By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – A Saudi-backed Islamic military coalition will provide logistical, intelligence and training to a new West African counter-terrorism force that is struggling to get off the ground, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said.
The announcement by Adel al-Jubeir signals the involvement in the Sahel of a Muslim military alliance widely seen as a vehicle for countering the growing influence of Riyadh’s rival Iran.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday agreed to provide about $150 million to the G5 Sahel force, which is composed of the armies of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, a sign that Gulf Arab states are upping their influence in the region.
The Sunni Muslim kingdom is seeking to check the ambitions of Shi’ite power Iran to expand its clout in West Africa and across the Muslim world.
Speaking in an interview with France 24 television, Adel al-Jubeir said his country’s contribution would go much further by using the platform of the recently-established Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition to support the G5 Sahel.
“Because of our commitment to fighting terrorism and extremism we made the commitment to provide 100 million euros to these forces and we made this commitment also to provide logistics, training, intelligence and air support through the Islamic military coalition to this effort,” Jubeir said.
Some 40 Muslim-majority nations met in Riyadh at the end of November to begin fleshing it out details of the alliance first conceived two years by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but that until now has yet to take any decisive international action in its mandate to fight terrorism.
The crown prince has said he would encourage a more moderate and tolerant version of Islam in the ultra-conservative kingdom and wants the coalition, which will have a permanent base in Riyadh, to help combat terrorist financing and ideology.
“We will be hosting a meeting of this new group to coordinate this military support to those (G5) countries,” Jubeir said, referring to a meeting the Islamic Alliance, adding that Riyadh would also provide humanitarian assistance.
The G5 Sahel launched a symbolic military operation to mark its creation in October amid growing unrest in the Sahel, whose porous borders are regularly crossed by jihadists, including affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State.
However, France, which has 4,500 troops in the region, has been dismayed to see the militants score military and symbolic victories in West Africa while the G5 force has struggled to win financing and become operational.
After a meeting in Paris on Wednesday, the French and Malian leaders said they hoped the G5 would secure its first victories by the middle of 2018 to prove its worth and ensure more concrete support from the United Nations.
In Rome, a defence ministry official said Italy will send several hundred troops to Niger, a member of the G5 Sahel, next year to help train local forces battling jihadi militants.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni signalled the initiative on Wednesday, telling the G5 meeting in France that Italy would divert some of its forces in Iraq to Niger, a country that straddles an expanse of the Sahara desert.
“Niger has requested help with training men involved in border controls and we will certainly be setting up a mission there,” the defence ministry official said, declining to be named.
The official declined to confirm a report in la Repubblica newspaper that some 470 men would be sent to Niger to help with both training and surveillance, saying full details of the operation had not yet been finalised.
Despite agreement on principles, members of the Saudi-backed alliance have voiced different priorities slowing its implementation.
Critics say the coalition could become a means for Saudi Arabia to implement an even more assertive foreign policy by winning the backing of poorer African and Asian nations with offers of financial and military aid.
(Reporting by John Irish and Crispian Balmer, Editing by William Maclean)