Historical Perspectives: The Siege of the Grand Mosque

The first day of the month of Muharram in Islam’s year 1400 – or November 20, 1979, according to the Gregorian calendar – marked a major inflection point in the Arab world. 

The first day of the month of Muharram in Islam’s year 1400 – or November 20, 1979, according to the Gregorian calendar – marked a major inflection point in the Arab world. 

On the first day of the new Islamic millennium, the Grand Mosque in Mecca – Islam’s holiest site – was seized by armed insurgents who declared the coming of the Mahdi, or the redeemer of Islam, and called for the overthrow of the House of Saud. The siege would last two weeks and lead not only to the deaths of hundreds of worshippers taken hostage during the rebel seizure, but also to the hardening of a particularly virulent strain of extremism.

Mecca’s Grand Mosque is the site of the Kaaba, also referred to as al-Kaʿbah al-Musharrafah, is considered by Muslims to be the “House of God” and serves as the religion’s spiritual center of gravity – wherever they are in the world, Muslims face in the direction of the Kaaba when performing the five daily prayers. According to the Prophet Mohammed, the Kaaba stands at the axis between Heaven and Earth, and a prayer performed there is worth a hundred thousand prayers performed elsewhere.

Millions of pilgrims flock to Mecca’s Grand Mosque each year to complete the hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage. Thanks to Saudi Arabia’s tight control over news coverage of the 1979 siege, many of them are blissfully unaware of the carnage that unfolded on those hallowed grounds some forty years ago.

The chain of events that ultimately led to the 1979 siege can be dated back to the mid-1700s. At that time, Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab, a religious leader from the Nejd region in the center of the Arabian Peninsula, began attracting followers. Advocating a return to a “pure” Islam as it was practiced during the time of the Prophet, Ibn Abdel Wahhab argued that jihad, or holy war, was the only possible reaction to the encroachment of infidels upon Muslim lands – including the Shiite communities that lived at the edges of the Arabian desert and even fellow Sunnis who refused to embrace Wahhab’s puritanism.

Ibn Abdel Wahhab’s teachings stirred up a great deal of controversy and led to his expulsion from his native city of Al-‘Uyanya in 1744. After settling in the town of Diriyah, he struck up a pact with Mohammed Ibn Saud, then a simple tribal sheikh. In 1802, Ibn Saud led an attack on the city of Karbala, a center of Shiite learning in Ottoman-ruled Iraq. An estimated four thousand city dwellers perished. The following year, Ibn Saud’s troops seized Mecca and Medina, holding the cities until 1813.

Nearly a century later – with the Hashemite dynasty firmly in control of coastal Saudi Arabia – a young Wahhabi-following member of the Al Saud family, accompanied by no more than six dozen men, attacked and took control of the city of Riyadh and eventually much of the Nejd. With the help of the Ikhwan, or brothers, the newly anointed King Abdelaziz of the Al Saud family ruled most of the Arabian Peninsula by the late 1920s. By that time, Britain controlled many of the territories ringing the Saudi desert – Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait – and the new king found himself in a delicate position. He would need to muzzle the very men – the Ikhwan – who had helped sweep him to victory in order to avoid war with the British Empire.

The Ikhwan, convinced of the righteousness of their holy war, defied the king’s orders and attacked British-controlled Iraq in 1927. In response, Abdelaziz authorized the British to launch a bombing campaign and sent his own loyalist troops to battle the Ikhwan on the ground. Although Abdelaziz succeeded in putting down the Ikhwan, this came at a cost: a simmering resentment and an ever-growing disconnect between the monarchy and its subjects.

By the time King Abdelaziz died in 1953, Saudi Arabia had been transformed by the 1938 discovery of vast oil reserves in the eastern reaches of the kingdom. The subsequent establishment of the Arabian American Oil Company not only enriched the kingdom, but also led to a significant influx of American oil workers and military personnel. Their very presence served to raise tensions among Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi hardliners who argued that the hadith, a collection of sayings uttered by the prophet Muhammad that serve as a major source of guidance in Islam, banned all non-Muslims from Muslim lands. And against a backdrop of bloody revolutions – namely, the 1952 coup in Egypt, Iraq’s 14 July Revolution in 1958, and the collapse of Yemen’s monarchy in 1962 – Saudi Arabia was beginning to assert itself as the leader of the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia’s claim to world leadership was based on the concept of a community of the faithful that extended well beyond any ethnic Arab identity – the Ummah. After all, there were sizeable Muslim communities across western Africa and the Asia Pacific region. As air travel became increasingly accessible, pilgrims from all around the world flocked to Mecca’s Grand Mosque. In addition, Saudi Arabia invited thousands of members of Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood into the kingdom, where many of the Brothers became professors and teachers.

