"The Siege of Mecca" by Yaroslav Trofimov

The Birth of Islamic Terror?

In his study, Yaroslav Trofimov tries to re-evaluate an event which is seen as central in the development of militant Islamism: the attack carried out by a group of Saudi extremists in November 1979 on the Qaaba in Mecca. Joseph Croitoru has read the book

Pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
The Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam: During the Grand Mosque Seizure in 1979 the insurgents declared that the Mahdi had arrived in the form of one of the insurgents' leaders and called on Muslims to obey him

​​ Yaroslav Trofimov's research is exemplary and he has spoken to many people who were involved at the time. He concludes that the ideological motor for the attack on the Qaaba in Mecca in November 1979 was a clever political instrumentalisation of the belief in the Mahdi, the Muslim Messiah.

At the end of the seventies, a secretive group of messianically oriented Saudis had convinced their followers that one of their leaders was the Mahdi. However, the man they selected – the poet Mohammed Abdullah – had himself to be convinced by the chief ideologist of the group, the Bedouin Juhayman al-Uteybi, that he really was the Messiah.

Obsession with belief in the Mahdi

Trofimov finds the roots for Al-Uteybi's extremism not just in his obsession with the Mahdi, but also in the radical Wahhabism of the Bedouin tribes which were defeated by the Saudi royal family when it founded the state.

There was also a personal connection for Juhayman: his father, Mohammed Ibn Seif al-Uteybi, was one of the Wahhabi Bedouin fighters who, in March 1929, suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the troops of the Al Saud tribe, which was soon to take over power in the country.

Traditional enmity towards the royal Al Saud family, rigid piety and a lack of state provision – all these prepared the ground on which Juhayman's radicalism could flourish. In addition, there was dissatisfaction among many young Saudis, many of whom had traumatic experience of the repressive Saudi regime. For example, when he was working as a student in a hospital in Riyadh, the future "Mahdi," Mohammed Abdullah, was tortured by the police until he finally admitted to a theft he had not committed but of which he was accused by the police. The real thief was discovered by chance later.

Similar developments in Egypt

​​ Influence from outside also played a role in the radicalisation of these young Saudis. Trofimov points out that Egyptian Islamists living in Saudi Arabia also joined the Saudi conspirators.

But, by claiming that the attack on Mecca was in effect the birth of Islamic terror, the author ignores the fact that Egyptian radicals had turned to violence in the name of religion decades earlier, and his study underestimates the effects of the influential Islamist teachings of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, who had much earlier drawn on radical Islamist arguments to call the legitimacy of Arab heads of state into question.

Juhayman's arguments were indeed very similar to those of Sayyid Qutb. Like Qutb in Egypt in his day, Juhayman also accused the rulers of his country of corrupt and un-Islamic behaviour.

The vision of global revolution

But it was particularly with his vision of a world-wide Islamic Revolution that al-Uteybi was able to inspire his followers, among them many ex-soldiers and students.

This revolution was to be initiated with the violent takeover of the holy quarter of Mecca on November 20th, 1979 – at the turn of a new millennium in the Muslim calendar.

Trofimov tells the story clearly of how the rebels, who were well equipped militarily, were able to keep up energetic resistance for several weeks against the Saudi security forces, whose response was almost amateur.

Help from France

The attack came as a complete surprise to the Saudi leadership, who at the time were worrying about the effects of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Saudi government was concerned about its reputation: it imposed an immediate news embargo and won the permission of Saudi Islamic legal scholars to allow the storming of the holy sites with the support of French terror experts.

It was the French who coordinated the decisive gas attack, carried out mainly by Saudi soldiers, against the rebels as they were holed up in the catacombs of the great mosque in Mecca.

Even if the "Siege of Mecca" was by no means the incident which gave birth to Islamist terror, it certainly did have a considerable influence. But how far Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were inspired by it, as the author suggests, remains unclear and requires further research.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara 2009

Yaroslav Trofimov: The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine, Penguin, 2008, 320 pages (Anschlag auf Mekka. 20. November 1979 - die Geburtsstunde des islamistischen Terrors. Blessing Verlag 2008, 384 pages)

Yaroslav Trofimov, born in 1969 in Ukraine, worked as a journalist in the USA, France and the Soviet Union. He learnt Arabic and Hebrew in Jerusalem, and travelled several times to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. He is the author of a book on the Muslim world following September 11th 2001, and is a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He currently lives in Singapore.

Joseph Croitoru is an expert on political Islam. His most recent publication is: "Hamas. Der islamische Kampf um Palästina" ("Hamas: the Islamist struggle for Palestine") (C. H. Beck 2007).

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