Saudis’ Anti-Terror Window-dressing

Faced with greater public awareness of its role promoting Sunni jihadist terror, Saudi Arabia has announced a 34-nation “anti-terrorism coalition,” but it may be just window-dressing for Riyadh’s anti-Shiite agenda, not a serious move against extremism, an issue addressed by ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

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 U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. 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.

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Saudis’ Anti-Terror Window-dressing

  1. December 20, 2015 at 02:15

    I disagree with Paul’s statement that “now that the new group has been announced, Western governments should feel uninhibited about pressing it to make real contributions to counterterrorism.”

    I think western people and governments shall expose this coalition as a Saudi PR trick to help the Israel lobby’s most favoured Republican candidates in the primaries. When Kasich – of whom Roger Stone says his job is to carry water for Rubio – refered to this imaginery Saudi coalition in the CNN primary debate and Rubio further built it’s foreign policy strategy in that debate, it became quite obvious why the Saudis announced the coalition just a day before the Republican primary debate in Las Vegas: They just want to make Rubio’s “Sunni-based” foreign policy agenda look less stupid. And the critical timing just before the Republican debate also explains why the Saudis did not even have time to inform their alleged “coalition partners” that they became part of a Saudi coalition.

    So, no, I don’t think Western governments should lend this Saudi PR fraud designed to influence the US primaries credibility by asking more contributions, but expose this Saudi fraud to help the Israel lobby’s favorite candidate Rubio as the fraud it is.

  2. Bill Distler
    December 19, 2015 at 04:13

    Saudi Arabia has been the major instigator and supplier of Sunni terrorism since they started supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan around 1980. To say that they may help in “counterterrorism” against the thing they created and still support is a mental derangement. I don’t mean to be insulting to Paul Pillar, but come on, how long are we going to accept the fiction that Saudi Arabia is an “ally” in the fight against terrorism when they are responsible for it..

    There have been 37 years of war in Afghanistan, consistently supported by Saudi Arabia through the Pakistani ISI. On Sept. 11, 2001, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the UAE recognized the Taliban diplomatically. Our natural allies should have been the countries that supported the United Front ( a.k.a. the Northern Alliance). They were Iran, Russia, and India,

    There is an unholy agreement between the United States (corporate) government, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. It has something to do with controlling the flow rate and getting what we need, but it could also be just as important to keep it away from India, China, and Russia, the rivals of U.S. corporations.

    While we have been diddling about with the idea of a pipeline from the gasfields of southwestern Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India (a.k.a. TAPI), China has built a pipeline from the gasfields of eastern Turkmenistan to the east coast of China. Was the idea of a TAPI piipeline always more of a desperate attempt to deprive China of the energy it needs for development?

    In 1992 the US Geological Survey’s Minerals Yearbook said that Afghanistan had estimated natural gas reserves of 2,000 billion (that’s 2 trillion) cubic meters. The USGS has known since the 1970’s that Afghanistan is packed with minerals. The story is complicated but so are the plans of the robber barons, and while millions suffer from their cruelty, they can afford to wait years for the right moment. They have enough to eat while they’re waiting, unlike millions of the victims of their greed.

  3. Brendan
    December 18, 2015 at 18:49

    The Saudi coalition was just a fabrication anyway. It’s already been downgraded from a military coalition to some sort of undefined agreement on sharing information.

    Officials in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Lebanon have expressed surprise that they were included in the list of countries supporting it.

  4. Abe
    December 18, 2015 at 17:06

    Saudi Arabia united its mercenaries in Riyadh in order to constitute a delegation in readiness for the next round of negotiations organised by the NATO Director of Political Affairs, US neo-Conservative Jeffrey Feltman.

    The Saudis did not invite the representatives of Al-Qaïda, nor those of Daesh, but only the Wahhabist groups who are working with them, like Jaysh al-Islam or Ahrar al-Sham. Therefore, in theory, there were no « terrorist groups », as listed by the UNO Security Council, present at the conference. However, in practice, all the participants were fighting with, in the name of, or alongside Al-Qaïda or Daesh without using their label, since most of these groups are directed by personalities who once belonged to Al-Qaïda or Daesh. Thus, Ahrar al-Sham was created just before the beginning of the events in Syria by the Muslim Brotherhood and the principal leaders of Al-Qaïda, drawn from personalities close to Osama bin Laden.

    Continuing to act as they had before the Russisan intervention, the participants agreed to a « political solution » which would start with the abdication of the democratically-elected President Bachar el-Assad, and continue with a sharing of power between themselves and the Republican institutions. Thus, although they have lost all hope of a military victory, they persist in counting on the surrender of the Syrian Arab Republic.

