The Siege of Mecca : Throughline On November 20th, 1979, a group of Islamic militants seized Islam's holiest site — the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. They took thousands of hostages and held the holy site for two weeks, shocking the Islamic world. This week, how one man led an uprising that would have repercussions around the world and inspire the future of Islamic extremism.

The Siege of Mecca

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The morning of November 20, 1979, would have seemed like any other in Mecca. It was warm. The sky was clear, and much of the city was preparing for Fajr prayer, the first of five for the day.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Praying in foreign language).


The season of Hajj had just ended, and pilgrims from around the world gathered in Islam's holiest site, the Masjid al-Haram or Grand Mosque, a massive compound surrounding the Kaaba, an ancient, black, cubic building that sits in the middle of a vast courtyard. Muslims call it the house of God, the earthly place they direct their prayers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Praying in foreign language).

ARABLOUEI: In the Islamic calendar, it was the first of Muharram in the year 1400, the first day of the new century, when the people of Mecca make their own pilgrimage to the shrine. Around 100,000 pilgrims filled the courtyard, lined up in concentric circles facing the Kaaba for Fajr prayer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Praying in foreign language).


ABDELFATAH: Just as the prayer ended...


ABDELFATAH: ...Shots rang out.



ABDELFATAH: This wasn't a sound any pilgrim expected to hear. Violence is strictly forbidden in Mecca. Before the pilgrims could figure out what was happening, a man followed by three gunmen emerged from the crowd and began walking fiercely towards the mosque's imam. The crowd parted as the man charged the minbar, or pulpit, and snatched the mic from the terrified imam.

ARABLOUEI: The man began to speak Arabic in a thick Bedouin accent. He was tall and thin with brown skin and long, wavy hair. His name was Juhayman al-Otaiba. The hundreds of armed men he commanded scattered across the grounds of the mosque, yelling orders at the pilgrims in Arabic, English and Urdu.

ABDELFATAH: Some of the men, snipers, climbed the seven minarets surrounding the main grounds and took up positions overlooking downtown Mecca. Juhayman instructed them.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: If you see a government soldier who wants to raise his hand against you, have no pity and shoot him because he wants to kill you. The Saudi police protecting the mosque were armed with little more than batons. Two guards were killed immediately. Many others ran for their lives.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Shouting in foreign language).

ARABLOUEI: Many of the pilgrims in the mosque began chanting Allahu Akbar, or God is the greatest - something Muslims often do in trying moments. Soon, the militants also joined in the chant, and the chaos reached a climax just as Juhayman announced that he and his men were now in control.

ABDELFATAH: And with that, it was clear. Islam's holiest site and 100,000 people had been taken hostage. The Siege of Mecca, an event that would forever change Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world, had begun.


NORAH O'DONNELL: What was Saudi Arabia like before 1979?

PRINCE MOHAMMAD BIN SALMAN: (Through interpreter) We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.


ABDELFATAH: Saudi Arabia is in the news constantly. It's a major player in the affairs of the Middle East and the U.S.'s closest ally in the region other than Israel. For decades, it's been one of the world's biggest exporters of oil. But that's not the only thing it's exported. Saudi Arabia's religious authorities have actively spread their interpretation of Islam - Wahhabism. Through these efforts, their ultra-conservative, literalist version of the faith has traveled around the world and inspired hatred and even violence.

ARABLOUEI: Saudi Arabia also has a poor human rights record, especially when it comes to women. Until recently, women could not vote, drive or travel without a male relative's permission.

ABDELFATAH: The country's de facto leader, Mohammad bin Salman, whose voice we just heard a moment ago, is a 34-year-old prince of the Saudi royal family who has tried to reverse some of these trends by loosening restrictions on women, social media and public mingling of the sexes.

ARABLOUEI: Bin Salman has often cited the year 1979 as a turning point for Saudi Arabia, when the country's clerics began to exert more power in the affairs of the nation.

ABDELFATAH: His interpretation of history and the sincerity of his efforts are up for debate. Under his rule, Saudi Arabia has targeted journalists, imprisoned dissidents and bombed civilians in a war against its neighbor, Yemen. But he's right about one thing. When Juhayman al-Otaiba and his band of militants took over the Grand Mosque in 1979, they inadvertently opened up an opportunity for Saudi clergy to grab power.

ARABLOUEI: So in this episode, we're going to take you back to the 15-day Siege of Mecca that changed Saudi Arabia and continues to shape the Muslim world.


