The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Mosque by Yaroslav Trofimov chronicles the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979 by Sunni militants. A little known event, even the west, Trofimov sheds light on one of the events that sparked the current conflict with militant Islam. He also highlights just how fragile the Saudi hold on power really is.
Trofimov’s book reads like a political thriller but has a surprising amount of depth. In order to contextualize the attack, Trofimov devotes the first several chapters to a brief history of Saudi Arabia, the rise of Wahhabi Islam, and general Islamic theology. The Grand Mosque at Mecca is the holiest site in the Islamic World. It is the equivalent of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is also the locus of the required Hajj, or pilgrimage, that all Muslims are required to undertake at least once. As such, the Grand Mosque is viewed as a place bordering on magical and constantly filled with people from all over the world. In the early days of the siege, a good number of soldiers refused to even point their weapons in the direction of the Grand Mosque, despite orders to the contrary, for fear of being cast into Hell. At the time the Grand Mosque was seized the Hajj had just ended, but 100,000 people were nonetheless taken hostage.
The Grand Mosque was seized November 20, 1979, several weeks after the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed and US diplomats taken hostage. The group responsible for the attack was a group of Sunni militants let by Juhayman al Uteybi. Uteybi was a former member of the Saudi National Guard and leader of a branch of Sunni Wahhabi extremists who sought to undo modernizing and “unislamic” reforms that had been implemented in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and 1970s. They were outraged by the presence of Westerners on Saudi soil, and felt that the Saudi Royal Family were apostates. The group focused on an individual believed to be the Mahdi. The Mahdi is sort of like Jesus’s long lost super-brother, a combination of John the Baptist and the Terminator. According to Islamic tradition the Mahdi will come to Earth, fight the enemies of Islam, which is basically everyone, and together with Jesus visit righteous vengeance on anyone who tries to oppose them while heralding the apocalypse. Armed with the Mahdi and believing they could overthrow the Saudi Government the group seized the Grand Mosque, triggering a hamhanded response from the House of Saud.
In a two week stand off the Saudi Government demonstrated its ineptitude and was brought to the brink of collapse. News traveled slowly in 1979 Saudi Arabia, partially due to a tightly controlled media. The Saudi Government was not aware that the Grand Mosque was seized until nearly 24 hours into the stand off. And even then, it was unable to do anything about it for fear of violating its own strict view of Islam, which prohibits fighting in a mosque and prohibits non-Muslims from even setting foot in Mecca, a prohibition which would have major consequences throughout the siege.
When the Saudis deployed forces to the area of the Grand Mosque, they were pitifully unprepared for battle and had virtually no intelligence about the layout of the mosque, the enemy, or how many hostages were inside. When the forces attempted to cordon off the area, they were massacred by the rebels. In the meantime, the Saudi regime sought a fatwa, or religious ruling, on taking the mosque by force. Three days into the siege, the Saudi Ulema, a council of the most learned Islamic scholars in the Kingdom, issued the needed fatwa declaring the Mahdi to be a fake and authorizing the Saudi government to use all force necessary to take back the Grand Mosque. This is just one example of the ineptitude of the Saudi government. In another example, in an effort to appease all the princes who control the various security forces, the National Guard, Army, Police, and Special Security Forces were committed to the assault on the Grand Mosque. The problem with this was each entity was trained to varying degrees (or in the case of the National Guard, hardly at all), led by officers of varying competency, had never trained together and did not even have compatible radios. The various security forces had no plans of the mosque and thus did not know its layout and had almost no intelligence about the group holding the mosque. The result was in the initial push to take back the Grand Mosque, hundreds of Saudi soldiers were killed. By the time the mosque was retaken in early December 1979, over 1,000 Saudi soldiers had been killed and many more wounded. At one point, the Saudi government became concerned because the number of casualties amounted to an unknown, but worrying percent of the country’s total military force.
Perhaps most worrying about the whole event was that Uteybi’s group had attracted the attention of Saudi security forces in 1977-78. After being rounded up and interrogated, the Saudi religious council intervened and had the members of the group released and pardoned of any wrong doing. They said the group was not theologically incorrect in its views and criticisms of the Saudi regime, thus should not be punished for attempting to make a more Islamic Saudi Arabia. The security forces, cowed by the religious clerics, released the group and terminated any surveillance activities they were conducting on them. It was later admitted by Sauid Prince Turki al Faisal that had the group taken a government target rather than a religious one, most of the populace would have flocked to their cause and the House of Saud would have been deposed.
The event found little air time in the Western media. For lack of a better term, outright lying and deception on the part of the Saudi government, caused the event to be underreported in the Western media. To this day the Saudi government refuses to acknowledge the event and details remain difficult to come by. Trofimov spent the better part of two years tracking down witnesses and piecing together the event. Utilizing interviews with both witnesses and Saudi officials, contemporary newspaper accounts from across the World, TV coverage, and previously classified documents from the US, Britain, and France he offers what is perhaps the most complete account of the battle to date.
The Siege of Mecca is a must read for anyone seeking to understand more about modern militant Islam. Unlike the Iranian revolution, which is predominantly Shiite, Sunni militants make up the bulk of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Iraqi insurgents. The Uteybi group, which had no real name, was the precursor to al Qaeda, who has borrowed much of its world view. Total casualties from the siege are still unknown and it is doubtful that the Saudi government really kept track. The seriousness of the incident was downplayed at the time, but the Grand Mosque was heavily damaged by the fighting. The Saudi Royal Family barely managed to keep hold of its power. In the post Sept. 11 world, understanding the attack on Mecca is key to understanding the current war with militant Islam.