I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations
The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda - Yaroslav Trofimov , 2007
On November 20, 1979 Juhayman al-Utaybi and 400 to 500 of his fellow fundamentalist radicals seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. Thousands of terrified worshipers were trapped inside the holy compound, hundreds of whom were killed in the ensuing two-week siege. It took the intervention of French commandos leading Saudi armed forces to end the takeover. The story has been obscure because the Saudi government has taken pains to obscure it. This book is an excellent attempt to shed light on a topic still taboo in the Kingdom to this day.
Who would have the temerity to orchestrate such a raid? And why? Juhayman and his followers had religious and political reasons. They believed in an apocalyptic scenario in which a Sunni Muslim redeemer would remove existing injustices and bring equality and peace to the faithful. Politically, they objected to the presence of non-believing westerners in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They believed that members of the Saudi royal family lacked Islamic attributes since the Quran recognizes no king or dynasty. Trofimov claims that this movement was the first union of world jihadists, coming together from Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Iraq, and even the US.
People used to bring coffins into the Grand Mosque so the remains of their deceased relatives could be blessed. The insurgents smuggled ammunition and weapons into the Mosque in coffins. So that insurgents could drive in provisions and other supplies, They also bribed gatekeepers and employees of a construction company owned and operated by the brother of Osama Bin Laden.
Once the Grand Mosque was taken, its many gates were bolted. Hostages inside were forced to pay allegiance to the radical cause. The rebels were trained in warfare so they had a plan to defend the mosque. Minarets were transformed into snipers’ nests and they fired at the first cops who came to investigate. Foreign worshipers from Central Asia and Indonesia were trapped inside and didn’t know what was going on since they didn’t understand Arabic. People in central Mecca heard messages about the redeemer’s arrival, and some believed since Moh’d Abdullah resembled the predicted one. People were also shocked that the sacred precincts, where tradition forbade the killing of even a bird, would have scenes of violence.
In order to provide the justification to use deadly force and storm the mosque, the Saudi government made a deal with the ulema, the council of Muslim scholars, who were in much ideological sympathy with the rebels. They too hated alcohol and tobacco use, female announcers on TV and other innovations. In return for their approval, the scholars made the royal family promise to reverse modernization. Within weeks of the end of the siege, women were moved off TV and fired from jobs, rules against alcohol were rigorously enforced, and the religious police were given more power, even to mind foreigner’s lax ways. For instance, when I lived in the kingdom briefly in 1985, I was told not to be out and about during prayer time or I ran the risk of being scolded by the religious police.
Another part of the agreement called for vast sums of the Kingdom’s oil wealth be granted to madrasses and other organizations that that would spread conservative Wahhabi ideas and influence fundamentalist radicals that would form groups such as Al Qaeda. In a strange way, the rebels succeeded in their goal of moving the Saudis to the more conservative direction.
Osama bin Laden was living in Jeddah at the time of the siege. He later said his loyalty to the Saudi government fractured due to the attack on the Grand Mosque. He also concluded that the US would cut and run in the event of trouble since President Carter and Secretary of State Vance pulled out American embassy personnel all over the Muslim world after the embassy attacks in Pakistan and Libya.
The attack on the Grand Mosque is a taboo subject in the KSA to this day. Trofimov, as reporter for the Wall Street Journal, did much research and interviews with participants who would consent to talk to him under the promise of anonymity. Some were minors at the time of the raid, so they were not executed though they did prison time. Trofimov also looked at hundreds of declassified U.S., British and French government, such as the diaries of the US ambassador to the KSA at the time.
The only drawback to the book is the lack of the information as to who funded Juhayman al-Utaybi’s raid. Planning and execution of the raid must have cost millions. Also, true to line of the Wall Street Journal, for Trofimov, Carter and Vance could do no right.