JAMIE LEE LAUGHLIN: This is Jamie Lee Laughlin (ph), and I'm listening to THROUGHLINE, which is an awesome podcast show. Thank you. Bye.


ABDELFATAH: Every Muslim who can afford it is expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their life. While there, pilgrims will spend a lot of their time in the Grand Mosque, a massive facility that covers over 400,000 square feet. It's a sanctuary where violence, even in its smallest form, is forbidden. So as you can imagine, many of the pilgrims who were there in the mosque on the morning of November 20 realized just how serious this situation was.

JOSEPH KECHICHIAN: Most people were horrified by what had happened. Most people that were inside the mosque were besides themselves.

ABDELFATAH: This is Joe Kechichian.

KECHICHIAN: I'm a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

ABDELFATAH: And Joe says as the rebels delivered their manifesto, chaos erupted in the mosque. The militants had blocked all of the gates to prevent hostages from getting out. Once the chaos died down, there were tens of thousands of pilgrims trapped in the mosque, being controlled by hundreds of armed gunmen. Initially, there wasn't a major response from local authorities. It appeared as though the entire city was in shock.

But at this point, you might be asking, who is Juhayman? What motivated him? And how did he end up staging this attack? Before we answer any of that, we have to go over some basics about Saudi Arabia and get a sense for what was happening there in the years leading up to 1979.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: These are the treasure houses of an ancient desert kingdom, a land the size of Western Europe.

ABDELFATAH: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is named after the family of Al Saud. Starting in the 1800s, they tried to unite Bedouin tribes to take control of the peninsula. They captured and lost control of some parts of Arabia but never fully controlled it for long periods of time. But after generations of struggle, they were finally able to become rulers of Arabia in 1932, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. They established a country and named it after themselves. And by controlling Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, they became...

KECHICHIAN: (Speaking Arabic) in Arabic, which means the custodian of the two holy mosques.

ABDELFATAH: An incredible responsibility - but in order to achieve this position, the house of Al Saud enlisted the help of conservative Muslim fighters called the Ikhwan, or brothers. The Ikhwan were followers of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Wahhabis reject any attempts to modernize Islam and proselytize an often historically inaccurate puritanical view. Their religious fanaticism made them extremely effective soldiers for the Saudi army. The country that the Saudi family controlled was poor and extremely underdeveloped. Most people lived as they had for centuries. But in 1938, a major resource was discovered in Saudi Arabia - oil.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A land of two little water and too much oil - that would probably describe the dilemma of a country which is only just realizing its importance in the 20th century. Those treasure houses...

ABDELFATAH: By the late 1970s, oil revenues meant that...

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV: The kingdom was slowly but surely modernizing. It was developing. It was opening up to the outside world, which irked some of the most conservative elements in the kingdom.

ABDELFATAH: This is Yaroslav Trofimov.

TROFIMOV: I've been covering the Muslim world for nearly two decades for the Wall Street Journal.

ABDELFATAH: He's a longtime Middle East reporter who wrote the book "The Siege Of Mecca."

TROFIMOV: Things like television was still very controversial, and the attempts by the royal family to bring the country into a more modern age.

KECHICHIAN: Women went to the beach wearing swimsuits. They wore the abaya, but the abaya - it was not any posed item.

ABDELFATAH: But this apparent betrayal of Wahhabi principles wasn't the only thing that angered many conservatives. Economic progress in the country wasn't happening everywhere. In many small towns and villages, Bedouins didn't always have the same access to resources as their fellow city-dwelling citizens. So many of the Ikhwan, who fit in that second group, felt not only disgusted by the modernization in the country, but they also felt left behind by it.

KECHICHIAN: In a monarchy, obviously, there are always injustices. We're not talking about a democracy or a democratizing society, so there are always individuals that are left out of the system.

ABDELFATAH: And one young Bedouin, the son of an Ikhwan fighter, felt both of these slights. His name was Juhayman al-Otaiba.


KECHICHIAN: Juhayman Otaiba comes from one of the most prominent tribes of Saudi Arabia, the al-Otaiba (ph). And he was, at the beginning, destined to become a foot soldier in the national guard.

ABDELFATAH: Juhayman served in the national guard, Saudi Arabia's army, for many years. But eventually, he became more and more interested in studying Islam.

