Today in Middle Eastern history: the Grand Mosque seizure (1979)

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Religious fervor was truly in the air in 1979. Presumably we don’t need to go into much detail about that year’s revolution in Iran, which brought us Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic Republic. But across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia had its own run in with Islamist extremism in 1979, and while it didn’t topple the Saudi monarchy—boy, we all really dodged a bullet there—it did change Saudi Arabia for better (not really) or worse (mostly this).

Before dawn on November 20, 1979, a group of armed militants numbering probably in the 400-500 range took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They were well-armed, having stolen their weapons from the Saudi National Guard, and came from across the Arab world and even beyond. The gunmen killed two police officers and barred the doors. There were thousands of people gathered in the mosque for prayers, and the attackers—presumably realizing that they had no chance of controlling a crowd that size—let most of them go while keeping a more manageable number as hostages. They proclaimed to the worshipers that the arrival of the Mahdi was at hand. November 20, 1979 was the end of the month of Dhu’l Hijjah and thus the end of the Islamic year 1399. So it was an auspicious date for some end-of-the-world eccentricities.

The leader of this gang of hostage takers was Juhayman al-Otaybi (d. 1980), a member of the well-connected Otaybah tribe who had gotten wrapped up in a Salafi puritanical movement and despised what he saw as Western corruption rotting Saudi society. Somewhere along the way he’d gotten arrested, as folks like this often do, and did some time with a man named Muhammad b. Abdullah al-Qahtani. He claimed that one night God had revealed to him in a dream that his pal Muhammad was the Mahdi. He told Muhammad this and, well, Muhammad was sold. It seems a little strange that God wouldn’t have spoken with the Mahdi directly, but we all know He enjoys behaving mysteriously. In fairness, there was a prophecy that the Mahdi and his father would have the same names as the Prophet Muhammad and his father Abdullah, and here was a Muhammad who was the son of an Abdullah, so clearly the signs were all there. Otaybi either married Qahtani’s sister or vice versa, or they each married one another’s sisters. I can’t get a straight answer on this and frankly it doesn’t really matter except to note that they were brothers in-law.

Otaybi’s demands mostly revolved around cutting ties with the West and expunging what he viewed as Western innovations from Saudi society. This would include the Saudi kingdom divesting itself of the Saud family itself, who in Otaybi’s view were too corrupt and had amassed too much wealth to be reformed. Otaybi came from a tribe in the Nejd, the Utaybah, which at one time was one of the preeminent tribes in the Ikhwan (“Brotherhood”), a Wahhabi movement that Abdulaziz ibn Saud cultivated in the 1910s to help him a) settle and pacify the troublesome Bedouin and b) build a devoted army to help him conquer his future kingdom. For a time the Ikhwan project was a massive success and provided the nucleus of the army Abdulaziz used to pacify the Nejd and eventually seize the other parts of what would become Saudi Arabia.

By the late 1920s, when Abdulaziz had mostly built his kingdom and was trying to settle in as a responsible ruler and good neighbor to the British colonies and protectorates along his borders, the Ikhwan’s unruliness and its uncontrolled raiding became a real problem for him. What followed was the 1928-1930 Ikhwan Revolt, in which the Brotherhood decided that the Saudi monarchy was—wait for it—corrupt and impious. I guess you could say this has been a running theme in Saudi history. The Saudis utterly crushed their uprising. The Utaybah tribe was divided into rebel and loyalist factions, with the loyalist faction winning out (obviously). I hate to be a genealogical determinist, but Juhayman al-Otaybi was a descendant (grandson, I think) of one of the leaders of the rebellious Utaybah faction, Sultan b. Bajad (d. 1931) and would certainly have learned about his family’s issues with the Sauds at a young age. Many of his followers—the ones who didn't come from abroad to join him—were also members of the Utaybah tribe. So the mosque seizure does have some echoes of the Ikhwan uprising both in personnel and ideology.

The Grand Mosque was being renovated by none other than the Saudi Binladen Group (yes, that one), and it was one of their workers who managed to get a call out to Saudi officials to let them know that the holiest site in all of Islam had just been seized by a group of untrained fanatics. The operation to retake the mosque was overseen by Prince Sultan b. Abdulaziz (d. 2011), the Saudi defense minister, and Prince Nayef b. Abdul-Aziz (d. 2012), the Saudi interior minister, with the involvement of Prince Turki b. Faisal, then the newly minted head of Saudi intelligence. They responded with all the military precision and excellence we've come to expect from Saudi security forces over the years. By that I mean they quickly sent 100 crack Saudi interior ministry troops in to the mosque to bust up the siege, and those troops were promptly gunned down en masse by Otaybi’s forces.

Chastened a bit by this initial failure, the Saudis put together a much larger assault force, including soldiers from the Saudi army and from the Saudi national guard (which is ironically the official remnant of the old Brotherhood). But in order to make such a large attack against the Grand Mosque they first needed to get legal permission from the Saudi ulama, or religious scholars. And the thing is, the ulama kind of had a soft spot for Otaybi and his followers. They seemed like Good Folks, throwbacks to the old days in the early 20th century when the passionate Ikhwan had built the kingdom in a rush of religious fervor. Otaybi had studied under Sheikh Abd al-Aziz b. Baz, a leading Saudi scholar who would eventually serve as Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Ibn Baz still seems to have been fond of his former student, even though the increasingly radicalized Otaybi later denounced his former teacher. Nevertheless, after some negotiations with King Khalid himself, ibn Baz and the rest of the ulama gave the Saudis permission to go in with guns blazing.

With the gloves taken off the mighty Saudi war machine, it was only a matter of time before the ragged insurgents were wiped out. Yes, of course I'm kidding. The Saudis attacked the mosque with artillery—doing significant damage to what, I note again, is the holiest site in Islam—before assaulting all three of its gates. They were soundly thrashed by Otaybi’s forces, who relied especially on snipers to pick off the Saudi forces. Prince Sultan ordered a daring raid whereby his commandos rappeled into the courtyard of the mosque via helicopter, and then watched those men get gunned down. It was after that particular fiasco when King Khalid made the decision to put Prince Turki b. Faysal in charge of the operation.

Turki used the Binladin Group’s detailed schematics of the mosque to infiltrate his men into the building, and by November 25 or so the Saudis had control of part of the mosque and had managed to kill a considerable number of Otaybi's men—including the Mahdi himself, Qahtani. But the remaining militants took their hostages and retreated to prayer alcoves dug beneath the courtyard. This left them in a position where they could put up a very strong defense against any Saudi assault and then, when their defenses ultimately gave out, kill the hostages before the Saudis would have been able to stop them.

Desperate to end the siege and the embarrassment it was causing to the royal family, the Saudis considered some really off the wall ideas, like flooding the alcoves and electrocuting everybody—attackers and hostages—inside, or sending dogs strapped with explosives into the place as unwitting suicide bombers. Then Turki decided to bring in some outside help. He turned to Pakistani special forces and France's elite Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) police unit to finish off the militants. Three French commandos hastily converted to Islam (this is disputed by both France and the Saudis but I like to believe it’s true) so that they could enter the mosque and carry out their plan to gas everybody in the prayer niches. This plan failed, presumably because they didn't really have any idea how the underground air currents worked. So then the Saudis decided to just start drilling holes into the alcoves and dropping grenades down on everybody. This probably killed several hostages, maybe dozens of them, but it also killed several militants and forced others to come out of cover where they could be shot by Saudi snipers. It took two weeks, but in the end the remaining militants, including Otaybi, surrendered to Saudi authorities. He and his followers were subsequently beheaded.

The death toll from this siege remains an ongoing point of controversy. Officially the Saudis say that they lost 127 men against 117 militants and 12 hostages. Unofficially there are claims that the toll was in the thousands, mostly Saudi soldiers but also a large number of hostages and quite a few more militants. The damage to the mosque was severe, but even more severe may have been the damage to the Saudi monarchy’s image. In order to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again, King Khalid rooted out religious extremism wherever he could find it, turning Saudi Arabia into the tolerant bastion of liberal thinking that it is today.

Obviously I’m kidding again. In reality, he decided that the only way to beat the religious zealots was for the Saud family to (re)join them. From then on the kingdom gave the most conservative elements in Wahhabi Islam free rein to run amuck over Saudi society and a virtual blank check to proselytize their brand of fanaticism around the world. While Wahhabism has never been anything that one might consider objectively “moderate,” when Donald Trump’s pal Mohammed b. Salman talks about returning Saudi Arabia to “moderate” Islam what he means is returning it to the days before the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979—before the inmates, so to speak, completely took over the asylum.