Forty years ago in November, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was stormed by Islamic militants. While the events of that two-week siege are still shrouded in mystery — contradictory versions abound — the attack changed Saudi Arabia, and much of the Middle East, forever, in ways that continue to affect the world today.
What is known is that the attack was carried out by Juhayman Al-Otaibi, who did not like the modernising ways of the royal Al Saud family, that it led to violence and bloodshed at that holy site of Islam, and it made the Saudi state veer sharply close towards hardline Islam.
What is less clear is how many people died — figures vary from the official 250 to the estimated 1,000 — and to what extent did Saudi Arabia take foreign help to flush out the militants.
What happened on November 20, 1979
It was Muharram 1, 1400, according to the Islamic calendar. Around 5:30 am, pilgrims, were offering prayers at the Holy Mosque of Mecca, when there was the sound of bullets, and the mosque’s microphones announced the arrival of the Mahdi — the redeemer who is to appear on Earth some years before Judgement Day.
The microphones had been taken over by Al-Otaibi and his followers. The ”redeemer” was Muhammad al Qahtani, his brother-in-law. What followed was the taking of around 100,000 pilgrims hostage, a siege that lasted 15 days, bloodshed, deaths, and the Saudi government forces finally taking back the mosque.
This was the time when Saudi Arabia, flush with petrodollars, was hobnobbing with the western world. Women were in the workforce, TV had come to the kingdom years ago, non-Muslims were working and earning here. A section of the Saudi population did not like what they believed was this straying from the “pure” path of Islam.
In neighbouring Iran, a theocratic government — even more significantly, a Shiite theocratic government — had recently taken over.
Al-Otaibi came from a prominent family and had been a corporal in the Saudi army. He was convinced the Saudi royal family had become too corrupt, to steeped in worldly luxuries to serve as custodians of Islam’s holiest site. To Al-Otaibi, the only way to bring the country back to the righteous Islamic path was the overthrow of the Al Sauds.
When his band of militants stormed the Holy Mosque, the state was caught unprepared. Communication lines with the outer world were quickly cut-off. Bloodshed at the mosque would be desecration of the highest order, something military personnel were unwilling to do. A meeting was called with Ulemas, and their sanction for the counter-attack sought.
Even then, flushing the militants holed up inside proved challenging.
Many of Al-Otaibi’s followers were trained soldiers. Some of their arms and ammunition was smuggled inside the mosque on the day of the attack in coffins — people often take their dead inside for blessings. But for weeks before that, according to some reports, they had bribed guards and construction workers at the site to take arms inside. They knew the layout of the mosque, which has several underground chambers.
To the Saudi state, blue-prints of the mosque were provided by the Bin Laden company, which had carried out construction work inside. Commandos from a French elite counterterrorism force, the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), were roped in. The mosque’s compound was gassed, and after two weeks, the premises finally taken back.
Initially, the attack was believed to have been carried out by Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini strongly denied the accusations, claiming America and Israel were behind the attack. This led to the US embassy in Pakistan being burnt down, killing four people.
The fact that Saudi Arabia shut itself off the moment the siege began, and that news media, or even non-Muslims, had little access to the kingdom, ensured many details of the attack were unclear then, and are unclear now.
After the dust had settled, two things were clear — Saudia Arabia was on the path to hardline Islamism, and its rivalry with Iran, as another religious state, had deepened.
The Saudi royal family realised the only way to cement its authority was to position itself as the foremost protector of the faith. The rulers since then have co-opted Ulemas into governance, social reforms have been rolled back, and the Islamic moral police holds great sway over life in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has pumped millions of dollars in exporting a hardline brand of Islam to countries outside.
Recently, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been saying the country will return to its more moderate past, moving away from the extremism that took root post-1979.
However, the mixing of religious authority and state authority, the extremist brand of “political Islam”, and the spread of the Wahabi ideology that Saudi Arabia facilitated in the past 40 years continue to affect much of the world.