1979: Remembering 'The Siege Of Mecca'

Yaroslav Trofimov, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, talks about the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is the holiest site in Islam, and gunmen held it for two weeks. It was one of the events that gave rise to al-Qaida, and Yaroslav wrote about it in his book The Siege of Mecca.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Thirty years ago, hundreds of Islamic extremists walked into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They slipped weapons into the holiest site in Islam, and they started one of the events of 1979 that still affects the Muslim world today.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We've been discussing some of those events this week: Iran's revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the hanging of a Pakistani leader. The 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca was less well known and less understood, but no less significant.

It was a blow to the Saudi monarchy and an influence on the thinking of a young man named Osama bin Laden. Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov wrote a book about a tragedy that began as a day of celebration.

Mr. YAROSLAV TROFIMOV (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): About 100,000 people appeared in the Grand Mosque of Mecca for the dawn prayer. What they didn't know was that all of them would become hostages within minutes of the prayer beginning. A group of jihadis, several hundred jihadis, from Saudi Arabia, from Egypt, but also some Americans and Canadians - converts to Islam - had entered the mosque with weapons, overpowered the guards, shut down the gates and proclaimed the arrival of the savior, the Mahdi, that would cleanse the Muslim world from its impurities brought in by the Westerners.

It would lead to a global battle against Christianity and Islam.

INSKEEP: When you say 100,000 people taken hostage in one place, I'm trying to think of the American equivalent. It would be like somebody seized control of the Rose Bowl.

Mr. TROFIMOV: Exactly. It's an enormous space, which is surrounded by a colonnade and a wall. And so there was just physically no way out. It looked like a stadium, in a way. And so the parallel of the Rose Bowl is very accurate.

INSKEEP: So, what happened then?

Mr. TROFIMOV: Well, the Saudi army took a while to realize what's going on. The problem was that the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque is a place so sacred to Muslims everywhere in the world, that it's forbidden to bear arms there. It's forbidden, according to the Muslim Hadith, the Muslim tradition. They didn't kill a bird there.

So, the Saudi military really was - the soldiers were really reluctant to even point the weapons towards troubles unless there was an authorization, a fatwa, from the leading Muslim clerics. And it took a while for the Saudi royal family to secure that.

INSKEEP: How had the gunmen gotten their weapons in there?

Mr. TROFIMOV: Some of them smuggled them in coffins, because it's a practice to bring in your dead relatives to receive a blessing in the Grand Mosque before the burial. Others were able to bribe the guards of the mosque and to drive a few pickup trucks into the basement of the mosque, taking advantage of the fact that there was construction work there at the time, carried out by no one else by the bin Laden construction company, which built…

INSKEEP: Excuse me, did you say the bin Laden construction company?

Mr. TROFIMOV: Absolutely. The construction company of Osama bin Laden's father. And, in fact, when the Saudi government had to storm the compound later, they had to rely on the blueprints and the maps provided by the bin Laden family.

INSKEEP: You said they stormed the compound. How did this end?

Mr. TROFIMOV: It took about two weeks for the Saudi Interior Ministry and special forces and the regular army and the national guard to seize both the above-ground structures of the Grand Mosque and the labyrinth that is underneath. There were about a thousand rooms connected with corridors in the basement, called the kabu(ph).

And there were hundreds, maybe more than a thousand casualties. A large part of the structure was severely damaged. Saudi government had to use tanks, artillery. At the very end, they had to bring in the help of the French special forces. And the French special forces brought this poison gas that was pumped in the basement of the Grand Mosque, flushing out the last rebels.

INSKEEP: You know, I want to mention: I wasn't very old at all then in 1979, but I remember some of the events we've been talking about. I remember the invasion of Afghanistan. I remember the Iranian Revolution. Why do you suppose it would be that I, as an ordinary American, don't have very much memory - any memory, really, at all - of this dramatic seizure of 100,000 hostages at a pilgrimage site that affects Muslims around the world?

Mr. TROFIMOV: Well, first of all, this was the age before Al-Jazeera, before cable television, before satellite films, and non-Muslims are forbidden from even visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. So the outside world didn't really know what was going on for well over a day after this started.

Saudi Arabia instantly cut international phone communications, closed the borders. And the first news of something going wrong in Mecca came out in a press statement at the State Department in Washington, infuriating the Saudis who had hoped that the blackout of this news would last long enough for them to take control of the mosque again.

Now, at the time, nobody knew about the existence of this Sunni jihadi fundamentalist ideology that later evolved into what is known today as al-Qaida. In fact, the assumption in Washington at the time was that the Shiites, the Iranian Shiites, had taken over the mosque and is also part of the Iranian revolutionary expansion to the rest of the Muslim world.

The State Department pointed the finger at Ayatollah Khomeini. What happened, of course, is that Ayatollah Khomeini, within hours, went on the radio saying, no, it's the Americans and the Jews, the hated Zionists who have taken over the holiest of holies of Islam. And he was believed by millions of Muslims across the Middle East.

In Pakistan, within hours, a vast crowd assembled in front of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, stormed it, burned it down, killing a number of Americans and Pakistani personnel at the embassy. Demonstrations were held throughout the Muslim world, many of them violent.

INSKEEP: After your exhaustive investigation of this, you concluded the real culprits were Sunni Muslim fundamentalists. And can you draw a fairly straight line from those Sunni Muslim fundamentalists to the Sunni Muslim fundamentalists who form the leadership of al-Qaida today?

Mr. TROFIMOV: There is a very direct connection. First of all, this was the first time that the two components of al-Qaida today - the Wahabi zealots from Saudi Arabia and the jihadi extremists, the outgrowth of the Islam Brotherhood in Egypt - have come together. Just as today's al-Qaida is lead by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, a veteran of the jihadist groups there, so was this movement in Mecca. The senior leaders there were Egyptians.

And, of course, Osama bin Laden himself was shocked by what happened there.

INSKEEP: At this point, Osama bin Laden would've been a very rich young man, unknown to the world.

Mr. TROFIMOV: Exactly. He was just leaving college at the time. And he later remembered these times. And when he was reminiscing about this time, he said that he was shocked to see the tanks rolling into the holiest shrines of Islam, and he had thought that the Saudi government was behaving criminally by this by desecrating the shrine instead of just starving out the rebels.

And for him, this was the moment when his loyalty to the Saudi regime, which has done so much for his father and his family, began to crumble.

INSKEEP: Yaroslav Trofimov is the author of "The Siege of Mecca," and he's helping us understand one of the events from 1979 - 30 years ago - that still reverberate for us today. Thanks very much.

Mr. TROFIMOV: Great to be on the show. Thank you.

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