Yaroslav Trofimov, author and staff correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, discussed his recently published book, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda.

Trofimov recounted how, at dawn on November 20, 1979, hundreds of Islamic radicals seized Islam's holiest shrine – the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. According to Trofimov, the importance of this event has been obscured because world attention was focused elsewhere at the time; first on Iran, where the American embassy had been overrun by Islamic revolutionaries two weeks prior to the siege, and subsequently to Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union invaded two weeks after the siege.

Trofimov considered the siege of the Grand Mosque to be the first transnational jihad operation because the rebel group included men from several countries in the region as well as American converts to Islam. Led by a Saudi former National Guard named Juhayman al Uteybi, the rebels entered the Mosque armed with rifles, taking more than 100,000 worshippers hostage. The rebels proclaimed that the end of days was near, and that al Uteybi's brother-in-law was the Mahdi, the redeemer who would restore justice on Earth and bring the true kingdom of Islam. The Mosque's speakers broadcast their message throughout most of Mecca.

In response to these events, the Saudi government shut off phone lines, thereby depriving the world of information about the siege for 24 hours. In the United States, the government was quick to blame the Iranians, who in turn accused the Americans and the Zionists. This set off violent anti-American demonstrations around the world, the storming of American embassies and an attempt on the pope's life in the following year.

The Saudi government sent police and troops to the mosque, but Trofimov explained that, due to sanctity of the Mosque, many Saudi soldiers refused to fight in its vicinity. Therefore, the king sought a fatwa, a religious ruling, allowing the soldiers to use their weapons in the mosque. In exchange for the fatwa, the government made several concessions to the religious establishment, including increasing their allocation of Saudi Arabia's oil revenues. This allowed them to create a network of schools and charities across the world which spread fundamentalist religious ideology and bred a new generation, many of whom later joined Al Qaeda.

The siege came to a conclusion two weeks after it began. With the help of French commandos, poisonous gas, which was also sent from France, was pumped into the underground of the mosque. All of the rebels were eventually executed except those between the ages of 14-16 at the time of the siege. Trofimov interviewed some of these men, but many of them were still afraid to speak. He also interviewed the French commandos and Americans who had been involved.

The siege and the role of the Saudi government in breaking it contributed to the rise of al Qaeda in two ways. It increased the resources and outreach of the conservative Wahhabi religious leaders who trained more potential recruits for the terrorist movement, and it inspired Osama bin Laden to organize al Qaeda to drive western influences from the Middle East and overthrow the Saudi monarchy.

Middle East Program
Drafted by Shannon Bratt