Thirty years on, Mecca mosque siege reverberates

RIYADH: Thirty years ago, as tens of thousands of hajj pilgrims were completing dawn prayers inside Mecca, gunshots pierced the sanctity of the Grand Mosque.

To mark a new century on the Islamic calendar, a group of millennialist zealots, who claimed to have with them the new redeemer — the mahdi — seized Islam’s holiest site.

The November 20, 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque by Juhayman al-Oteibi and his 400-plus fundamentalists, and the subsequent unholy, bloody military assault to dislodge them, stunned Muslims worldwide and rocked the Saudi monarchy to its foundation.

While Oteibi and 67 fellow militants were ultimately caught and beheaded, and the mahdi was shot dead in the battle, the incident continues to reverberate through Saudi society and the world, say historians.

‘It is painfully clear: the countdown to September 11, to the terrorist bombings in London and Madrid, and to the grisly Islamic violence ravaging Afghanistan and Iraq all began on that warm November morning,’ wrote Yaroslav Trofimov, author of the most complete account of the uprising, ‘The Siege of Mecca’.

The hajj had just finished when Oteibi and his band smuggled hundreds of assault weapons into the mosque at the centre of Mecca.

Angered at what they saw was Saudi society’s plunge into immorality, with Muslims embracing ‘Western’ entertainment like cinema, television and sports, and Muslim women taking jobs, Oteibi’s act was to herald a new age of purism.

His army took over every corner of the massive walled mosque, locking shut the normally welcoming gates, sending machine-gun armed snipers into the seven minarets, and taking hostage hundreds of the faithful.

Quickly shooting dead two guards who resisted, they denounced Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics as corrupt and the ruling Al-Saud family as illegitimate.

Snipers picked off arriving policemen and soldiers and it would take two weeks and a massive Saudi army effort, that began with shelling the mosque and ended up with hand-to-hand fighting, to regain control.

The soldiers were backed by a small team of French commandos, led by the now infamous Lieutenant Paul Barril, and endorsed by a fatwa extracted the highest clerics that it was permissible to shoot the militants inside the sanctum.

The official death toll was 127 soldiers, 117 militants, and an unknown number of civilians. Trofimov cites independent observers in reporting a toll of ‘well over 1,000 lives.’

For most of the three million pilgrims massing in Mecca in the coming week for the hajj, Oteibi’s takeover of the Grand Mosque is likely a vague memory.

Many details — including whether the non-Muslim French commandos were allowed
inside Mecca — remain secret.

But 30 years later, the intense security around Mecca, a sharp turn toward more conservative behaviour in Saudi society, and the very present Al-Qaeda threat, attest to lasting effects of the 1979 siege.

Sparked by Oteibi’s complaints, Saudi religious leaders now ban movie theatres, and public concerts of all but traditional music are unknown.

Women cannot drive or attend soccer matches, and the religious police try to enforce a stringent dress code for them: all-black shroud-like abayas, with all but the eyes covered.

Robert Lacey, whose new book ‘Inside the Kingdom’ traces Saudi history from the Mecca siege to the present, said there is no proven direct link between Oteibi and Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

‘The link between Juhayman and bin Laden is that they are clearly in the Salafi tradition,’ he told AFP, referring to the arch-conservative Islamic movement.

‘Their messianic style — from their long, Salafi beards to their quarrel with the House of Saud — stem from the same violent and rejectionist reading of traditional Islam,’ he said.

‘We can now see that Juhayman’s revolt helped shift Saudi society in the conservative and reactionary direction that has only been seriously contested in the last few years.’

Trofimov drew a closer parallel, saying that in many ways Oteibi’s multinational army of zealous Islamic fighters ‘was a precursor to Al-Qaeda itself.’

By the 1990s, when bin Laden turned against the Saudi rulers, ‘he started to repeat almost word for word Juhayman’s repudiations of the royal family,’ Trofimov wrote.

And indeed, several Oteibi acolytes joined Al-Qaeda after their release from Saudi prisons, he said.

Similar tensions remain in Saudi society. Progressives are pressing for theatres; a women’s soccer team plays — though not publicly — in Jeddah; and clerics are battling what they see as licentious television shows broadcast by satellite from abroad.

Meanwhile a resurgent Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen attacks King Abdullah’s reforms as abandoning ‘true’ Islam. In August a Qaeda operative tried but failed to kill a top security official, Prince Mohammmed bin Nayef, with a suicide bomb.

In October Qaeda plots to attack unknown targets in the kingdom were interrupted, with hundreds of weapons, explosives and suicide vests discovered and dozens of suspects captured.

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