The battle at Islam's heart

In November 1979, armed militants took over Mecca's Sacred Mosque. Their actions still reverberate t

On the eve of Islam's 15th century, the Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque) in Mecca was overflowing with worshippers from all over the world. The atmosphere was joyous, and there was much talk in the Holy City and site of pilgrimage of resurgence and a new dawn. Many of Mecca's inhabitants, who normally avoid going to the Sacred Mosque during festivals, so as to avoid overcrowding, also joined the congregation on this special occasion. Most stayed up all night to read the Quran and then joined the early-morning prayers. As soon as the prayers finished, gunshots rang out. A group of heavily armed men took over the mosque. They announced that "the Mahdi" (redeemer) had arrived to purify Islam and bolted all 39 doors to the mosque, trapping more than 100,000 worshippers inside.

Thus began, on the morning of 20 November 1979, the siege of the Sacred Mosque. What happened during the next two weeks has had a profound impact on most of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is a police state and bad news in the kingdom is buried quickly and permanently. So, little was actually known about the insurgency itself and how it was suppressed. Now, however, through painstaking research of recently unclassified documents and interviews with those involved in the uprising, with security and army officers and the Saudi royal family, Yaroslav Trofimov has pieced together a thorough account of the events. The Siege of Mecca provides a gripping and revealing account of this brutal uprising.

The insurgents were led by a Bedouin preacher, Juhayman bin Seif al-Uteybi, and his brother- in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, the alleged Mahdi. The rebels included Egyptians, Pakistanis and American converts, but most were Saudis from the Oteiba tribe, which had actually helped King Abdul Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, to seize control of the Arabian Peninsula in 1902. They believed that the royal family had become corrupt, that the state was promoting heresy, that religious scholars were collaborating with the royal family in spreading immoral practices and that Saudi Arabia had become obsessed with money and consumerism. I knew their kind rather well.

Juhayman and his band were followers of the blind scholar Sheikh Bin Baz. Bin Baz, a major architect of the contemporary Saudi Wahhabi brand of Islam, later became Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. He had been a dean at Medina University, where he indoctrinated thousands of students with his firebrand puritanism. More devout followers were invited to desert retreats for special attention - Juhayman being one of them.

As a researcher at the Hajj Research Centre in Jeddah, I often used to meet Bin Baz's students. They were, without exception, irrational zealots. Largely tribal people, they had replaced fierce tribal loyalty with loyalty to their brand of Islam. And Islam, as far as they were concerned, was how they defined it - with more emphasis on rather dubious and historically questionable traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than on the teachings of the Quran. They saw themselves as the only authentic appointed guardians and defenders of Islam. Everyone else was, by definition, an unbeliever and hostile to Islam. That included the Shias, the Sufis and liberal folk like me. The students would often tell me that my association with unbelievers was nothing but apostasy.

My colleagues and I took it as granted that the Medina students would eventually do something drastic. I was at the Sacred Mosque on the night of 19 November, as were most of my colleagues. We were measuring the flow of worshippers going around the Kaaba, and had spotted the large presence of Medina students holding meetings in the compound. This was not uncommon, so I paid little attention to it.

I left the mosque immediately after the night prayer and heard the news of the siege on the grapevine in Jeddah the following day. The insurgents used coffins to smuggle a huge cache of arms and ammunition into the mosque. They allowed most of the foreign worshippers to leave, but kept the local people as hostages.

The Saudi authorities were slow to realise what had happened. It was only when the first batch of police and security officials were gunned down that the state grudgingly moved into action. The insurgents had occupied prime sites on the nine minarets of the mosque and were able to pick off anyone who approached the site. A number of assaults, involving police, the National Guard and the army, which Trofimov describes in some detail, ended in bloodbaths.

The authorities faced a number of problems. They were totally incompetent. The three security forces had different commands, did not trust each other, and were unable to communicate with each other as they had different radio systems. And, most astonishingly, they had no architectural plans of the mosque.

Indeed, there were only two institutions in the whole of the kingdom that had detailed plans of the Sacred Mosque - the Bin Laden Construction Company, which had built various extensions to the mosque but which was unwilling or unable to pass the maps on to the authorities, and my own research centre. For the previous five years, we had measured, calibrated and photographed almost every inch of the mosque. At considerable risk to himself, our director, the dissident architect Sami Angawi, delivered the plans to the front-line troops.

