After days of speculation by certain section of media, which only wants to play up with stories, we can now reveal with authority the actual status of Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition and the role of former Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif as its commander-in-chief. We were part of a group of parliamentarians and journalists that visited the IMCTC office in Riyadh for the first time on an invitation by the Saudi Ministry of Media. In our exclusive meeting we had a chance to meet Lt-Gen Abdulelah Al-Saleh - the Acting Secretary General of IMCTC - who along with General Raheel Sharif warmly welcomed our delegation.

The warmth and candour accorded to us was unmistakeable, something which we all felt since our reaching the IMCTC and until leaving the quarter - which is 60 kms from Riyadh. The drive on a broad road surrounded by the hills in the midst of desert was in itself a pleasant experience.

Better known by the theme “Allied Against Terrorism”, the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) is an initiative of HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who is known as MBS. The alliance aims to pursue terrorism until it’s wiped from the face of earth.

“Contrary to the rife speculation that we are building, God forbid, a force against someone else or a certain country, as wrongly printed by some section of media, we are a strategic organisation geared towards building strategies and tactics to counter terrorism around the world,” General Raheel Sharif informed us.

General Raheel, who welcomed us at the IMCTC headquarters along with Lieutenant General Abdulelah Al-Saleh, said that recognising the need for a pan Islamic counter-terrorism entity, 41 countries came together to launch the IMCTC and the number is expected to grow. At present Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, Qatar and others are members - including of course Pakistan. A list of names of all member countries is available on IMCTC’s website.

General Raheel Sharif said he has seen up-close how terror organisations run around the world in networks, many times supporting each other. The retired Pakistani Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is a hero back home for the exemplary role he played in defeating terrorism in his motherland. Sharing his experience in dealing with this menace, he said the key is to halt the network.

The now commander-in-chief of IMCTC said that more than seventy percent of terrorism is unfortunately happening in Muslim countries so Muslim world is largely affected by it. “We [Muslims] are the biggest victims of terror”, he said.

He added, “While all [affected] states are making individual efforts against terrorism, the required level of resources, capacity and synergy is lacking, hence a combined and united effort via a single and unified platform is the answer. And, of course, we realise we will grow stronger in time as first of all we need to build trust to encourage unity [among the states].

“The fight against faceless enemy requires constant effort and that’s what we plan to do; we are sensitised about local issues which may cause conflict of interest [among the member or potential member states and] that’s why we are stressing on strengthening local understanding”.

So far the meeting of Chiefs of Staff of 39 countries has taken place in Riyadh while a meeting of IMCTC Ministers of Defence was also held where IMCTC was formally inaugurated. The second Ministers of Defence council might take place soon.

I asked the Generals that giving the local and regional complexities and politics of terrorism, how a unified front would be achieved.

General Raheel replied: “We have reached a united strategic vision, each and every word has been gauged and agreed upon.”

He quoted the Coalition Strategic Vision which says, “Allow Member Countries of this Strategic Coalition, with the support of peace-loving friendly nations and international organisations, to coordinate and unite their efforts in the ideology, communication, counter terrorist financing, and military domains, in order to fight all forms of terrorism and extremism and to effectively join other international security and peacekeeping efforts.”

“The above agreed definition makes it quite clear that the fight against terrorism is not necessarily just for Muslims, General Raheel said, adding that “let’s not forget a large number of non-Muslim population also lives in some of our member countries and yes, terrorism has effected many non-Muslim states too; so, in time we will be hoping to increase our reach by taking more countries as supporting nations - if not members.”

Talking about the doubts raised on IMCTC because of exclusion of Iran, he said, “We know one question is asked again and again and that is about Iran not being on board. The problem is that Iran is under UN sanctions and their is issue of Tehran’s international legitimacy. IMCTC primary guideline set by its Ministerial Council is to abide UN charter so all our members have to meet the criteria and show legitimate drive to eradicate terrorism. But definitely the forum will increase in size over time and we will see more countries joining in.”

We asked at this point if there was any resonance of NATO in the work of IMCTC. The General replied, “There has been this perception, but we are really an individual organisation dedicated to eradicating terrorism.”

General Abdulelah Al Saleh said, “IMCTC has set specific objectives to serve its vision of countering all forms of terrorism and extremism and they are to complement international counter-terrorism efforts; present a unified front against  terrorism; counter radical ideology in member countries; reaffirm the moderate values of Islam and its principles of peace, tolerance and coexistence; combat terrorist financing and stabilise strategic partnerships between member countries; and supporting nations and international organisations through information sharing.”

“We are aware of the complexities attached to the last point as intelligence sharing is not easy, almost impossible in some cases, but once trust is established, we will be able to crush the terrorists by our cooperation with each other within the framework that will serve the strategic objectives,” he added.

General Abdulelah Al Saleh said that “IMCTC is not against any country at all neither has a sectarian approach”.

The Saudi General praised General Raheel Sharif’s professionalism and said Pakistan was fortunate to have someone representing them at such a high level.

The IMCTC is an international organisation based in KSA. The coalition was announced in 2015 and former Army Chief of Pakistan joined it shortly afterwards.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - who is also the defence minister of KSA – delivered keynote address at the official inauguration of the coalition.

“In past many years, terrorism has been functioning in all of our countries... with no coordination… This [lack of coordination] ends today with this alliance,” Prince Mohammed declared.

Quoting his speech, I asked Lt-Gen Al Saleh if, considering the complexities involved, they were also as positive as the Crown Prince. “Deterrence and determination is key to eradicating any menace and we have it both,” he replied.

He said the 40 countries were sending a “clear signal” that they would “work together to support the military, financial, intelligence and political efforts [against terrorism] of every member state”.

The meeting was followed by a sumptuous lunch, in a more informal setting, where leaders including General Al Saleh praised the friendship of Pakistan and Saudia and their military to military relationship. “We are brothers,” he said.

General Raheel however was the star at the event with all Pakistani delegates constantly taking selfies with him and expressing gratitude for eradicating terrorism in Pakistan.

“This was done with the help of a great army that is the Pakistan Army”, said the former COAS. “The soldiers are always willing to lay their lives and when funeral of a shaheed is offered, the family feels proud instead of crying, this is the extent of love for their religion and country,” he said.

As I waved goodbye on my way back, I saw the Arabic driver looking at everything happening around with keen interest.

“He looks to be your hero!” he commented about General Raheel Sharif. I smiled and thought how one man had changed the narrative on terrorism post December 16 in Pakistan. He had very successfully commanded some the bravest men in this world who were ready to lay their lives for their motherland at his call. It was under his able leadership that the Pakistan Army had wiped out terrorists from such difficult terrain and far off areas as Waziristan and Teerah Valley. In that respect, he sure is a hero.

As we were leaving the IMCTC headquarter, clouds overcast the sky and light rain started. Lt-Gen Abdulelah Al Saleh while seeing us off remarked, “You brought with you rain [which is considered a blessing]!”

“You should visit us in Islamabad and we will show you a more beautiful rain there,” I said to him smilingly.

“InshaAllah!” he replied.

Taking along bundles of happy memories, we left the place with full confidence that we are allied against terrorism and a forum like this was indeed the need of the hour.