The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov


The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al-Qaeda

Shaykh Yasir Qadhi begins his set of cd lectures on the concept of the Mahdi in Islam by transporting the listener to the taking over of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by the Saudi Juhayman al-‘Utaybi and his followers in 1979 (1400 on the Islamic Hijri Calendar). This is because al-‘Utaybi claimed that his brother in law Muhammad Abdullah al-Qahtani was the Mahdi. From reading Trofimov’s book it seems that at the least al-‘Utaybi was able to convince Muhammad Abdullah himself and at the least scores of his followers that this was the truth.

al-utaybi.jpgJuhayman al-‘Utaybi

mahdi-yasir-qadhi.jpgThe Mahdi — Shaykh Yasir Qadhi

The purpose of this post is not to discuss the concept of the Mahdi in Islam, however, but to discuss Trofimov’s book. The book centers itself around the action in the Sacred Mosque in Mecca over several days beginning on November 20, 1979 which was the beginning of the year 1400 After the Hijrah of the Prophet (saw) on the Islamic calender. It is written as a thriller, fast paced with short chapters. The narrative is driven by accounts of the battle that took place in the mosque and its surroundings but the scene shifts to centers of power and decision making in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at an Arab summit in Tunis, in Washington, D.C. and Tehran, and to scenes of violence that broke out in wake of the takeover of the mosque. This included anti-U.S. demonstrations and violence in places like Libya, Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. There was also an uprising against the Saudi royal family among the discriminated against Shi’a population of the Eastern Province. After detailing the events involved, Trofimov attempts to tie these events into much that would follow including the escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan, the assasination of Sadat, the conditions for the fallout between Osama bin Laden and the Saudi government and the resulting Al-Qaeda movement.

Trofimov begins by trying to describe the conditions which led to the birth of the Juhayman movement. He traces it to the traumas resulting from the modernization of the Saudi Kingdom which was largely escalated during the rule of King Faisal ibn Abdel-Aziz (ruled 1964-1975). In the period when Faisal ran the country as prime minister before he actually became king he had introduced schooling for girls and formally abolished slavery (yes this was in the 1960s). He also allowed for the creation of the first televison station. Faisal was well known for his personal piety, his attempt to control spending in the Kingdom, his pan-Islamist and anti-communist views. Although he was a U.S. ally in the Cold War context, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war he withdrew Saudi oil from western markets in protest at western support for Israel, this largely led to the Energy Crisis. In any event, although Faisal was viewed as pious and pro-Islamist these modernization moves were largely resisted and opposed by the Saudi clerical establishment and especially some amongst the highly traditional and conservative bedouin population. Trofimov focuses on the famous scholar Abd al-Aziz ibn Baaz, who during this time was the Chairman of the Department of Scientific Research and Ifta and later became the Grand Mufti Of Saudi Arabia. Bin Baaz symbolizes the scholarly establishment of Saudi Arabia which would criticize vocally trends in the society it disagreed with, and play hardball in private to exert influence over the rulers, but would always at the end of the day back the legitimacy of Al-Saud and would speak out harshly against any attempts at open revolt. Trofimov describes how the frustrating contradictions of a society which did not in practice live up to what if fervently preached even at the highest levels led to radicalization of someone like Juhayman and later someone like Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden represents, however, a worldview which is part of the modern world, not in opposition to it, in the way that a movement like Juhayman’s was.

Trofimov’s account stresses the ways in which the events were viewed at the time in the context of the recent Islamic Revolution in Iran. The fact that the Saudis tried so hard to prevent accurate news from spreading about what was taking place led many false rumors and perceptions to spread during the crisis. Popular Muslim opinion that somehow placed the blame for the desecration of the mosque on western and especially the U.S. led to the above mentioned violence against U.S. embassies in several Muslim countries. Although Juhayman’s movement was virulently anti-Shi’a, the Iranian regime took the opportunity to encourage a rising against the Saudi regime by the Shi’a population of the Eastern province.

Trofimov also discusses the cloak and dagger goings on as the Saudis attempted to get control of the situation. What comes across is that at least many of the rebels were highly trained and highly motivated and they had a good strategy in terms of using the physical geography of the mosque to protect themselves. They did not have a good strategy as to how taking over the mosque would actually result in seizing power in the country rather than a backlash against them, but I guess you don’t necessarily plan that far ahead when you believe you have the Mahdi with you. By the way, this alleged Mahdi was no mascot for the rebels, but he used his absolute fearlessness resulting from his own belief that he could not be killed to fight spectacularly during the siege before he eventually was killed. The initial Saudi forces that tried to attack the rebels were, on the contrary, poorly trained, poorly motivated, and poorly led. In general Trofimov stresses that the Saudi royals showed little concern for the lives of their own soldiers or of the innocent civilians caught up in the events. The Saudis were able to brutally put down the Shi’a uprising in the Eastern province (where most of the opponents were not trained or even armed). With regard to events in the Sacred Mosque, the Saudis were forced to rely on planning assistance from French commandos to eventually defeat the rebels. The book also describes how Al-Saud preferred to seek help from European non-Muslims than to accept any assistance from other Arabs or Muslims who could pose any imaginable threat in Saudis prerogative as “custodians” of the Sacred places.

According to the book, although Bin Baaz had inspired the rebels initially and sympathized with many of their critiques in the end he strongly condemned their actions in openly revolting against Al-Saud and he and the other major scholars approved of the use of whatever violence was necessary to retake control of the mosque and put down the rebellion. However, the scholars extracted concessions from the regime which in Trofimov’s mind meant that in at least some ways although the actual rebellion was a failure, the underlying ideology of the Juhayman movement was actually greatly advanced in the wake of the takeover.