TROFIMOV: He started studying at the Islamic University of Madinah under Sheikh ibn Baz, who was a leading cleric and then would later become the Mufti of Saudi Arabia.

KECHICHIAN: He became enamored by the teachings of several prominent clerics.

TROFIMOV: He started getting the following that he had at the Islamic University in Medina.

KECHICHIAN: And started to proselytize, as much as possible, the potential changes that he wished to bring to the country.

TROFIMOV: Juhayman al-Otaiba opposed the presence of foreigners. The presence of, you know, Western embassies to him were anathema - and obviously, things like television, women on television.

KECHICHIAN: He rejected the establishment. He thought that there was an alternative and that there ought to be an alternative to the ruling family.

TROFIMOV: Juhayman really opposed any non-Muslim, non-Wahhabi penetration of Saudi Arabia. So he didn't like the fact that there were Western embassies. He decried the fact - you know, why is the flag of the cross, you know, flying over buildings in our country?

KECHICHIAN: And what he calls is for justice, he calls for the rule of law and that he himself is going to go ahead and put everything back in order. He's going to save Saudi Arabia from these bad rulers.

TROFIMOV: So he really wanted to sort of - to create a pure Islamic state, which is not all that different from what, for example, ISIS wanted to do in more modern times.

ABDELFATAH: Juhayman was a true believer. He lived an austere, pious life. He refrained from modern luxuries like television. And he was an excellent recruiter for the conservative movement. He wrote and shared his thoughts widely and began to organize his followers.

KECHICHIAN: He created this band, let's say, of individuals.

TROFIMOV: At some point, that alarmed the Saudi authorities.

ABDELFATAH: Dozens of members of Juhayman organization were detained. And Juhayman enlisted his former teacher, Sheikh ibn Baz, to help.

TROFIMOV: And then Sheikh ibn Baz intervened.

ABDELFATAH: All of the detainees were released. This could have crushed the movement. But instead, Juhayman's group...

TROFIMOV: Continued organizing.

ABDELFATAH: At this time, Juhayman was just one of many emerging leaders in the conservative movement in the kingdom. But then something happened that set him apart.

TROFIMOV: As he was going on this path, he had this dream about his brother-in-law and decided that he was going to be the Mahdi.


ABDELFATAH: The Mahdi is a debated, mysterious concept in Islam. It isn't mentioned in the Quran. But basically, the idea is this - at some point, a messianic figure called the Mahdi, who according to some traditional interpretations is going to come from the same Arab tribe as the Prophet Muhammad and even have the same physical features and name as the prophet, will return to usher in the day of judgment. Juhayman became convinced that his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Mohammed ibn Abdullah, was the Mahdi.

TROFIMOV: He looked at him and looked at the descriptions of how the Mahdi should look in the Hadith, you know, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. You know, the physical descriptions, the name - you know, it all kind of seemed to match for him.

ABDELFATAH: To the best of our knowledge, it appears that Juhayman genuinely believed his soon-to-be brother-in-law was the Mahdi, and that led him to a serious conclusion. Preaching and winning followers wasn't enough; action needed to be taken. The Saudi government had to be removed. But interestingly, this is where he differed from other religious conservatives, like his teacher Sheikh ibn Baz.

TROFIMOV: Ibn Baz, really, at the time endorsed a lot of the criticism that Juhayman had against the state of Saudi Arabia at the time. Ibn Baz would say, well, yes, this is wrong, that is wrong, that it is also wrong, but we should not disobey the king because the king is the guarantee that our way of seeing Islam, our way of doing things will be preserved against the infidels, who, for the most hard-line Wahhabi clerics, would be any other Muslim, right (ph)?

ABDELFATAH: Ultimately, even ibn Baz's disapproval wouldn't be enough to sway Juhayman's determination to get rid of the Saudi royal family. And his ability to wage an attack got even stronger after he started attracting foreign followers to his movement. He won followers from all over the Middle East, especially Egypt. Some of these followers had come from the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-organized Islamic political machine.

TROFIMOV: And so you really had this marriage of the Saudi Wahhabi zeal that came from Juhayman and the ready-made Islamic militancy that came from Egyptian and some other foreigners who came to Saudi Arabia. So you had the - kind of the fusion of the theology with the organizational skills and violent extremism.

ABDELFATAH: By 1979, Juhayman's group grew to include hundreds, if not a thousand or more, members. They were motivated and capable of a well-planned attack on the Saudi regime. Juhayman and his followers had a radical idea - they were going to attack Islam's holiest site, the Grand Mosque of Mecca.


ABDELFATAH: Which is a blasphemous act. But Juhayman came up with his own religious interpretation to justify it. He figured it would be a strike right at the heart of Saudi legitimacy. After all, if they couldn't protect these holy sites, should they be in charge of them? He hoped it would gain the attention of the world and usher in an Islamic revolution and the day of judgement. They planned the attack for the first day of Muharram.

KECHICHIAN: In the year 1400 in the Islamic calendar, which happened to be 1979. The Mecca mosque is a huge facility, and millions of people go in and out every year. So the doors are almost never locked.

TROFIMOV: Juhayman and his people prepared pretty well. They drove pick-ups full of weapons into the tunnels in the catacombs below the holy shrine, the Kaaba.

ABDELFATAH: Theories are they were able to do this by bribing guards and by using a dark but ingenious technique to bring weapons into the mosque.

KECHICHIAN: People bring in their dead to perform lost rituals, prayers and so on. So the plot of this band was essentially to introduce weapons in coffins.


ABDELFATAH: Juhayman and his militants dressed as pilgrims. They grabbed their weapons and...

TROFIMOV: Emerged from the underground, mixing in with the pilgrims.

KECHICHIAN: And they took over the facility, shut down the doors and...

TROFIMOV: Juhayman stepped up and ripped away the microphone.

KECHICHIAN: Announced that the Mahdi had returned and that the liberation of Saudi Arabia would start.

TROFIMOV: One might say that most of the pilgrims at the time in the mosque were not fluent in Arabic because there were people from Pakistan, from Indonesia, from Turkey, from Africa. And so - and even the ones who are fluent in Arabic couldn't necessarily understand Juhayman's Bedouin accent. There was a lot of confusion, and people didn't understand what was going on until firing started.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, the siege of Mecca turns into a battle.


ARABLOUEI: By midmorning on November 20, the scene in downtown Mecca was chaos. Juhayman and his followers had seized the Grand Mosque, taking nearly 100,000 scared, panicking hostages. Word began spreading throughout the city that there was an incident at the shrine. At the time, there were construction crews working for the Saudi Binladin Group, a company owned by the father of Osama bin Laden, renovating parts of the mosque. Those workers immediately alerted authorities.

Police were deployed to end the siege. But when officers tried to approach the mosque...


TROFIMOV: There were shot at from the minarets and massacred.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Foreign language spoken).


ARABLOUEI: Anyone who dared enter the mosque grounds was shot. And soon, Saudi authorities...

TROFIMOV: They started to send more troops, but the troops refused to fight. You know, the soldiers and the National Guard knew that it's forbidden to even, you know, harm a bird in the holy precinct, let alone bring in weapons, let alone shoot weapons.

KECHICHIAN: Initial assaults proved to be very costly because the facility is like a fortress where - very high walls, and you have to climb on top of them. And there are sharpshooters who are shooting on the soldiers.

TROFIMOV: Very soon, Juhayman realized that, you know, he cannot keep all these people in there because they need food, they need toilets, they need water. So with a pretty short period of time, he let most of them go.

ARABLOUEI: Once the Saudis understood the seriousness of the situation, they realized they had a problem. As the custodians of the holy cities, they were embarrassed by their inability to keep pilgrims safe. So they tried to keep the news of the siege from getting out of Mecca.

TROFIMOV: Saudi Arabia immediately cut off phone lines to Mecca. They really managed to suppress it for several hours. And nobody quite knew what was going on.

ADNAN HRUB: (Through interpreter) The news we received were dictated by them. Like, in the company I was working for, one guy asked me after the siege ended - he asked, was there really a siege in Mecca?

ARABLOUEI: This is Adnan Hrub (ph). He lived in Saudi Arabia at the time of the siege. He explained that local people knew something was happening in the Grand Mosque but nothing about who was responsible. There was a lot of confusion.

HRUB: (Through interpreter) So it wasn't easy for people to access information. There were even some people in the outskirts of Mecca who did not know what was happening. There was a total news blockage. And that only knows - we did not know what the truth really was.

ARABLOUEI: The United States, one of Saudi Arabia's closest allies, also didn't know who was responsible.

TROFIMOV: So when President Carter gathered his advisers in the White House, the information they had - that this must have been the work of the Iranians.

ARABLOUEI: The Islamic revolution overthrew Iran's shah, or king, earlier in that year. And the new Iranian government was immediately antagonistic towards the House of Saud. They were still holding hostages at the American embassy in Tehran when the siege in Mecca started. So the U.S. government, within hours of the attack, concluded that Iran...

TROFIMOV: Must have done something, must have started trouble in the holy mosque. And so administration officials actually blamed Iran at the time and sent aircraft carriers to the Gulf in response.

ARABLOUEI: Iran's response was denial and then to blame the U.S. for the siege.

TROFIMOV: Ayatollah Khomeini, obviously, went on the air and said, no, no, it's the Americans sending, you know, Jews to desecrate our holy site.

ARABLOUEI: This message made its way all over the Islamic world, and many people believed Khameini's assertion.

TROFIMOV: This conspiracy theory about the American involvement spread much, much faster around the Muslim world and really fueled violence at the time.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Thousands of Pakistanis, inflamed by rumors that the United States had invaded Mecca, burned the U.S. Embassy here, trapping about 100 Americans and embassy employees for five hours in the heavily secured top-floor code room. One Marine guard was shot and killed during the attack.

TROFIMOV: In Pakistan, mobs took over and burned the American embassy. They had the riots in India. There was the riots and the attack on the American embassy in Tripoli in Libya.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: About 2,000 demonstrators stormed the United States Embassy in Libya today, shouting slogans in support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khameini's anti-American policies.

TROFIMOV: And even Mehmet Ali Agca (ph), the Turkish militant who tried to kill the pope later on, was also motivated by this.

ARABLOUEI: The Saudi government made a couple of announcements in the days after the siege began. They acknowledged that there was an ongoing crisis in the Grand Mosque but offered little beyond that.

TROFIMOV: Official Saudi comments on a slight disturbance in Mecca only appeared two years later.


ARABLOUEI: As word of the siege began seeping out of Mecca, the Saudis realized they needed to end it quick. And to do that, they had to stage an actual full-scale military assault. But remember - it's forbidden in Islam to commit acts of violence in Mecca. So the Saudis needed a religious decree, or fatwa, from the kingdom's clergy, or ulema, to go ahead with the assault.

TROFIMOV: So they needed a fatwa from the religious authorities that would authorize the operation. And the fatwa wasn't forthcoming because the religious authorities wanted to extract a price for that.

ARABLOUEI: OK. So remember Sheikh ibn Baz, Juhayman's teacher, the guy who helped get his men out of jail?

TROFIMOV: So Sheikh ibn Baz was the dean of the university, Islamic University of Medina. So he was probably the most respected Islamic scholar at the time and the one to whom the royal family felt that they had to listen.

ARABLOUEI: After days of frustration, the Saudi king, Khalid, summoned Sheikh ibn Baz and the leading members of the ulema to the capital for a sit-down.

TROFIMOV: And it was a very difficult meeting because ibn Baz and the others were saying that, well, you know, there are problems in our country. You know, all this - the morals are very loose. You know, it's all these forbidden things happening. We must do something about it.

ARABLOUEI: What were the specific demands?

TROFIMOV: Well, the demands were, for example, more restrictions of women's rights. But most importantly, what they wanted is that they wanted to burst out of Saudi Arabia because they had this global mission of Dawah, you know, of spreading their view of Islam to the rest of the, you know, misguided Muslim nations. And they needed the backing of the Saudi state for that.

ARABLOUEI: The support of the Saudi government allowed the ulema to open schools, mosques and charities all around the Muslim world, from Nigeria to Indonesia. We have to stop for a second here and emphasize the importance of this moment. Up until 1979...

KECHICHIAN: The Al Saud had made a very specific arrangement, deal with the religious establishment. There is no interference in each other's business.

ARABLOUEI: The Saudis feared that this arrangement could be in jeopardy if the ulema were able to extract these new demands. But Joe says, even knowing the risks, there really weren't many options for King Khalid and the royal family.

KECHICHIAN: He had no choice but to acquiesce to the demands.

TROFIMOV: This was a great bargain between the ulema and the House of Saudi in which they said, OK, we will support you in this critical moment. We will authorize the military operation in the holiest of holies (ph). But in exchange, you know, you will allow us to use the resources of the Saudi state to further our cause throughout the Muslim ummah, the Muslim nation.

ABDELFATAH: Where the clerics involved at all in orchestrating this siege?