    Since the representative of the Syrian Kurds was not invited to the conference, we may conclude that Saudi Arabia considers the project for a pseudo-Kurdistan as distinct from the future of the rest of Syria. Let us note in passing that the YPG has just created a Syrian Democratic Council in order to reinforce the illusion of an alliance between Selah Muslim’s Kurds and the Sunni and Christian Arabs, when in reality, they are fighting each other on the ground.

    In any case, there is no doubt that Riyadh is supporting Turkey’s efforts to create this pseudo-Kurdistan as a place of banishment for « its » Kurds. Indeed, it is now confirmed that Saudi Arabia supplied the logistical aid necessary for Turkey to guide the air-air missile which shot down the Russian Soukhoï 24.

    Finally, Qatar is still pretending that it has not been involved in the war since the abdication of Emir Hamad, two years ago. Nonetheless, proof is accumulating of its secret operations, all of which are directed not against Damascus, but against Moscow

    Military operations in preparation in and around Syria
    By Thierry Meyssan
    The silence surrounding the military operations in Iraq and Syria does not mean that the war has ground to a halt, but that the different protagonists are preparing for a new round of hostilities.

  5. Abe
    December 18, 2015 at 16:34

    NATO’s game in Syria wallows in slippery ambiguity. Discussions with dissident EU diplomats in Brussels, not necessarily NATO vassals, reveal a counter-narrative of how the Pentagon clearly mapped out the Russian strategy; how they interpreted Russian forces to be relatively isolated; and how they decided to allow Ankara under Sultan Erdogan to go wild – a perfect tool offering plausible deniability.

    Which brings us back to the downing of the Su-24. Venturing one step further, Russian expert Alexei Leonkov maintains that not only did NATO follow the whole operation with an AWACS, but another AWACS from Saudi Arabia actually guided the Turkish F-16s.

    The F-16s are incapable of launching air-to-air missiles without guidance from AWACS. Both Russian and Syrian data – which can be independently verified – place the American and the Saudi AWACS in the area at the time. And to top it off, the detailed US-Turkey deal on the F-16s stipulates permission is mandatory for deploying the jets against a third country.

    All this suggests an extremely serious possibility; a direct NATO-GCC op against Russia, which may be further clarified by the Su-24’s recovered black box.

    As if this was not enough to raise multiple eyebrows, it could mean just the first move in an expanding chessboard. The final target: to keep Russia away from the Turkish-Syrian border.

    But that won’t happen for a number of reasons – not least the Russian deployment of the ultra-lethal S-400s. The Turkish Air Force is so scared that everything – even owls and vultures – is grounded across the border.


    the CDO [Coalition of Dodgy Opportunists] is no coalition of 60 or 65 countries, as the Obama administration is frantically spinning. They are actually a gang of seven: Germany, France, UK, US, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In a nutshell; a pared-down-to-the-bone NATO-GCC compound.

    Who’s actually fighting the fake “Caliphate” on the ground are the SAA [Syrian Arab Army]; Hezbollah; Iraqi Shi’ites under Iranian advisers; and outside of the “4+1” alliance (Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq plus Hezbollah) a coalition of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and smaller Arab and Christian militias, now united under a political umbrella, the Syrian Democratic Council, which Ankara predictably abhors.

    Ankara provocations won’t stop – including “creative” ways of denying the passage of “Syrian Express” Russian ships through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles without violating the Montreux Convention.

    So NATO’s “new” master plan, twisting and turning, still slouches towards the prime objective: “liberating”, Libya-style, northern Syria and allow it to be occupied either by “moderate rebels” or in the worst case scenario Syrian Kurds, which in theory would be easily manipulated.

    ISIS/ISIL/Daesh would be in this case “contained” (Obama administration lingo) not in eastern Syria but actually expelled to the Iraqi western desert, where they would solidify a Sunnistan. Erdogan also badly wants a Sunnistan, but his version is even more ambitious, including Mosul.

    This is all happening while a gaggle of Syrian “moderate” rebels met – of all places – in Wahhabi/Salafi-Jihadi Central Riyadh to choose a delegation of 42 people to “select the negotiators” of future Syrian peace talks.

    Once again they agreed “Assad must go” even during the transition process. And that “foreign forces” must leave Syria. Obviously that excludes the tsunami of mercenaries paid and weaponized by Riyadh alongside Doha and Ankara.

    Any sound mind would ask how the House of Saud gets away with it: choosing who is a “moderate” in a nation they are heavily involved in destabilizing. Simple: because Riyadh owns a gaggle of US lobbyists and handsomely rewards PR gurus such as Edelman, the largest privately owned PR agency on the planet.

    And not by accident, the Syrian Democratic Council was not invited to go to Riyadh.

    NATO’s got a brand new (Syrian) bag
    By Pepe Escobar

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