Not many people can tell you much about the November 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by Islamist militants. That's partly because the Saudi authorities, as is their way, kept a tight lid on information during that fateful two-week period when the regime's survival seemed, for the first time, in danger. Little changed afterward by way of transparency (even if the Saudis released a fascinating Arabic-language video on the event, pouring opprobrium on the militants). That is why Yaroslav Trofimov's just-published book The Siege of Mecca is so valuable a document, not only in describing the murky events surrounding the takeover almost 28 years ago, but also as a backgrounder on the depth of Salafist tendencies in Saudi Arabia and the later emergence of Al-Qaeda. Trofimov, an Asia-based reported for the Wall Street Journal, has written extensively on Islam and the Middle East. An earlier book, Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu, was selected as one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
reason: What was the Grand Mosque siege all about and how long did it last?
Yaroslav Trofimov: The group that took over the mosque was led by Saudi preacher Juhayman Al-Utaybi, a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard, and consisted of several hundred gunmen from many countries. It had the apocalyptic vision of a global clash of civilizations that would lead to the triumph of true Islam and the end of the world as we know it. The group abhorred the Saudi state and other Arab regimes as infidel, and bitterly objected to any Western presence in the Arabian Peninsula. The battle for the Grand Mosque started on November 20, 1979—at the first dawn of Islam's year 1400—and lasted precisely two weeks.
reason: What was the casualty toll? The Saudis greatly underestimated the number of deaths, while Lawrence Wright, in his The Looming Tower, cites unofficial sources as saying some 4,000 people were killed.
Yaroslav Trofimov: In the first few days after the siege ended, Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister Prince Nayef announced that 60 Saudi soldiers, 117 rebels and 26 civilian pilgrims had been killed. In following weeks, he doubled the number of acknowledged military deaths, to 127, and never issued an update for the civilians or rebels. The total number of officially reported deaths, including the rebels killed either during the siege or beheaded in public thereafter, stands at about 330. But many diplomats posted in Saudi Arabia at the time, as well as Juhayman's supporters, believe that the true number of fatalities is significantly above 1,000.
reason: Before the attack, Juhayman had surprising support within the Saudi religious establishment. Can you explain that relationship?
Yaroslav Trofimov: Juhayman was very active in the Islamic outreach movement that had been started by Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, the blind cleric who would later become Saudi Arabia's supreme Islamic authority. This movement sought to combat the spread of secular values, and to return Saudi youths to the teachings of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab—the ultra-puritan ideology nowadays usually known as Wahhabism. These activists viewed the existence of television, Western embassies, or portraits of the king as incompatible with Islam, and weren't shy about expressing such sentiments. This led to the arrest of many of them in 1978. However, thanks to Bin Baz's intervention, these militants were all quickly released, and proceeded to plot their invasion of the Grand Mosque the following year.
reason: Paradoxically, though Juhayman and his co-conspirators were executed, their ideas somehow triumphed. Can you explain why?
Yaroslav Trofimov: Indeed, as Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, the governor of Asir province and son of King Faisal, put it a few years ago, "we have eliminated the individuals who committed the Juhayman crime, but we have overlooked the ideology that was behind the crime. We let it spread in the country as if it did not exist."
He said this because in order to secure religious assent from the clergy, or ulama—assent without which many Saudi troops refused to fight in the holy shrine—the royal family had to promise the clerics that it would reverse the slow modernization that had been occurring in the kingdom up until then. The royals fulfilled their promise. In the weeks after the siege ended, female newscasters were taken off television; the enforcement of the ban on alcohol became much more severe; and vast amounts of oil money started flowing into the clerics' Wahhabi proselytizing campaign around the world. And it's precisely this missionary effort all over the Muslim world that subsequently created a pool of eager recruits for Al-Qaeda.
reason: One widespread myth you puncture is that French commandos participated in the Saudi effort in the Grand Mosque to regain control of the Grand Mosque. What really happened, and why do you feel French participation is often assumed to be true?
Yaroslav Trofimov: France dispatched a team of three elite commandos to Saudi Arabia at the time, and they did play a very important role: they supplied the poison gas that was used to flush the rebels from the Grand Mosque's vast underground labyrinth. They also helped craft the attack plan. But they did all of this from the nearby city of Taef, without actually taking part in the battle in Mecca.
One of the commandos leaked a highly exaggerated version of the events to a French magazine in 1980. Then, the group's leader, Captain Paul Barril—at the time in the middle of serious legal trouble—wrote a book about his various combat exploits. Though the book itself doesn't discuss the Mecca affair, Barril made sure to mention it on the back cover—while putting on the front cover a picture of himself with a Saudi-style headdress and a desert background. Considering that the Saudi government proved to be a chronic liar during the siege, announcing almost every day throughout the crisis that the mosque had been liberated, its denials of French involvement weren't taken at face value.
reason: Saudi management of the Mecca affair was catastrophic, in part because the various princes all needed to maintain control over their particular security fiefdoms. Is that a fair statement?
Yaroslav Trofimov: Saudi management of the affair was frighteningly incompetent, and cost many lives. Prince Nayef famously said during the fighting that he didn't care about the casualties among his troops because anyone dying in battle for the Grand Mosque would be heading straight for paradise. Even though this really was a military operation that required the use of armor and artillery, initially Prince Nayef's Interior Ministry was in charge. Later, the three forces—the National Guard, commanded by Saudi Arabia's current King Abdullah, Prince Sultan's Army, and Prince Nayef's Interior Ministry troops—were thrown into battle together, even though they didn't even have inter-connected radios. A great many died from friendly fire.