One of the mosque's gates was identified as the entry point for a new offensive. It was blown up with a huge charge. Paratroopers backed by armoured personnel carriers (APCs) stormed in, only to walk into an ambush. Another bloodbath ensued. It seemed that the insurgents had an answer to whatever the army threw at them. Even blowing up the minarets of the mosque did not help much. Eventually, using heavy artillery and scores of APCs, the army and the National Guard fought their way, step by bloody step, to the centre of the compound, where the Kaaba is located. Qahtani, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, who fought with exceptional daring, was killed.

Yet this was only a partial victory. The rebels retreated from the mosque's surface to its underground section. Known as the Qaboo, this is a labyrinth of rooms and alleyways, a mini-city where the insurgents had stashed the bulk of their weapons. Once again, the army's attempt to enter the Qaboo proved futile and deadly.

After a week of horrendously savage combat, it was clear that the Saudis needed help. They turned to their foremost allies: the United States and the CIA. A horde of CIA operatives was quickly converted to Islam so that they could enter the Holy City to assess the battlefield for themselves. They recommended chemical warfare. Potent tear gas was pumped into the Qaboo through its various entrances, but the exercise turned into a fiasco.

Hardened rebel fighters were able to shield themselves with mattresses, cardboard and cloth and prevented the gas from spreading into narrow underground corridors. Their water-soaked headdresses protected their breathing. The gas had a natural tendency to rise, so it came up to the compound of the mosque - where the Saudi soldiers were ill-prepared to use gas masks. Their generous facial hair prevented the masks from sealing on the skin: the gas seeped through their beards and knocked out a large contingent. Then it made its way to the surrounding area, and most of Mecca had to be evacuated.

My own account of what happened next differs from Trofimov's. The grapevine in Jeddah, I remember, suggested that the Qaboo had been flooded on the recommendation of the CIA. The rebels who escaped drowning were forced to the surface and captured. But Trofimov provides us with another story. The Saudis, he suggests, called in the French Foreign Legion. Paris despatched Lieutenant Paul Barril, a mercenary commando with expertise in such situations, on a "provost mission" to the kingdom.

Barril recommended another dose of gas - indeed, a whole tonne of CS gas, enough to poison a small city. However, the entire French stock of CS gas came to only 300kg so the operation was limited to this amount. This time, the gas was to be used with a particular cunning. Countless holes were bored from the surface of the compound down into the Qaboo, and the gas was pumped in through these holes. At the same time, battalions of the army entered the Qaboo from two points, in a pincer movement. They succeeded in overpowering the insurgents and capturing Juhayman.

The Siege of Mecca is a marvel of investigative journalism. Trofimov is not particularly good at filling in the background history of Islam or Saudi Arabia. And his attempts to paint a picture of what is happening simultaneously in Washington and Paris, Tripoli and Islamabad, leave much to be desired. Some of his suggestions, such as that most Saudis, including my friend Sami Angawi, were stupid enough to believe that the Mahdi had really arrived, are disingenuous. His nods toward the thriller genre and Hollywood can be pretentious. However, the book really takes off once we are into the siege, and Trofimov's viciously gory account unfolds with a sharp eye for detail and accuracy.

Trofimov suggests that the siege of the Sacred Mosque laid the foundation for the emergence of al-Qaeda. The young Osama Bin Laden sympathised with and supported the rebels. But it is more interesting to note that most of the Saudi religious establishment also agreed with the insurgents. When the rebels' accusations were read out in full to Sheikh Bin Baz, who provided religious sanction for the Saudi military assault on the mosque, he endorsed most of them. The insurgents were correct, he said, in pointing out that a true Wahhabi state should not associate with unbelievers, that heresies and deviation from pure Islam should be eliminated, that images of all kind were forbidden, and that consumerism and worship of money had become the norm in Saudi Arabia. But they were wrong on two counts: in challenging the royal family and in announcing the arrival of the Mahdi. Sheikh Bin Baz's judgment was duly carried out: Juhayman was publicly beheaded.

Mecca is a microcosm of the Muslim world. What happens in the Holy City not only reverberates throughout Muslim societies, it actually defines the state of the Muslim world. The siege of the Sacred Mosque, the reverberations from which are still clearly audible, suggests that there is something seriously wrong in the body politic of modern Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar's "Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim" is published by Granta Books (£8.99)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered