Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Siege of 1979

When we’re in times like these—when killers appear on our streets and in schools and public places, and mow people down in the name of their god—it seems a matter of self-defense to understand them. I’m not talking about the sympathetic kind of understanding, the assumption that they must have had a good reason. There is no good reason for mass murdering innocent people. Least of all simply because they adhere to a different (or no) religion.

But there are enough of these radical Islamists in the world—including in our own country—that it can’t be a matter of mental illness, at least in the traditional meaning of that. It is a world view, including motivations and logic structure that leads to where they think this is a good, even moral, act, and if they die in the process all the better.

So, if we can understand what it is they’re thinking, we might be better able to thwart. And ultimately to stamp out.

In my effort to understand, one of the books I’ve started with is The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright[i]. Eventually (after the holidays) I’m hoping to finish typing up my notes, and then maybe do a series of posts about what I’ve learned.
The Grand Mosque in Mecca during Hajj
page 4 of photos in The Looming Tower

But following the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks, I thought I would go ahead and retell an event from 1979.

The siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca began November 20, 1979. It was the final day of hajj, the annual gathering in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Wright tells us this:

That morning at dawn, the aged imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, had been preparing to lead the prayers of fifty thousand Muslims gathered for the final day of hajj. As he approached the microphone, he was shoved aside, and a burst of gunfire echoed in the hold sanctuary. A ragged band of insurgents standing among the worshippers suddenly pulled rifles from under their robes. They chained the gates closed, trapping the pilgrims inside, and killed several policemen. “Your attention, O Muslims!” a rough-looking man with an untrimmed beard cried. “Allahu akhbar!”—God is great—“The Mahdi has appeared!”
“The Mahdi! The Mahdi!” the armed men cried.
It was New Year’s Day of the Islam year 1400—the bloody inauguration of a turbulent new century. In some of the disputed oral traditions of Islam, the Mahdi (“the one who guides”) will appear shortly before the end of time. The concept of the Mahdi is a controversial one, especially in Wahhabi Islam, since this messiah is not mentioned in the Quran. Tradition says that the Mahdi will be a descendant of the Prophet and will carry his name (Mohammed bin Abdullah), and that he will appear during the hajj. Eventually, Jesus will return and ask his people to adhere to Islam. Together, Jesus and the Mahdi will fight the Antichrist and restore justice and peace to the earth.
The man claiming to be the Mahdi was Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, but the real leader of the revolt was Juhayman al-Oteibi, a fundamentalist preacher and former corporal in the National Guard. The two men had been imprisoned together for sedition, and it was during that time, Oteibi claimed, that God had revealed to him in a dream that Qahtani was the Mahdi (p.88).
Saudi Arabia was not an old country. Tribes had been united under a king for only a few decades. The ruling family was, in some ways, all powerful. But they had a tenuous relationship with the clergy, which also wielded great power.

The insurgents’ goal was purportedly to overthrow the kingdom—to institute a theocracy in anticipation of the imminent apocalypse. The insurgents were known; they preached in mosques. Osama bin Laden would have heard them. While they were speaking openly against the government, in a country that was strictly controlled, “there was an ingrained reluctance on the part of the government to confront religious extremists” (p. 89).

So here was the Saudi government, along with the ulema (the clergy), faced with extremists in the Grand Mosque, where violence in any form is forbidden. Innocent people were being held hostage. Wright continues:

The king would face revolt from his own men if he ordered them to open fire within the sanctuary. On the other hand, if the ulema refused to issue a fatwa endorsing the government’s right to reclaim the mosque, they could be seen as siding with the rebels….
The leader of the ulema [the clergy] was Abdul Aziz bin Baz, blind, seventy years old, an eminent religious scholar but a man who was suspicious of science and hostile to modernity. He claimed that the sun rotated around the earth and that the manned landing on the moon had never occurred. Now bin Baz found himself in an awkward and compromised position: Oteibi had been his student in Medina. Whatever bargain was struck during the meeting between the ulema and King Khaled, the government emerged with a fatwa authorizing the use of lethal force. With this decree, Prince Sultan ordered an artillery barrage followed by frontal assaults on three of the main gates. They never got close to breaching the rebel defenses (p.90)

There were as many as five hundred insurgents inside the mosque. These included Saudis, Yemenis, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, and even some American Black Muslims. They had smuggled in stolen automatic weapons. Then they made use of the mosque’s hundreds of underground tunnels and chambers. They had snipers pick off any Saudi forces that came within view.

