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


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.

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.

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.