The siege, Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back to back in the same year triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions
By Sameer Arshad Khatlani
In November 1979, self-styled preacher Juhayman al-Utaybi and his 200 followers mingled with around 50,000 worshippers at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca before they pushed aside the imam after the dawn prayers and seized his microphone. They took out handguns and rifles hidden in coffins brought to the shrine on the pretext of funeral services while one of them, Khaled al-Yami, read a speech announcing the coming of the Mahdi, the messianic deliverer in Islamic eschatology believed to be a divinely guided man with extraordinary powers to usher in an era of justice.
Yami claimed Muslims had seen Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Qahtani, the so-called Mahdi, in their dreams and now he was in their midst. He proclaimed that the end of days was near and that redeemer would restore justice as Juhayman directed his men to close the shrine’s gates, take positions in its minarets overlooking Mecca, and shoot anyone resisting. He would first pay homage to ‘the Mahdi’. His followers followed suit amid cries of ‘God is great.’
The worshippers, many of whom were foreigners and were initially unable to understand what was going on since the intruders spoke Arabic, tried to reach any exits that were still open, prompting the gunmen to fire a few gunshots. The bloodshed that followed was unprecedented as any violence is forbidden in Mecca as per the Quranic mandate.
Juhyman and his men blatantly violated the mandate and fully controlled the shrine in about an hour and challenged the authority of the Saudi royal family whom they blamed for the degeneration of social and religious values through a modernization drive. He had earlier gone underground when authorities cracked down his ultra-conservative al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba group and wrote pamphlets criticising the royals for their ‘decadence’ and the clerics for colluding with them.
Juhyman believed Saudi Arabia needed a ‘heavenly intervention’ for salvation when he began preaching despite being poorly educated. He was involved in drug smuggling before repenting to find solace in religion but avoided addressing educated audiences as his classical Arabic, the language of Islamic scholars, was weak.
Juhayman’s experience as a soldier in the Saudi National Guard, though, helped him organise the shrine’s takeover after identifying Qahtani as ‘the Mahdi’ as his attributes matched that of the messianic deliverer. It is believed that Mahdi’s first and father’s names will be similar to the prophet’s and will have a large forehead and a thin nose like an eagle. For Juhayman, Qahtani matched these attributes. But Qahtani was unconvinced initially and went into isolation before he was convinced that Juhayman was right and he was the ‘saviour’.
In the run-up to the siege, rumours spread that Meccans and pilgrims saw Qahtani in their dreams in Mecca’s Grand Mosque holding Islam’s banner. The rumours coincided with Juhayman’s preparations in remote areas of Saudi Arabia for the takeover.
The Saudi leadership found itself hamstrung as its key members were abroad. Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was in Tunisia and Prince Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, in Morocco. An ailing King Khaled and his defence minister Prince Sultan, who were left to coordinate the immediate response, failed to anticipate the scale of the problem and sent Saudi police to understand the scale of the crisis. The police proved no match to the rebels. Their cars were fired upon as they drove up to the shrine, prompting the National Guard to launch a hasty operation as the gravity of the situation became evident.
The National Guard, too, found the insurgents hard to dislodge. Juhayman’s sharp-shooters carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail forcing Saudi authorities to press paratroopers, special forces, and armoured units into service. A security cordon was thrown around the shrine and artillery fire was directed towards its minarets while jets and helicopters hovered in the air.
The rebels repelled the attacks despite getting outgunned and outnumbered over the next two days while the Saudi forces tried to gain entrance into the Grand Mosque, a two-floor building mostly of galleries and corridors spread across hundreds of meters. Casualties mounted to the hundreds as a result.
The insurgents set fire to carpets to create clouds of smoke before they hid behind columns and ambushed Saudi troops. A man-to-man confrontation followed within a cramped space. The problems were compounded when some Saudi soldiers refused to fight, citing the shrine’s sanctity and prompted authorities to seek a fatwa backing the military to use as much force. The fatwa paved the way for anti-tank-guided missiles and heavy guns to take out the rebels stationed on the minarets. Armoured personnel carriers were separately rushed to breach the gates.
Qahtani, meanwhile, thought he could expose himself but soon found his immortality was a fallacy as bullets hit him. Juhayman remained in denial telling his followers not to believe those who said Qahtani was injured. They continued fighting until Saudi forces took control of the mosque’s courtyard and the surrounding buildings on the sixth day.
But the crisis was far from over as the rebels retreated to rooms and cells at the shrine convinced Qahtani was alive. The situation worsened with the rebels pushing into the catacombs and forced the Saudis to seek the help of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who dispatched three advisers from a counter-terror unit secretly. The French team stayed at a hotel in the nearby Taif and devised a plan of flushing out the insurgents by filling the shrine’s basements with gas. Holes were accordingly dug every 50 metres to inject gas through them with the help of grenade explosions into the corner where the insurgents were holed up down in the basement.
The plan succeeded. Juhayman and his surviving followers also ran out of ammunition and food and gathered in a small room with soldiers throwing smoke bombs through a hole made in the ceiling. They were soon forced to surrender but Juhayman was unrepentant when he met Saudi officials and just asked for water. Juhayman and 63 rebels were executed across eight cities over a month later but the siege cast a long shadow.
The crisis had a profound effect on Osama Bin Laden, who blamed the Saudi ruling family for desecrating the shrine. Laden felt the crisis, which has been described as the first such transnational terrorist operation as the rebels included men from Middle Eastern countries and the US, could have been solved peacefully. The response to the siege prompted him to organise al-Qaida to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and to end western influences in the region.
The siege also strengthened the clergy and halted Saudi Arabia’s modernization. It pushed the royals on an ultra-conservative path marked by measures such as the ban on women from driving and the closure of theatres, which took four decades to reverse. The Saudi government increased the allocation for the religious establishment in oil revenues among other concessions to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. This allowed the clergy to develop a network of charities and educational institutes globally to spread its ultra-conservative ideology.
An information blackout thanks to the snapping of phone lines for the first 24 hours created much confusion. The US pointed fingers at Iran, which blamed the Americans and the Zionists and sparked anti-American demonstrations across the world. American embassies were stormed but the siege largely remained obscured. The attention remained focused on Iran, where the American embassy was overrun after the revolution two weeks earlier, and Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion a fortnight later.
The three back-to-back events triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan