JACKI LYDEN, host:
On the 20th of November 1979, gunfire crackled as shadowy figures seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The annual Hajj had ended but the mosque was still packed with tens of thousand of pilgrims. The interlopers took over the structure in the center of the mosque, the Kaaba, the holiest place in all Islam.
The militants declared Saudi Arabia's ruling family to be illegitimate and proclaimed one of their own, the Muslim messiah. It took two weeks and the help of French commandos for Saudi authorities to put down the rebellion.
The incident received limited media attention at the time, but a new book argues that the renegades in Mecca were instrumental in shaping the political and religious landscape of the Middle East.
The book is called "The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaida." The author is Yaroslav Trofimov, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and he joins me now.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. YAROSLAV TROFIMOV (Reporter, The Wall Street Journal; Author, "The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaida"): Great to be in the show.
LYDEN: Who was the leader of this rebel band, Juhayman al-Otaibi, the leader of the attack?
Mr. TROFIMOV: He was a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard and a Bedouin from a family that has a long history of controversy with the Saudi royal family. His father had fought among the Bedouin rebels against the Al Saud in the 1930s.
So - but apart from him, the group that he led involved people from all over the world. This was really the first global jihadi movement. There were Egyptians among them, there were Sudanese, there were Iraqis and there were even American converts among the gunmen who stormed into the mosque that morning.
LYDEN: So how had Juhayman indoctrinated these people? You write that he was very charismatic, he was preaching - what the Saudi clerics would call heresy, almost. What was he saying?
Mr. TROFIMOV: Well, he was really campaigning at - for the restoration of pure Islam. He opposed things like the presence of Westerners in the country. The fact that portraits of the kings had been allowed even though, in his vision, Islam forbids any graven images. And so they tried to modulate behavior on the way they thought Prophet Muhammad himself had behaved 14 centuries earlier.
LYDEN: They had long hair, they wore shortened white robes, they had a kind of messianic ideal of themselves.
Mr. TROFIMOV: Absolutely. They believe that one of them, a young student in Islamic University in Riyadh, who was also well known as a poet for his religious verses was the Mahdi - the messiah who would bring the end of the days, and who would really start this apocalyptic clash with the enemies of Islam.
Interestingly, hundreds of supporters of Juhayman had these very vivid dreams at the same time seeing the young man, his name was Mohammad Abdullah, which is the same name as the name of the Prophet Muhammad. So seeing this young man by the Kaaba beginning an inglorious age.
LYDEN: Take us into the first hours of the siege. How did it unfold? How did they do it?
Mr. TROFIMOV: The young man arrived into the mosque during the night and a day or two before the attack actually began, they brought the weapons with them, some in coffins. Some of them were taking through an opening that the bin Laden company maintained in the basement of the mosque because the bin Laden company was restoring the mosque.
LYDEN: This is the father, of course, of Osama bin Laden.
Mr. TROFIMOV: Yes, this was a company that was founded by the father of Osama bin Laden. And at the time, the father had died, so it was ran by his brother. And once the dawn prayers began on this first dawn of the new century…
LYDEN: The new Muslim century - 28th of November, our time.
Mr. TROFIMOV: Yes. It was the new Muslim century. The, you know, the first day of the 15th-century Islam - 1979. And so the gunmen rushed towards the center of the enclosure. Juhayman pushed away the imam. And they started firing in the air and quickly locks all the exits from this enormous stadium-like enclosure. And the gunmen then ran up to the stairs to the minarets, which became sniper nests from which they could control the entire center of Mecca. And they proclaimed this messiah, Mahdi Mohammed Abdullah as - and demanded that everybody else in the mosque destroy their Saudi IDs and pledge allegiance to this new ruler of the world's Muslims.
LYDEN: Well, a great humiliation to the Saudi.
Mr. TROFIMOV: It's a huge embarrassment because the very legitimacy of Al Saud, as rulers of Saudi Arabia, is that they take custody of the holy site, the official title of the ruler is custodian of the two holy shrines in Mecca and Medina. So having lost the holiest shrine to the band of rebels was the ultimate embarrassment, and they tried very hard to keep it a secret.
LYDEN: Take us back to 1979. The Islamic Revolution has occurred in Iran. The American embassy has been held hostage and the diplomats taken prisoner. And then a few weeks later, there's an uprising in the heart of Mecca in the Grand Mosque, the holy shrine. Were the two events, in any way, related?
Mr. TROFIMOV: They were not at all. The Juhayman's gunmen and his followers believe that the Shiites are infidels. Therefore, they had very little regards for Khomeini's revolution in Iran. But, of course, that's not the way it was seen in Washington. And American policymakers initially assumed that the Iranians must have done that. And this led to the distortion of who's actually began the uprising because once the Americans accused the Iranians, the Iranians pointed back at the U.S.
Ayatollah Khomeini's office said, no, no, no, it's a Zionist and American conspiracy. And this led to bloodshed in the streets of the Muslim world. In following days, the American embassy in Islamabad was attacked by a mob. Americans were killed. And other embassies were set on fire in other areas.
LYDEN: You called this the birth of al-Qaida. How is this siege, and what happened in Mecca in 1979? Why is it important to us now?
Mr. TROFIMOV: There are really two ways in which it led to al-Qaida. One was the fact that young Osama bin Laden was extremely influenced by the siege. He would later say that this was one of the moments where his allegiance with the House of Saud was shattered. He sympathized with the rebels.
LYDEN: And Juhayman?
Mr. TROFIMOV: And Juhayman. And he was extremely upset with the way the shrine had been damaged by the Saudi government forces. On the other hand, the way the Saudi government reacted to this really led to this growth of the Wahhabi-intolerant ideology around the world because once the siege started, the Saudi government needed the agreement of the clerics for storming the mosque. And there was a big historical trade-off. The clerics allowed storming to happen. In exchange, the Saudi government promised to roll back all the modernization that was occurring up until that time in Saudi Arabia. They took the women off television. They started enforcing laws against alcohol. And they really started funding this missionary proselytizing effort by the Wahhabi clerics around the world, the effort that's really bred the new generation that would later become part of al-Qaida.
LYDEN: Do you think the way the Western powers reacted were so off that in many ways it would pave the way for the kind of ideological conflict we see today?
Mr. TROFIMOV: Absolutely. While the West blinked, I read the CIA assessment of the Mecca incidents called The Mecca Incident in Perspective. Their perspective was this was a one-off event and there is no threat of Islamic radicalism in the Arabian Peninsula. This is a throwback to the ancient past.
And just a few weeks after this uprising happened, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. And suddenly all the Islamic radicals became very valuable allies in fighting godless communists. So the Saudi government and the CIA started working together in channeling (unintelligible) towards Afghanistan, and young Osama bin Laden was one of the first to go.
LYDEN: Yaroslav Trofimov is the author of "The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaida."
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. TROFIMOV: Thank you.