By the 1970s, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s teachings, coupled with the hardening of rural Saudi Arabia’s conservatism, had begun to collide with the increasingly liberal royal family. The wealth and opportunities generated by the oil boom were unevenly distributed, leaving the communities of Saudi Arabia’s Nejd region behind. For the inhabitants of the kingdom’s remote central lands, the employment with the Saudi National Guard offered a lifeline. Many young men, eager to access greater opportunities, enrolled in the force.

One such recruit was Juhayman al-Otaibi, who hailed from Al-Sajir, a settlement that had been established by King Abdelaziz to house the Ikhwan who had fought for him. Both al-Otaibi’s father and his grandfather had participated in the Ikhwan uprising against the king. Early on, al-Otaibi interpreted the king’s efforts to put down the Ikhwan uprising as a betrayal and proof of the monarchy’s breach of its righteous religious principles. This idea would become central to his teachings in the late 1970s, when he began to gather a faction of young recruits around him. By 1977, al-Otaibi had officially split with the religious chapter Al-Jamaa Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasiba, with which he had studied, and founded his own separatist group, Bayt al-Ikhwan.

Breaking with the senior clerics who represented the official guardians of Islam loosened al-Otaibi’s tongue. He quickly crossed the line from provocation to outright sedition, proclaiming that “[A] ruler and leader of Muslims should satisfy three conditions: be a Muslim, be a member of [Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of] al-Quraysh and be a man who applies the religion,” before clarifying that the king satisfied only the first of the three conditions. However, it wasn’t until 1978, when al-Otaibi published a 170-page book, titled The Seven Epistles, that the Saudi authorities issued warrants for his arrest and those of his closest followers.

Al-Otaibi managed to evade arrest, but some 25 of his followers were arrested. It would have been the end were it not for the intercession of his one-time teacher, the senior cleric and future Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdelaziz bin Baz.

Emboldened by bin Baz’s support and radicalized by the treatment they had received during their imprisonment, al-Otaibi’s followers were now primed to take decisive action against the Saudi monarchy. The spark that would set off the bloody siege of Mecca came when one of al-Otaibi’s followers claimed that his brother possessed all the telltale signs of the Mahdi, or the redeemer of Islam.

In fact, al-Otaibi had devoted one of his seven epistles to the coming of the Mahdi. According to his controversial interpretation of the hadith, the Mahdi would emerge during a period of great discord as Muslims were drifting away from their religion, in order to assert himself as the only just ruler on Earth. However, al-Otaibi preached, the Mahdi’s revelation would not be accepted before the destruction of the Christian world, the conquest of the Jewish army, and the swallowing up into the earth of all false Muslims who refused to pledge their allegiance to the Mahdi.

Buoyed by their belief that the Mahdi was among them, al-Otaibi’s men began assembling an arsenal and training in the depths of the desert. Then, in the summer of 1979, hundreds of his followers began receiving a vision. In it, the Mahdi – a 25-year-old student named Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani – was standing at the base of the Kaaba as throngs of worshippers pledged their undying allegiance to him. It was now time for action.

On the morning of November 20, 1979 – the first day of the new Islamic millennium –50,000 pilgrims had gathered at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Among them were several hundred of al-Otaibi’s followers, some of whom had entered the mosque bearing caskets filled with weapons and ammunition. As the imam prepared to lead the faithful in prayer, al-Otaibi seized the imam’s microphone and announced the arrival of the Mahdi. Meanwhile, a contingent of his men rushed to lock the mosque’s gates and to occupy defensive positions in a number of its minarets.

The mosque’s imam, Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Subeil, managed to slip away from al-Otaibi and rushed to his office to call the authorities. However, it was several hours before Mecca’s police force responded, and the single police vehicle sent to investigate was met with a volley of gunfire, seriously injuring the driver. When the first vehicle did not return, the police sent out a larger convoy to investigate. They fared no better, as snipers rained down bullets from their perches in the mosque’s minarets. Eight officers died and some 36 were severely injured within minutes.

The Saudi monarchy was also slow to reply. A number of high-ranking princes were simply absent – Crown Prince Fahd and Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of the General Intelligence Directorate, were in Tunisia to meet with the Arab League, and Prince Abdullah was vacationing in Morocco. Beyond that, Saudi Arabia, and indeed the wider Arab world, found itself in a rather precarious position.

