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The seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 is a seminal event in the evolution of Islamist terrorism. Yet the seizure is mostly a footnote in contemporary history. It shouldn't be.
The Grand Mosque in Mecca is a massive, 7-acre compound that can accommodate some 1 million worshippers at any one time, especially during the annual hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca centered on circling the sacred Kaaba in the heart of the Grand Mosque.
The marble mosque in its current shape is the result of a 20-year, $18 billion renovation project began in 1953 by the House of Saud, the ruling monarchy in Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the guardian and custodian of the Arab Peninsula's holiest sites, the Grand Mosque topmost among them. The monarchy's contractor of choice was the Saudi Bin Laden Group, led by the man who in 1957, became the father of Osama bin Laden. The Grand Mosque, however, first came to wide Western attention on November 20, 1979.
Coffins as Weapons Cache: Seizure of the Grand Mosque
At 5 that morning, the final day of the hajj, Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, imam of the Grand Mosque, was preparing to address 50,000 worshipers through a microphone inside the mosque. Among the worshipers, what looked like mourners bearing coffins on their shoulders and wearing headbands made their way through the crowd. It wasn't an unusual sight. Mourners often brought their dead for a blessing at the mosque. But they had no mourning in mind.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil was shoved aside by men who took machine guns from beneath their robes, fired them in the air and at a few policemen nearby, and yelled to the crowd that “The Mahdi has appeared!” Mahdi is the Arabic word for messiah. The "mourners" set their coffins down, opened them up, and produced an arsenal of weaponry that they then brandished and fired at the crowd. That was only part of their arsenal.
An Attempted Overthrow by a Would-Be Messiah
The attack was led by Juhayman al-Oteibi, a fundamentalist preacher and former member of the Saudi National Guard, and Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, who claimed to be the Mahdi. The two men openly called for a revolt against the Saudi monarchy, accusing it of having betrayed Islamic principles and sold out to western countries. The militants, who numbered close to 500, were well armed, their weapons, in addition to their coffin arsenal, having been stashed gradually in the days and weeks before the assault in small chambers beneath the Mosque. They were prepared to lay siege to the mosque for a long time.
The siege lasted two weeks, though it did not end before a bloodbath in underground chambers where militants had retreated with hundreds of hostages--and bloody repercussions in Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, a mob of Islamist students enraged by a false report that the United States was behind the mosque seizure, attacked the American embassy in Islamabad and killed two Americans. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini called the attack and the murders a "great joy," and also blamed the seizure on the United States and Israel.
In Mecca, Saudi authorities considered attacking the hold-outs without regard for the hostages. Instead, Prince Turki, the youngest son of King Faisal and the man in charge of reclaiming the Grand Mosque, summoned a French secret service officer, Count Claude Alexandre de Marenches, who recommended that the hold-outs be gassed unconscious.
As Lawrence Wright describes it in "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11",
A team of three French commandos from the Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) arrived in Mecca. Because of the prohibition against non-Muslims entering the holy city, they converted to Islam in a brief, formal ceremony. The commandos pumped gas into the underground chambers, but perhaps because the rooms were so bafflingly interconnected, the gas failed and the resistance continued.
With casualties climbing, Saudi forces drilled holes into the courtyard and dropped grenades into the rooms below, indiscriminately killing many hostages but driving the remaining rebels into more open areas where they could be picked off by sharpshooters. More than two weeks after the assault began, the surviving rebels finally surrendered.
At dawn on Jan. 9, 1980, in the public squares of eight Saudi cities, including Mecca, 63 Grand Mosque militants were beheaded by sword on orders of the king. Among the condemned, 41 are Saudi, 10 from Egypt, 7 from Yemen (6 of them from what was then South Yemen), 3 from Kuwait, 1 from Iraq and 1 from the Sudan. Saudi authorities report that 117 militants died as a result of the siege, 87 during the fighting, 27 in hospitals. Authorities also noted that 19 militants received death sentences that were later commuted to life in prison. Saudi security forces suffered 127 deaths and 451 wounded.
Were the bin Ladens Involved?
This much is known: Osama bin Laden would have been 22 at the time of the attack. He would have likely heard Juhayman al-Oteibi preach. The Bin Laden Group was still heavily involved in the renovation of the Grand Mosque: the company's engineers and workers had open access to the mosque's grounds, Bin Laden trucks were inside the compound frequently, and bin Laden workers were familiar with the compound's every recess: they built some of them.
It would be a stretch, however, to assume that because the bin Ladens were involved in construction, they were also involved in the attack. What's also known is that the company shared all maps and layouts they had of the mosque with authorities to facilitate the Saudi Special Forces' counter-attack. It would not have been in the bin Laden Group's interest, enriched as it had become almost exclusively through Saudi government contracts, to aid the regime's opponents.
Just as certainly, what Juhayman al-Oteibi and the “Mahdi” were preaching, advocating and rebelling against is almost word for word, eye for an eye, what Osama bin Laden would preach and advocate subsequently. The Grand Mosque takeover was not an al-Qaeda operation by any means. But it would become an inspiration, and a stepping stone, to al-Qaeda less than a decade and a half later.