Turki, a member of the royal family whose government job was over intelligence, found himself put in charge of solving the threat. Among those he turned to was the Bin Laden family, whose construction company was working on the 20-year mosque renovation project. They had maps, utility layouts, and technical information.

Juhayman al-Oteibi, siege instigator
photo page 4 in The Looming Tower
Turki wanted to minimize casualties and damage to the Grand Mosque. While he puzzled that, Oteibi and minions controlled the public address system, and piped their message throughout the city. Among Oteibi’s demands were “adoption of Islamic, non-Western values and the rupture of diplomatic relations with Western countries, thus rolling back the changes that had opened the society to modernity.” They wanted the royal family thrown out of power, and royal money returned to the people. They also denounced the ulema, which had approved of the king’s rule. (pp. 91-92).

Turki’s grand plan turned out to be flooding the underground chambers, then using high-voltage lines to electrocute everyone inside. The problem was, there was no way to separate the perpetrators from the hostages. Plus, as Turki figured out, “You would need the entire Red Sea to fill it.” So that plan went nowhere.

The CIA was in Saudi Arabia, training Saudi Army Special Forces, not far away. But he didn’t turn to them. Instead Turki enlisted help from the French secret service. Count Claude Alexandre de Marenches came up with a plan to use gas. Turki insisted it be nonlethal.

But, Mecca is a holy city; non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. So that was a problem. They solved it by holding a brief ceremony “converting” the French forces to Islam. Then they went ahead with the gas plan. But it failed, probably because of the vastness of the caverns and too many directions gas could leak. Finally, full violence had to be used.

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 (p. 93).

The numbers were significant for a conflict within the “religion of peace”: 127 Saudi government forces killed, 461 injured. About 12 hostages were killed, and 117 rebels. “Unofficial accounts, however, put the number of dead at more than 4,000” (p. 94).

So, was there a Mahdi? Not as advertised.

[Oteibi’s] defiance had faded once the tragedy concluded. Turki went to see him in the hospital, where his wounds were being attended. Oteibi jumped off the bed, grabbed the prince’s hand, and kissed it. “Please ask King Khaled to forgive me!” he cried. “I promised not to do it again!” (pp. 93-94).

Right. The Saudi government executed him and 62 other insurgents by beheading on January 9, 1980, just a month after the siege ended.

What can we learn from this?

The civilized Muslim communities of the world are as plagued by radical Islam as the rest of us are. There is something truly evil about a group of fanatics who feel authorized to declare anyone who disagrees with them to be infidels subject to capital punishment, including those with more moderate views within their same religion. This plague may be cloaked in robes of piety, but it is not religious in the moral sense; it is power-seeking. It is tyrannical. It attempts to rule by force—just like any other political tyranny. And it submits in cowardice to superior force from those who refuse to tolerate it or surrender to it.

There are some incidental details that might be worth adding. During the first few days of the siege, Osama bin Laden and his brother Mahrous were arrested and investigated.

They were driving home from Al-Barood, the family farm off the road from Jeddah to Mecca. Authorities spotted the dust trail of their car coming out of the desert and thought they were fleeing rebels. At the time of their arrest, the brothers professed to be unaware that the siege had taken place. They stayed in custody for a day or two, but their social prominence protected them. Osama remained secluded in his house for a week. He had been opposed to Oteibi and the extreme Salafists who surrounded him. Five years later, however, he would tell a fellow mujahideen in Peshawar that Oteibi and his followers were true Muslims who were innocent of any crime.

Osama may have always been beyond the mainstream, reaching toward radical Islam. But he didn’t start out violent. From early on he was angry at the existence of Israel and decried injustice toward the Palestinians. And he decried having American military accepted on Saudi soil. But he was content to simply speak his dissatisfaction—until the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a country his friend Jamal Khalifa claimed bin Laden had never heard of up until that point. The invasion happened during the month between the siege and the execution.

Another day we can discuss the influences that led him to turn violent, since that might help us predict that turn in others. We need to be able to accurately identify them, because violent radical Islam anywhere in the world is a savage plague against all civilization.

[i] I wrote briefly about this book, about a man named Qutb, an early influence in radical Islam, in my response to the Paris attack, November 16, 2015.

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