Apocalypse Now in Islam's Holiest Shrine

By John Bloom | 11/21/2007

The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov. Doubleday, $26, 301 pp. Publication date: September 18, 2007.

The last two months of 1979 were cataclysmic for the world. On November 4 Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and started the hostage crisis that would drag on for more than a year and destroy the presidency of Jimmy Carter. On December 25 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, beginning the series of events that would destroy the Soviet Union. Everybody knows both of these stories. But wedged between them, on November 20, came the storming of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by an apocalyptic fundamentalist cult led by Juhayman al Uteybi.

Juhayman who? Very few people know his name, and even fewer know how the takeover of Mecca was accomplished (by hiding weapons in coffins, since many pilgrims bring their dead relatives on the hajj) or what the rebels wanted. The reason is that the Saudi government was extraordinarily effective in keeping the whole event under wraps, even though the media should have guessed that it was a little more serious than everyone was letting on when, in January 1980, 63 of the rebels were publicly beheaded in eight Saudi cities.

Now comes Yaroslav Trofimov, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, to finally report the whole story almost three decades later. Trofimov is not a great stylist, so the advance reviews of this book reading “like a political thriller” are a little overstated, but he definitely blows the lid off the official version in this most secret of all kingdoms. He also reveals just how close Saudi Arabia came to full-blown revolution, as various Saudi army units tried to displace the rebels but kept being beaten back for two full weeks before three super-spook commandos sent by French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing flew in with chemical weapons and a workable plan. In the Middle East, the longer something like that goes on—after all, there were pilgrims arriving every day only to be told the mosque was closed—the more likely the public will start to believe the messianic claims. And because the uprising took place on the first day of the new millennium—the year 1400 on the Muslim calendar—those claims were plausible, especially when the first thing the rebels did was introduce the 100,000 pilgrims inside the mosque at the time to . . . the Mahdi himself!

The Mahdi, in Islamic tradition, is the godlike warrior of prophecy who comes to prepare for the end times, leading the faithful into the final battles against the infidels. In this case the Mahdi was supposedly Mohammed Abdullah al Qahtani, a 26-year-old university student with a broad forehead, a prominent nose and a red birthmark on his cheek, who was proclaimed Mahdi by Juhayman, the ringleader of the revolt. Juhayman himself was a former National Guardsman but, more importantly, an orthodox Wahhabi descended from the Ikhwan, the tribe that had been displaced by the House of Saud at the battle of Sbala in 1929—and had been brooding about it ever since.

Unfortunately, Trofimov doesn’t really get inside Juhayman’s soon-to-be-severed head, even though Juhayman wrote entire books that, interestingly, are still quoted by Al Qaeda today. What we know is that he was first radicalized in the early seventies by lectures at the brand new Islamic University in Medina, especially those of Bin Baz, the blind cleric who was the nation’s leading critic of modernization and who would eventually, and ironically, pronounce Juhayman’s death sentence. The constant Taliban-type preaching against television, shopping malls and the like was reinforced by the general disgust with Crown Prince Fahd, who was followed by paparazzi as he gambled, drank and whored his way across Europe. Bin Baz issued fatwas against cigarettes, barber shops, women in the workplace and the like, and launched a missionary movement to bring back Wahhabi fundamentalism. Juhayman rose through the ranks of that organization, supervised pilgrimages to the Grand Mosque, and eventually started writing treatises that pointed out contradictions between what the Saudi state was supposed to be and what it actually was. At that time Saudi Arabia welcomed Muslim Brotherhood exiles from Egypt, who further radicalized Juhayman as he decided that all Christians, all foreigners, and all Shiites should be driven from the kingdom—difficult to do when the Saudi economy had become dependent on Aramco, the big American oil company that employed most of the residents of the impoverished Shiite towns in the southeast.

The Saudi authorities noticed Juhayman—they tend to notice everything—especially after he got his writings published in Kuwait. (It was a small press owned by Shiites. Juhayman despised Shiites, but he despised the Saudi leadership more.) As the book gained popularity, arrest warrants were issued for Juhayman and his associates. But when the government asked the clerics for permission to imprison them, Bin Baz intervened, saying there was nothing in what Juhayman had written that had not been written by the Prophet.

Like most fanatical movements, this one grew by mass psychosis. Pretty soon everyone was having “night dreams” revealing that Mohammed Abdullah was the Mahdi, and it was just a short jump from there to the idea that the dawn of the new millennium would be the time when justice was established and the usurpers defeated. This was a movement, in other words, of Sunni true believers, the sort of upstanding religionists that Saudi Arabia supposedly encourages. Of course, their decision to take weapons into the Grand Mosque betrays their own doubts. Why would the Mahdi need weapons? Wasn’t it predicted that the ground would swallow up the armies that opposed him? To his credit, however, Juhayman gave directions to never fire on civilians and made it clear that the weapons were only to fight the armies that would oppose the Mahdi.