It is interesting to note that two Blackamerican Muslims participated in the rebellion, one of whom as best Trofimov can tell, may still be living somewhere in the United States. Of course, the vast majority of the rebels who were not killed during the siege were executed shortly thereafter, including Juhayman himself. It is amazing that, almost 30 years later, some of the leading royal figures that figured in these events are still in powerful positions in the Saudi regime. These include then Prince (now King) Abdullah, who was the Commander of the Saudi National Guard, Prince Nayef, who was and still is Minister of the Interior, Prince Sultan (now Crown Prince and Heir Apparent) who then and now is the Minister of Defense and Aviation, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, then Chief of the General Intelligence Directorate, a position which he held until 2001after which he was Ambassador to the UK and Ireland, and then to the United States for a short time until 2006.

Reading this book and thinking about the events involved is beneficial for thinking about some of the extreme contradictions inherent both in Saudi society and its ruling regime and within the movements that have sprung up in reaction and resistance to such autocratic regimes. It is a quick and entertaining read and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in Saudi Arabia or Islamism or Islamic movements. Some people may admire Juhayman today because he revolted against the Saudi regime, but all would acknowledge that the Mahdi claims and the taking over of the Grand mosque resulting in the deaths of many civilians were misguided and wrong. I really welcome any feedbacks or discussion on the issues I’ve presented in this review.

Brother Abu Sinan wrote about this book here.

There is a website created by the publisher here with information about the book and the events as well as links to audio interviews and presentations of the author here.

You can actually see a youtube video of Juhayman after his capture here. Whoever created and/or posted it is apparently an admirer and the video has nasheed (Islamic inspirational songs) playing behind it.


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4 Responses to “The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov”

  1. AbuSinan Says:

    You obviously spent more time writting this up than I did. You did a good job. Kudos.

    It was a good book, but I think to a certain extent the author did not press too hard into the Saudi establishment’s telling of the story. For instance, my wife’s family all comes from Mecca and the story that I have heard that came from them is that it was a well known fact that Western troops DID take part in the combat at the Grand Mosque. It would make sense that it has been covered up.

    To me it was amazing how a small group of people could come so close to overthrowing the Saudi regime. Had they attacked the King’s residence they might have done so.

  2. abunooralirlandee Says:

    Abu Sinan,

    Jazzak Allaahu Khayr for your comments.

    Trofimov basically points out that many people believe that westerners were involved in combat at Haram, it also did not really make sense to me why Al-Sa’ud wouldn’t have used them although of course they’d be reluctant to talk about it. Also, he refers a couple of times to how different westerners needed by the regime would “take shahadah” in order to enter into Mecca. Still, I give Trofimov some credit for having done a lot of research for the book and it’s at least clear that he couldn’t get any firm source to back this up and for whatever reason he seems inclined to believe that they did not. Allaahu Alim.

    Your last point is interesting to me. As I allude to in my post, it wasn’t clear to me that there was a strategy for how the rebels would take over the government…what would have made things a lot more interesting is if somehow they had gained the backing of some of the major scholars. Although the book suggests a relationship between the rebels and bin Baaz ideologically and talks about bin Baaz getting them released from prison earlier after “talking with them” I don’t remember it discussing any major effort of the rebels to get the scholars on their side. Although the account makes it seem the rebels were frustrated with the scholars backing of the regime (join the club!) maybe they hadn’t completely given up on them and thought there was some chance of the scholars backing them once they had taken over the Haram. (As I said, it is also possible that they didn’t really have a plan and were caught up in political and religious zeal and emotion).

    You are right, though, that it seems one lesson that was learned is that it would have been more strategic to attack the regime directly rather than strike at the Haram. But if the maintenance of the Haram is seen as the key to the legitimacy of the family, I guess there’s some logic in trying to rest that away from them at the beginning.

    Here’s a question I have for you Abu Sinan…perhaps my own loathing for the Al-Sa’ud has made it hard for me to understand how the average Sa’udi (I even hate to have to call the people Sa’udis since it seems like an insult to them) views the regime. No doubt they have complaints and know they are corrupt, puppets of U.S., etc. but when it comes down to it, is there really any support for getting rid of them? I would imagine that it would have been even less then. But it has to demoralizing to Al-Sa’ud to have spent so much money and had so many years pass and still always be unable to defend yourself militarily but always have to rely on others.
    In short, you state that this small group came “close” to overthrowing the regime. If so, how come Al-Qa’ida which has (or at least had at one point) considerably more support was not able to mount any serious challenge?

  3. Umm Hafsa Says:

    Asalaamu Alaikum. I have been fascinated by this story and have been trying to get more info from an islamic perspective. I would love it if someone could interview actual muslims who lived in the kingdom or were visiting there during that time. Do you know where more info can be found, this is an important piece of our islamic history.

  4. Curt Says:

    I was a 12 year old American boy living in the Aramco compound at Dhahran. We heard absolutely nothing of what was going on in Mecca. I do remember the uprising in the Ash Sharqīyah, it was hard to hide the dozens of ambulances which were coming in to our hospital from outside. As I recall western doctors were kept away and I learned about what happened from the children of Arab (mostly Palestinian) Dr.s.

    Afterwards the rules of the Kingdom became much more strict. For the first time the Mutaween became a factor in my life. At the time I attributed this to a general upsurge in Islamic feeling following the overthrow of the Shah. But this book makes it clear that it was a result of concessions made to the Ulema. Fascinating.

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