Saudi Arabia is in a familiar, if unpleasant, position. On June 23, security forces in the kingdom disrupted an impending attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, according to Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry. The event triggered an avalanche of international commentary about the terrorist plot, which reportedly involved three cells ready to attack security forces and worshippers at the mosque. And though the Interior Ministry’s statement did not allude to it, the foiled conspiracy doubtless brought back uncomfortable memories for the Saudi royal family of the siege of the Grand Mosque in November 1979.
Despite the incident’s gravity and its lingering influence on Islamist terrorism, the Grand Mosque’s siege is a historical footnote nearly 40 years later. Saudi Arabia quickly shut down its communication channels to the outside world as the event unfolded. Since then, it has had no desire to discuss the most destabilizing and embarrassing moment in its history, when militants seized and held Islam’s holiest shrine for 15 days, and Riyadh had to rely on clandestine members of the French special forces to regain control. But as the recent plot and the kingdom’s enduring fight against radicalism underscore, the legacy of the 1979 Grand Mosque siege lives on.
The Keys to the Kingdom
One of the pillars upholding the House of Saud has long been its relationship with Islamic fundamentalists, most notably Wahhabi clerics and their followers. Members of the sect gave the kingdom’s founding monarch, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the decisive edge in his ambitious campaign to unify vast tracts of the Arabian Peninsula under his rule after World War I. (The discovery of oil and natural gas in Saudi Arabia in 1938 helped cement the House of Saud’s authority, pacifying the kingdom’s disparate tribes and generating significant interest from foreign powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France.) The ruling family’s ties with Islamic fundamentalism have been well-documented through the years, though the relationship hasn’t always been harmonious. At times, the demands of running a modern state have clashed with the Wahhabis’ ascetic beliefs.
By the 1970s, some members of Saudi Arabia’s hard-line Islamist community thought that power and patronage had profoundly warped the Saudi establishment and began agitating for systemic change in the kingdom. The flood of petrodollars into Saudi Arabia, coupled with signs of increasing liberalization there — women appearing on television without headscarves, for instance — widened the divide between the royal family and the conservative society it ruled. In time, a growing threat emerged around Juhayman al-Otaibi, a former corporal in the Saudi armed forces and a bastion of conservative ideology. Al-Otaibi, armed with his religious education and military training, set about recruiting other believers from the sea of alienated worshippers throughout the kingdom. As his underground clout grew, so did his belief that he was uniquely positioned to bring about the coming of the Mahdi, who, according to Islamic theology, will save Islam and the world after an apocalyptic battle. His desire to overthrow the House of Saud rose in turn.
The Siege Commences
The year 1979 proved a momentous one for the Muslim world. The ailing Shah of Iran fled the country in January. Long-running protests and the erosion of his government precipitated the rise of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini and set the Iranian Revolution in motion. The ferment inspired Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s restive Qatif region to take to the streets, prompting government crackdowns. Then in December, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan to prop up its socialist client state, galvanizing Muslims around the world to lend support against the communist onslaught. And in the intervening months, al-Otaibi and his rebels set their sights on capturing the Grand Mosque in Mecca in hopes of unseating the Saudi royal family.
Yaroslav Trofimov, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, describes the scene that played out in the Grand Mosque in his book The Siege of Mecca — perhaps the lone work dedicated to the incident. On Nov. 20, 1979, al-Otaibi and his followers made their way into the mosque’s inner sanctum, well-armed. Before any of the thousands of pilgrims there could comprehend what had happened, the rebel leader took control of the microphones at the front of the mosque, announcing that his brother-in-law was the Mahdi. (Interviews with survivors of the siege indicate that the brother-in-law bore several physical traits that the Mahdi supposedly would have.) Some Islamic scholars trapped inside the holy site then dialed their superiors for help as the rebels closed the Grand Mosque’s massive gates and snipers took up defensive positions in several of its minarets. Mecca police responded hours later, only to be repelled by successive rounds of fire from militants hiding in the upper reaches of the Grand Mosque.
