against any country, sect, or religion.” His clarification came after claims that the military front is not formed to “counter terrorism” but to “counter Iran” – the Shi’a majority country that has refused to become a part of the Saudi-led alliance.

Iran, of course, has a deep history of antagonism with the Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, therefore it does not surprise one that the former refused Pakistan’s offer to join the coalition, and was also “upset” with the appointment of Raheel Sharif as the military alliance’s first commander-in-chief.

“We are concerned about this issue… that it may impact the unity of Islamic countries,” Iran’s envoy to Pakistan, Mehdi Honardoost told the Iranian state-run news agency, IRNA. It is important to note that Pakistan had actually consulted with Iranian officials before issuing a no-objection certificate for the appointment of Sharif as the military head of the coalition. However, Iran, despite giving the proposition a nod, has not denied nurturing reservations about the recently-formed alliance, masterminded by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

It is believed – and Honardoost’s words are a confirmation – that Iran is concerned about the Sunni nature of the military alliance, and believes that it might turn into a pan-Sunni coalition, instead of the pan-Islamist coalition that it claims to be.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has been left in a very uncomfortable position: in the middle of the tug-of-war between the leader of the Sunni world, Saudi Arabia, and the leader of the Shi’a world, Iran. In allowing Raheel Sharif to take the wheel of the IMCTC, Pakistan has surely risked damaging its recently improving relations with its long-skeptical neighbour. The damage, seemingly, already has been done as Iran recently inaugurated a $1billion extension of Chabahar port, situated near the Pakistani border, in collaboration with Pakistan’s arch rival, India.

It is believed – and Honardoost’s words are a confirmation – that Iran is concerned about the Sunni nature of the military alliance, and believes that it might turn into a pan-Sunni coalition, instead of the pan-Islamist coalition that it claims to be

The “alliance” is further joined by Pakistan’s only other Muslim neighbour, Afghanistan. Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, of course, have also not been the smoothest in recent times.

Thus, the question arises: Why is the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition so essential for Pakistan that it is risking irreversible damage to relations with a very important immediate neighbour, and what exactly does it plan to combat?

Ex-COAS Raheel Sharif attempted to answer that question when he outlined three mediums through which IMCTC planned to combat terrorism: firstly, to “mobilise and coordinate the use of resources”, secondly, to “facilitate the exchange of information” and thirdly, to “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,” the retired chief of army staff further explained.

The statement holds true for many countries across the Islamic world: Africa’s Nigeria and Somalia who are busy combating the notorious terrorist group Boko Haram; the Middle East’s Syria and Iraq, who have been mauled by the Islamic State in the recent past, and, lastly, Afghanistan and Pakistan, themselves, who have been marred by the terrorist activities of militant outfits like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda over the past nearly two decades. It seems to be a good idea to lend financial, technical, or tactical support to such countries who may be feeling overwhelmed by their respective terrorist threats.

Sharif further explained that the IMCTC planned to attack terrorism on two fronts: ideological and financial. “Effort will be made to preserve and promote Islam’s universal message of moderation, tolerance and compassion, by creating intellectual, psychological and social impact to counter the perverted radical views,” he explained. “Next is terrorist financing. IMCTC will endeavor to dry up all types of financial support to terrorist organisations.”

“The vision of IMCTC is to have a collective response against terrorism capable of leading and coordinating the efforts of member countries with high efficiency and effectiveness.”

Of course, all of this sounds perfect in theory. The MBS-Raheel Sharif collaboration, too, seems theoretically apt to lead such a collaboration that seeks to fight violent fundamentalism, since Sharif has made a name in the Islamic world for the anti-terrorist efforts he initiated within Pakistan – especially the operation, Zarb-e-Azb – while the Saudi crown prince has increasingly proven himself to be a progressive moderate – at least, in theory.

However, with countries sporting a majority or even significant minority of Shi’as in their demographics choosing to stay away from the alliance, the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition could very quickly be repackaged and sold as a Sunni effort established to destabilize Shi’a governments – something that could harm the Muslim world much more than it would benefit it. After all, apart from a progressive, Mohammed bin Salman had also proven himself to be anti-Shi’a and capricious defence minister when he hastily released Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen to counter the Houthi rebels, launching the country into what is termed as “one of the worst humanitarian crises” in the world. He has also not shied away from confronting Iran, especially when it comes to its role in the Yemen war.

Perhaps, then, Iran could be excused for feeling paranoid about the creation of the IMCTC, and for believing that, to the signatories of this coalition, the word “terrorism” might just be a synonym for “Shi’ism”.