The year of 1979 was, of course, when the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy was overthrown by the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution, sending shockwaves across the region. The ties between the Persian Shah and the al-Saud dynasty had been close and cordial – both were oil-rich nations and key allies of the United States and the rest of the so-called “Free World.” Although the U.S. had intervened with a covert operation to prop up the Shah when a nationalist and anti-Western foment threatened his rule in 1953, new priorities in President Jimmy Carter’s White House meant that Washington stood on the sidelines as revolution toppled its long-time ally in 1979.

Although the Carter administration seemed almost sanguine about the new “Gandhi-like” role they anticipated Khomeini to play in the region, anxieties were steadily rising in Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Shiite government posed a serious threat to Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and undermined Saudi’s role as the undisputed leader of the Muslim world. The fact that Communism was inching ever closer served only to exacerbate tensions, as it seemed the Soviets were intent on seizing control of the Persian Gulf itself.

South Yemen had become a Marxist state in 1967, and the 1977-1978 Ogaden War saw an influx of Cuban and Soviet military personnel to the border of Ethiopia and Somalia. Then, on November 4, 1979, just days before the Islamic New Year, a group of revolutionary students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In addition to taking 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage, the revolutionaries also seized a huge store of classified information – including highly sensitive communications between the Saudi crown prince and the U.S. ambassador about the Iranian threat. These were promptly published in Tehran under the title, “Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den.”

In this tumultuous context, the Saudi monarchy was dragging its feet and al-Otaibi and his men were consolidating their hold on the Grand Mosque. It wasn’t until the morning after their siege that Saudi police and security forces, along with reinforcements from the National Guard and army, began to establish a presence around the Grand Mosque. Despite having established apparent battle lines, there was still overwhelming confusion among Saudi authorities as to how to proceed – as the Grand Mosque was a holy sanctuary, any kind of bloodshed within its walls would amount to mortal sin.

Soon, rumors of the arrival of the Mahdi began to seep out of Mecca. Along with these rumors, whispers of a coup, of Iranian meddling, and of American involvement inflamed popular sentiment. The Saudi government did its best to enforce a media blackout, cutting telephone service and restricting travel. Given the absence of reliable information, many international embassies concluded that Khomeini’s regime had been behind the seizure of the mosque.

This theory fit all too well with common Western perceptions of Shiite Islam as a more radical and innately hostile form of the religion. In response, the U.S. sent a naval task force to the Persian Gulf, hoping to keep Iran’s ambitions in check. Khomeini, on the other hand, publicly blamed the U.S. for the seizure of the Grand Mosque. As anti-American sentiment reached a fever pitch across the region, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, was overtaken by rioters and burned to the ground, killing four embassy workers.

The Saudi security forces were quickly proving powerless against the entrenched rebels. It became increasingly obvious that outside help would be required to take back the mosque. But who could the Saudis call upon without jeopardizing their position of leadership within the Muslim world? It was already humiliation enough to be seen as incapable of protecting the sanctity of Islam’s holiest site, let alone to allow a rival nation to become Saudi’s savior. So, Saudi Arabia would have to turn to one of its Western allies. The U.S. may have seemed a natural choice, but the Saudi authorities worried that their American allies would not maintain sufficient secrecy. This fear had only been compounded by the indiscretion of State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III, who let it slip some days prior that “some kind of disturbance” had occurred in the Grand Mosque, effectively breaking the Saudi’s information blackout.

Ultimately, the Saudi government called upon France’s National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), an elite counterterrorism and hostage rescue team. The GIGN quickly dispatched three high-ranking operatives on a top-secret mission to gas the rebels and reclaim the mosque. As non-Muslims, however, the French operatives were barred from entering the Grand Mosque; instead they provided training and equipment for the contingent of Saudi and Pakistani security forces that actually engaged in the fight. After a long and bloody battle (estimates of the death toll ranges from 250-1,000), Saudi Arabia finally managed to dislodge the rebels and reclaim the mosque.

The fifteen days of al-Otaibi’s control of the Grand Mosque, however, had far-reaching consequences. The Saudi monarchy reacted to the loss of face that resulted from its botched handling of the crisis by strictly enforcing Sharia law and handing over greater power to the ulama, or body of Islamic scholars, and religious conservatives. In this way, the siege of the Grand Mosque can be understood not only as as a major flection point in the development of modern Saudi society, but also as a major flection point in the development of modern global international relations.