Al-Qaeda's Forerunner

An interview with author and journalist Yaroslav Trofimov, on his latest book describing the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca

(Page 2 of 3)

reason: What was Osama bin Laden's reaction to the Grand Mosque takeover?

Yaroslav Trofimov: Osama bin Laden was deeply scarred by these events. He was not personally involved in Juhayman's movement—he belonged to a younger, more sophisticated generation that saw novelties like television or, today, the Internet, as potential weapons of jihad rather than the Devil's temptations. But he was upset with the way the Saudi government unleashed its military might on the shrine, damaging it in the process. In an audio message to the Muslim world released in 2004, Bin Laden spoke at length about how the Al-Saud had "defiled" the shrine. To him, Juhayman's gunmen may have made a mistake in occupying the Grand Mosque, but the Al-Saud committed an unforgivable crime by retaking the shrine by force.

reason: You go off on two important tangents in your book, events that took place as the mosque takeover was in progress. One of these is a series of attacks against U.S. embassies and facilities throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia; the second is a Shiite uprising in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. In what way were these events related, and what did they tell us about American vulnerabilities in the Middle East?

Yaroslav Trofimov: The uprising in Mecca began two weeks after the American embassy had been seized in Tehran, and so, naturally, the U.S. government assumed the Iranians were somehow implicated in the Mecca affair, too. The Iranians, of course, were as stunned as everyone else by the uprising in Mecca and were extremely annoyed by American statements accusing them of orchestrating that outrage. Ayatollah Khomeini's office immediately responded by describing the desecration of Mecca's shrine as an "American-Zionist conspiracy," a version widely believed in the Muslim world while the true identity of the gunmen still remained a mystery. Hours after Khomeini's statement, an enraged mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing staff and burning down the building. Similar demonstrations erupted around the Islamic world; and in Turkey, one Mehmet Ali Agca escaped from jail, vowing to avenge the sacrilege in Mecca by killing Pope John Paul II.

At the time, one must remember, few people knew about who exactly occupied the mosque. In the Shiite heartland in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province on the Persian Gulf coast—home to most of the kingdom's oil—many young Shiites cheered Juhayman and began an uprising of their own, opening a second front. These Shiite protests, however, were crushed quickly and ruthlessly.

reason: Ultimately, who was the net loser in the Grand Mosque affair?

Yaroslav Trofimov: The net losers were the forces of secularism and liberalism within Saudi Arabia. In the wake of the Mecca affair, the Saudi government rolled back many of the reforms of previous years, and stifled what had been the gradual opening up of the kingdom's society.

reason: You argue that the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was a precursor to Al-Qaeda. Why do you say this? After all, there were other Islamist groups in places such as Egypt that could easily make similar claims?

Yaroslav Trofimov: Al-Qaeda is really a global movement born out of a union between Saudi Wahhabi zeal, personified by Osama bin Laden, and the Egyptian jihadist tradition, personified by Ayman al-Zawahiri. These two currents came together in a joint operation for the first time in Mecca in 1979. Though Juhayman himself was a Saudi, the gunmen who followed him into the mosque came from dozens of countries—they even included converted African Americans. Most prominent among these foreigners were the Egyptians. They included personalities such as Mohammed Elias, a religious scholar who was one of the leaders of Egypt's Gamaat Islamiyya (Islamic Groups) and who had taught Islam to men like Zawahiri. There had been Islamic movements before, but this was the first transnational group carrying out an attack in modern times.

reason: How did the Grand Mosque takeover affect Saudi behavior when Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979?

Yaroslav Trofimov: The Saudis were all too happy to redirect the zeal of Juhayman's sympathizers toward a new enemy—the godless Russians. The U.S., whose embassies had been torched across the Muslim world just a few weeks earlier, was even more eager to seize the opportunity of using the jihadists against communism. After all, the CIA analysis of the Mecca uprising dismissed it at the time as a one-off, a throwback to the disappearing Bedouin past, and estimated that radical Islam posed no threat to the region or American interests.

reason: The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, like the Mecca mosque takeover that had taken place shortly before, led the Carter administration to issue the so-called Carter Doctrine, whereby "any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region [would] be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America..." That doctrine endures to this day. How will affect a U.S. pullout from Iraq, if the net result is that it leads to Iran imposing its power on the Gulf?