But once they took control of the mosque on that Tuesday morning in November, events worldwide took on a life of their own. The nearest CIA station was in Jeddah, and the agents couldn’t break the communications blackout until they found a Huey helicopter pilot willing to fly over the Grand Mosque for reconnaissance. (Americans claim they never sent a non-Muslim into Mecca, but there were stories of “battlefield conversion ceremonies” for several agents who made the trip.) President Carter and his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, thought at first that the uprising was orchestrated by Iran. (This made no sense, as the Ayatollah Khomeini had hardly been in power long enough to stage an attack on the most well protected of all Sunni shrines.) Because America thought it was an Iranian plot, Khomeini became enraged and suspected that it was actually an American plot to set up Iran. Once he said as much, the restive Shiites in the crummy towns of southeastern Saudi Arabia revolted, and angry Muslim students attacked U.S. embassies in several countries. Vance made the situation worse when he ordered evacuations of embassy personnel and refused to let Marines fire on the attacking crowds that surged through the gates. This was the first time that America “cut and run,” and the Muslim rebels never forgot it. Many people think that the chaos in Iran and Saudi Arabia is what prompted Russia to go ahead and invade Afghanistan, where they were very unhappy with their latest Communist stooge and wanted to run a kill-and-replace operation.

What the Saudi government didn’t want anyone to know was that the rebels inside the mosque were winning. The snipers who climbed up into the minarets were so deadly that they could pick off police and soldiers when they simply peered out of windows. The operation had been so well planned that the occupiers had enough weapons and food to last months. Although they barricaded the gates, they let civilians leave by climbing through high windows onto the surrounding streets, and many of those civilians told the populace that the Mahdi was inside. The first few assaults on the mosque, concentrated in the Marwa-Safa Gallery, left the streets littered with the bodies of dead soldiers, many of them killed by “the Mahdi,” who was supposedly immortal and, because he believed it, was able to achieve superhuman feats in battle. As the government soldiers hurled grenades toward the rebels, Mohammed Abdullah would grab them as they skidded across the marble and then, just before the explosion, hurl them back at the soldiers. He did this dozens of times until, inevitably, a grenade exploded in his hand, turning parts of his lower torso and legs into what Trofimov calls “carbonized goo.”

Trofimov doesn’t really explain why the rebels continued to fight after Mohammed Abdullah was dead. It would seem that the death in battle of the supposedly immortal Mahdi would bring all their theological idealism crashing down around them. Apparently not. They became depressed but continued to fight through the Qaboo, or basement, of the mosque, where they constantly surprised government troops with ambushes, booby traps and Molotov cocktails. The fighting went on for more than two weeks, finally ending on December 4, but not before the Saudis begged the French to secretly help them. (The Americans were out of the question, for obvious public relations reasons.)

The unit that finally resolved the Mecca crisis was the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale, or GIGN, a commando unit formed in 1972 after the Munich Olympics disaster. What shocked the Saudis, though, is that, when the French showed up, they had just sent three commandos, all outfitted with what was then the rare and exotic Kevlar bulletproof jacket. The Frenchmen reviewed the situation, met with soldiers who had been on the scene, studied maps of the mosque, then drew up a battle plan and ordered exactly one ton of dichlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, better known as CB, a fine-powder chemical that blocks respiration and can kill within five minutes. (The French stockpile was only 30 percent of what the officers requested, but France, to its credit, sent the whole stockpile.) On December 4, 15 days after the mosque was taken, the last rebels were flushed out.

What was interesting about the aftermath was that the rebels turned out to be from many different countries—including two black Muslims from America. (The Saudis were hesitant to publicly execute an American, so the U.S. citizens are described to this day as “missing.”) Now painfully aware of how powerful fundamentalism could be, the government then proceeded to . . . become fundamental! All the things that Juhayman had complained about—emancipated women, cigarettes, alcohol, etc.—were cracked down on. The Saudis embraced Wahhabi orthodoxy and gave huge endowments to the Islamic universities in Riyadh and Medina. Those would be the same universities that fostered Al Qaeda.

Today the name of Juhayman is officially taboo in Saudi Arabia. He is never to be mentioned and his books are forever banned. But in 2005 Abu Musab al Zarqawi sent a suicide bomber to attack the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, and before the bomber left he was asked what he wanted to use as his warrior name. He chose Abu Juhayman. There are a few who do remember.


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