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

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reason: It must not have been easy to find sources for your book, given that the Grand Mosque takeover remains something of a taboo subject in Saudi Arabia. How did you manage to do it?

Yaroslav Trofimov: I had reported from Saudi Arabia before, for the Wall Street Journal, and so I had met many of the younger generation of Islamic dissidents, the so-called sahwa. Once I finally received my visa, I started out by visiting them all and asking whether they knew anyone who had been involved with Juhayman. At the same time, I asked other Saudi acquaintances to introduce me to worshippers and soldiers who were in the Grand Mosque during the siege. A few of the soldiers agreed to share their memories, including the chief of operations for the Interior Ministry's forces during the siege.

The hardest part was tracking down surviving gunmen. Almost all the adult ones were killed after the siege, either in public beheadings or secret executions. I found a few who were 15 or 16 years of age at the time of the uprising. Having survived long prison terms, many of them were too scared to talk. But some opened up, with one staying in my hotel room the entire night and recounting the horrors of the siege blow by blow as he emptied my minibar of its (strictly non-alcoholic) contents.

Towards the end of my research, I also met with Prince Turki, who was Saudi Arabia's head of intelligence during the uprising, and who explained some details of the crisis. I also interviewed all the French commandos who helped secure the mosque, and a number of American diplomats and spies. Crucially, through a Freedom of Information Act request, I obtained the declassification of hundreds of secret U.S. and United Kingdom government documents related to the siege, including the relevant part of the personal diary of the U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia, John C. West.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.

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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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