Not many people can tell you much about the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist militants in November 1979. The Saudi authorities kept a tight lid on information during that fateful two-week period when the regime’s survival seemed to be in danger. They didn’t grow much more transparent afterwards.
That is why Yaroslav Trofimov’s just-published The Siege of Mecca (Doubleday) is so valuable, not only as a description of the murky events surrounding the takeover but as a backgrounder on the depth of fundamentalist tendencies in Saudi Arabia and the later emergence of Al Qaeda. Contributing Editor Michael Young spoke with Trofimov, an Asia-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, in September.
Q: What was the Grand Mosque siege?
A: 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. 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. The total number of officially reported deaths, including the rebels, stands at about 330. But many believe that the true number of fatalities is significantly above 1,000.
Q: Though Juhayman and his co-conspirators were executed, their ideas paradoxically triumphed. Can you explain why?
A: 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. 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.
Q: What was Osama bin Laden’s reaction to the takeover?
A: Osama bin Laden was deeply scarred by these events. In an audio message to the Muslim world released in 2004, he 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.
Q: It must not have been easy to find sources for your book, given that the Grand Mosque takeover remains a taboo subject in Saudi Arabia.
A: 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 nonalcoholic) contents.
Q: Ultimately, who was the net loser in the Grand Mosque affair?
A: The net losers were the forces of secularism and liberalism within Saudi Arabia.