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The event that inspired Al Qaeda

Yaroslav Trofimov
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November 22, 2007
Nothing -- not even the rise of Osama bin Laden -- shook the foundations of Saudi Arabia as the siege of Mecca 28 years ago.

On November 20, 1979, scores of armed militants -- some say, numbering in their hundreds -- took over the holiest of mosques, the Grand Mosque, in Mecca. Their objective -- to force the Saudi royalty, who they hated, out of power and install an Islamist government in Riyadh.

In a startling new book, The Siege of Mecca, The Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov has penetrated the veil of secrecy the Saudi authorities has cast over the horrifying episode all these years and revealed how that militant operation came to inspire Al Qaeda [Images] and bin Laden, who founded his International Islamic Front, as a reaction to the Saudi monarchy's decision to invite the American military into the kingdom before the first Gulf War.

Trofimov, who now covers Asia for the Journal and most recently wrote about India's Dalit Christians and Wipro [Get Quote] Chairman Azim Premji [Images] for the newspaper, has also written the award-winning Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu. In this e-mail interview with Nikhil Lakshman, he discussed The Siege of Mecca and its impact on contemporary, militant Islam.

How did you come to write The Siege of Mecca? What fascinated you about the events 28 years ago that led you to such a complex reportorial enterprise since few people really know what happened in the Holy Mosque during the siege?

Every time I went to Saudi Arabia as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in recent years, people would keep referring to the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque as the turning point in Saudi history -- the moment when the tepid modernisation that had been occurring in the kingdom up until that time was reversed, and the intolerant, radical ideology that later produced Al Qaeda began to take hold.

The Mecca events themselves, as you note, had been shrouded in secrecy, and the topic still remains taboo in Saudi Arabia. In short, people kept telling me this was a hugely important event -- and yet few could tell me what had happened exactly. I was puzzled and intrigued, and decided to investigate.

The Saudi authorities have never spoken about the siege before and are known to have muzzled anyone acquainted with those events. Why are they now willing to let people involved in the operation speak to someone like you? Surely, they must have a motive in letting the story be known to a wider audience. What could the motive be?

The Saudi authorities did not know what I was up to, at least not initially. On my first research trip for the book, I came to the kingdom ostensibly in order to participate in an economic conference in Jeddah.

When I returned with a researcher's visa, I only indicated that I am researching late 1970s Saudi history -- without mentioning specifically the drama in Mecca. I received virtually no help in my research from official Saudi channels -- I had to track down most of my sources myself, using contacts developed in the kingdom over the years as a foreign correspondent.

A great many of these sources are still terrified of speaking out, and refused to see me. I did, however, manage to speak with a large number of the more courageous ones, including former terrorists and former soldiers involved in the siege.

It is only at the very end, literally days before the publisher's deadline for submitting the manuscript, that I secured a lengthy interview with Prince Turki, the former head of Saudi intelligence and at that time the Saudi ambassador in Washington. He was helpful in filling some of the blanks -- but I suspect that he agreed to see me only because he knew that I already had almost all the information that I needed.

Why do you believe there is a co-relation between the events of 1979 and the genesis of Al Qaeda?

The Mecca uprising of 1979 was the very first operation of global jihad in modern times, uniting radicals from all over the world -- Saudis, Egyptians, Pakistanis, even American converts to Islam. This organisation served as a model to Al Qaeda in the future, and some of the surviving rebels actually went to Afghanistan and later joined Al Qaeda.

But this is not the only connection. In order to storm the Grand Mosque in 1979, the Saudi government needed a fatwa from the leading Islamic clerics, the Wahhabi ulema. The clerics obliged -- on the condition that the kingdom become much more rigid in enforcing the Wahhabi brand of Islam.

As part of this grand bargain, millions of dollars in Saudi petrodollars started to flow all over the world to fund the clerics' effort to spread Wahhabi Islam -- creating the Islamic madrassas, charities and welfare groups that would breed the new generation of Al Qaeda recruits.

Was Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia when the siege occurred? Have you located any information about what his role was during that period? Was he a bystander? Was he a participant? Would you know if the siege provoked anger in him that led him to travel to Afghanistan a few months later?