The official Saudi response to the crisis was sluggish. The delay was likely due to a combination of disbelief, slow communications, the absence of important members of the royal family — Crown Prince Fahd and Prince Abdullah, commander of the national guard, were traveling abroad — and confusion over how to counter the siege. Bloodshed in the Grand Mosque, after all, would constitute a grave sin. In addition, King Khalid was suffering from long-term health problems. Hostage rescue teams were still in their infancy at the time, especially in Saudi Arabia, where such situations seldom occurred. When security forces finally were cleared to assault the Grand Mosque, they met with gunfire from all sides of the ancient building, resulting in high casualties and low morale. Soon rumors of coups, Iranian meddling and the return of the Mahdi seeped out of Mecca, forcing the government to shut off all communications in and out of the kingdom.
The rumors of Iran’s interference coincided with mass demonstrations by Shiites in Qatif protesting their treatment at the hands of Saudi authorities. During the demonstrations, which resulted in dozens of deaths, protesters looted several businesses in the region, including the offices of the Saudi British Bank. The ensuing instability raised fears in the Saudi and U.S. governments alike that Iran’s supreme leader was behind the unrest. Khomeini, meanwhile, blamed the siege of Islam’s holiest shrine on the United States, an accusation that prompted rioters in Pakistan to burn the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to the ground, killing two Americans and two Pakistani staff members.
France to the Rescue
As the siege wore on, the Saudi government grew more desperate. Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz concluded that his security forces were no match for the rebels cached in the Grand Mosque’s manifold nooks and crannies. Consequently, he called on France’s elite counterterrorism and hostage rescue force, the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN) to help end the crisis. The kingdom maintained a close intelligence relationship with France, and the GIGN had reportedly impressed bin Abdulaziz at a recent demonstration. The interior minister likely realized, moreover, that the kingdom needed discretion above all else, something that the United States — by then mired in the early stages of the Iranian hostage crisis — probably couldn’t give them. Four members of the French force were soon traveling to Saudi Arabia in secret to devise a viable counterassault before the world caught wind that the House of Saud had lost control of the mosque, one of the bases of its legitimacy. (Their journey allegedly included a conversion to Islam so that the Frenchmen could enter the holy city of Mecca.)
As former head of the GIGN Paul Barril tells it, the ill-equipped Saudi military needed to disrupt the rebels from a distance to avoid another bloodbath. The French operatives settled on using a gas that caused vomiting and temporary blindness to incapacitate the militants, allowing Saudi security forces and a contingent of Pakistani commandos to penetrate the Grand Mosque. Many of the rebels retreated into the recesses underneath the structure, and from there, a brutal battle erupted. Saudi forces indiscriminately threw grenades, killing untold numbers of pilgrims, military personnel and rebels. Official estimates put the death toll at around 255, but sources outside the Saudi government say that as many as 1,000 people died in the fight.
After 15 days, Saudi security forces managed to neutralize the militants and kill the proclaimed Mahdi. The government even kept news of the siege mostly under wraps, though the incident would become fodder for the growing jihadist movement in the decades ahead. Security forces captured al-Otaibi, along with several of his confederates, and paraded them in front of Saudi media before most of them were beheaded. Some of the rebels who survived their sentences went on to join al Qaeda.
The events of Nov. 20-Dec. 4, 1979, drove home an uncomfortable reality for the House of Saud: The Islamic fundamentalists that it had so often relied on presented a threat to its dynastic rule. From then on, Trofimov notes, the Saudi government strove to expunge the siege from public memory and to channel the energies of its more hostile citizens to crises afflicting the Islamic world beyond its borders, such as the war in Afghanistan. At the same time, the House of Saud invested millions of dollars to upgrade the Grand Mosque’s security, while cracking down on dissent and rolling back social reforms in an effort to shore up its support among the Wahhabi clergy. Facing accusations that it wasn’t pious enough, and threatened by the revolutionary Shiite administration just across the Persian Gulf, the Saudi royal family resolved to become the unequivocal leader in Islamic thought by exporting its ideology around the world. But so long as it courts the support of Islamic fundamentalists, the House of Saud will keep encountering threats to its legitimacy when it inevitably falls short of the hard-liners’ expectations.