Yaroslav Trofimov: It's hard to imagine the U.S. letting Iran control the Persian Gulf region. The U.S. is just too reliant on Gulf oil, and on the cooperation of Gulf monarchies. One must remember that President Jimmy Carter initially wanted nothing to do with the Gulf—after all, he watched and let the Shah's regime collapse in Iran, as if it didn't matter to America. But he was drawn back into the region by the simple fact that the Gulf's oil resources are indispensable. Any administration in the U.S. will have to deal with that reality.

reason: The message from the Mecca mosque takeover was that the Saudi system was surprisingly weak, even illegitimate in the eyes of a number of its citizens. Do you believe that's still the case today?

Yaroslav Trofimov: The loss of Islam's holiest shrine—even a loss that lasted two weeks—was highly embarrassing, and the Saudi system was shown to be weaker than everyone thought at the time. But it was strong enough to survive the crisis. I think one shouldn't underestimate the adaptability of the House of Saud, their ability to survive and maintain power.

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  • Syloson of Samos||

    There is some discussion of these events in Kepel's The War For Muslim Minds.

  • ||

    The author is also interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air being broadcast today.

  • ||

    Wow, that's very interesting. Something I wasn't aware of at all. In a perfect world, the oil wouldn't be sitting underneath these folks, would it?

  • Beware the Mahdi||

    It's interesting how the goals of the gunmen appear to have been a desire to set the conditions for the coming of the Mahdi. And now we have Ahmahdinejad wanting to set the conditions for the same. I wonder if the CIA is still clueless about what is motivating jihadists or if they want to just dismiss them as bedouins again.

  • ||

    "I wonder if the CIA is still clueless about what is motivating jihadists or if they want to just dismiss them as bedouins again."

    It must be nice to be able to delude oneself so easily.

  • ||

    It's interesting how the goals of the gunmen appear to have been a desire to set the conditions for the coming of the Mahdi.

    How so? They weren't Shi'ite. To me, it looks like they had dreams of using the invasion as a springboard to restore the Caliphate, not unlike bin Laden and his ilk.

  • R Hampton||

    Any help provided by the Saudi government is outweighed by their support of groups like Hamas and their global expansion of militant, extremist Wahhabi Islam. In one half of a year, I've accumulated well over 700 stories on my blog, Wahaudi, concerning Saudi Arabia's primary role in creating Islamic terrorism.
    http://wahaudi.blogspot.com

  • dbust1||

    ChrisO,

    Whether Shia or Sunni or whether they believe in the idea of the Mahdi or not their goal then was the same as Ahmadinejad's now. In this case the Mahdi isn't the point, the point is that these jihadist groups aren't just seeking to kick the West out of their business, they're seeking Islamic domination. The CIA and others dropped the ball then and it doesn't seem as if they're taking Ahmadinejad very seriously now. This group, like Bin Laden, may have wanted to restore the caliphate but their goals were much more far reaching. The author stated that the attack "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."

    Again, it doesn't matter that they don't all agree on the Mahdi. The Mahdi, however, is a great way for the west to understand why jihadists do what they do.

  • Paul||

    To me, it looks like they had dreams of using the invasion as a springboard to restore the Caliphate, not unlike bin Laden and his ilk.

    ChrisO:

    Restore a Caliphate over what? Taking the article at face value:

    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.

    Sounds to me that western ideals of any kind are to be put to bed worldwide in submission to an uber Islamic state. But maybe I'm reading too literally.

  • JBinMO||

    Rumor has it the Urkbold is in the process of trying to establish his own califate.

  • ||

    Awesome article. Truly thought-provoking and disquieting.

    After a terrorist act, the Saudis roll back civil liberties (hmmm). Did the terrorists win?

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