The Bin Laden family was deeply involved in this affair. Much of the Grand Mosque itself has been built by the Bin Laden construction company -- and the rebels smuggled their weapons into the mosque's underground via an access drive used by the Bin Laden company, with the connivance of Bin Laden employees.

Young Osama was shocked by the government's use of massive military force against the rebels, and by the subsequent damage to the shrine -- he later complained that Prince Fahd, then Saudi Arabia's day-to-day ruler, had "defiled" Islam's holy of holies.

In a way, the Mecca events marked the moment when Osama Bin Laden's allegiance to the House of Saud started to fracture.

Has the siege constituted the greatest threat to the Saudi monarchy so far? What would have happened had the Saudi authorities been unable to end the siege? Would any damage to the Holy Mosque have led the restive masses to rise against the monarchy?

This was indeed the gravest crisis faced by the House of Saud. After all, a Saudi king's legitimacy and prestige rest on the fact that he is the custodian of the two holy shrines, in Mecca and Medina. And here, the holiest of the two was lost to a ragtag band of rebels for two long weeks.

The royal family was lucky that all this happened in the age before CNN, Al Jazeera, cellphones and the Internet. It managed to control the flow of information, and suppress the rebels' message. Events would have turned out very differently today.

For those who have not read your book, would you like to briefly describe the personalities and events involved in the siege?

I don't want to give away the suspense of the book, which is written like a thriller, but here's the opening setup: Islam's holiest shrine, packed with 100,000 worshippers, is taken over by several hundred gunmen who chain shut all gates, turn minaret tops into sniper nests, and proclaim the beginning of an apocalyptical clash of civilisations...

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It must have been a troubling decision for the Saudi government to summon French commandos to end the siege since non Muslims are not permitted inside Mecca. How did that decision come about? How did the French commandos end the siege? Were they ever rewarded by the Saudi government? Or did their nation benefit at Saudi hands?

The French, as far as I was able to ascertain, did not actually go into Mecca -- they provided gas and other equipment, and trained the Saudi strike force at a facility in Taef, not far from the holy city. The actual commandos received Rolex watches in gratitude -- and their country was rewarded with large weapons purchase contracts.

Do the soldiers of Al Qaeda take inspiration from the siege of Mecca? Have you come across any material related to the siege in any Al Qaeda manuals? If so, what do those accounts say?

The Mecca events feature prominently in Al Qaeda's literature, especially in a book called The Infidel Nature of the Saudi State, a piece of required reading for many jihadis. The book was written by a Palestinian radical named Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi -- who was personally acquainted with many of Mecca's rebels. Maqdisi, of course, is better known as the former cellmate and tutor of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Did the Saudi monarchy learn any lessons from the siege of Mecca? Or did life go on as usual for the royals after the siege ended? Does it still give the monarchy nightmares?

The main lesson the Saudi royal family drew from this crisis was that it had to appease the radical Islamist clergy. It seemed like a wise policy for years -- except that it ended up boomeranging with the September 11 attacks and the subsequent rise of Islamist terrorism within the kingdom.

Could such a siege occur again in Mecca, given the volume of pilgrims during the Haj? Or is it more likely that the terrorists will target the country's oil installations?

The Grand Mosque is much better guarded now than in 1979 -- when it was protected by a small contingent of police armed only with sticks. It would be much more difficult to take over the shrine today.

The radical Islamist literature, including Maqdisi's book, also seems to be unanimous on the fact that fighting the House of Saud inside the shrine was a mistake. Western symbols like embassies and housing compounds, oil installations and maybe even royal palaces seem to be the preferred terrorist targets nowadays.

During your reportage for your book did you discover that Saudi youth were familiar with the events of 1979? Is there curiosity at what occurred? Does resentment at the Saudi monarchy still run high? Do you think it could one day reach such proportions that the Saudi monarchy could be overthrown and be replaced by a more Islamist authority?

Young Saudis know very little about what happened in 1979, and are extremely curious. A lot of young people were eager to work with me just because they wanted to find out for themselves what had happened.

As for the future of the House of Saud -- its downfall has been predicted repeatedly since the 1950s. So far, it has proven to be extremely resilient. I wouldn't underestimate the royal family's survival instincts.

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