TROFIMOV: I have seen no evidence that they actively enacted this. The decision took advantage of this to further their own ideas.


ARABLOUEI: It took three long days for the clerics to pen the fatwa allowing for Saudi authorities to use violence to take back the Grand Mosque. The Saudi forces made preparations. And while the clerics had been negotiating the fatwa, the Saudis had finally done another thing - they made public statements acknowledging that their own people were responsible for the attack.

TROFIMOV: Well, the Saudis had to make this declaration because the Americans were pressing them, and the U.S. government was saying, hold on, like, you have to say it's not us. And so the House of Saud did make these statements, and they blamed miscreants.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: This is audio of a message Saudi authorities blasted into the mosque over loudspeakers, pleading with the militants to end the takeover.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: This call was answered with fire and murder effects (ph) on the Muslims by these renegades.

ARABLOUEI: Juhayman didn't end it. So within hours of the fatwa being issued, the Saudi forces began their assault to take back the Grand Mosque.


KECHICHIAN: Several assaults were conducted.

ARABLOUEI: Saudi military brought in armored vehicles, commandos and even tanks to dislodge Juhayman and his fighters. Juhayman had spent the week digging in.

KECHICHIAN: Initially, they failed.

ARABLOUEI: But after taking heavy losses, Saudi security forces finally made their way into the Grand Mosque grounds.

TROFIMOV: You had armored personnel carriers - you know, the M113s - driving into the holy precinct and firing, and there was a machine gun position of the rebels just behind the Kaaba, sort of an elliptical wall just in front of it.

ARABLOUEI: The Saudis made progress but at a very high cost. The fighting was intense, and dead bodies littered the grounds of the mosque. But...

TROFIMOV: By the end of the first week, they managed to clear out the surface parts of the mosque.

ARABLOUEI: Juhayman was prepared for this. His fighters retreated, along with a small number of hostages, to a place beneath the Grand Mosque and Kaaba for their last stand.

TROFIMOV: Under the mosque, there is this warren of labyrinths and catacombs and ancient storage areas. That was really hard to penetrate because how do you go in? It's all booby-trapped.

ARABLOUEI: The pressure was continuing to mount on the Saudis to end the siege.

TROFIMOV: And so they really couldn't clear it on their own, and so they had to ask for help. So there were two countries that could help - there was the U.S., and there was France. The problem with the U.S. was that after the Vietnam War, after, you know, the congressional hearings and the imposition of restrictions on the activities of the CIA and all the leaks that came out, the Saudis didn't really trust the U.S.

And so the Saudis had a very good working relation with the French at the time because the - France then was led by a conservative government, much more hard-line than the Carter administration. They're much more willing to take action. Then the French sent them a small detachment of officers from - in the elite counterterrorism force with gas.

ARABLOUEI: The French special forces proposed using a nonlethal gas to force out Juhayman's militants.

TROFIMOV: It was supposed to knock out the militants, and then the Saudi troops in gas masks would come in and kill them or take them out.


ARABLOUEI: When we come back, the brutal ending to the siege of Mecca and how it changed Saudi Arabia.


ABDELFATAH: November 28, 1979 - over a week into the siege, most of the militants had retreated under the mosque grounds. Only a few of the most hardcore militants remained above ground to fight. One of those people was the supposed Mahdi, Mohammed Abdullah.

TROFIMOV: You know, they're stuck there. There is tear gas. There is firing. There is death. There is no medical care. But they were guided by belief. And the Mahdi itself, the supposed Mahdi, you know, would go into the bullets and not be harmed by them. So there was courage that comes from, you know, believing you will not be harmed.

ARABLOUEI: The militants fought back hard, shooting a hail of bullets at the soldiers as they approached. They were fueled by a belief in the Mahdi.

TROFIMOV: Until he was harmed and killed. And then suddenly, the belief started to crumble.

ARABLOUEI: This was the guy who was supposed to usher in the end of the world. The militants couldn't believe he was dead.

TROFIMOV: And that really demoralized the ranks.

ABDELFATAH: Juhayman had to convince them to stay on and fight. Things were about to get worse for the militants. French troops arrived a few days later.


TROFIMOV: The French troops themselves did not actually go to Mecca. They brought the gas. They trained the Saudis. And they then stayed in the hotel in Ta'if.

ARABLOUEI: On December 3, the Saudi commandos began their final assault to end the siege.


ARABLOUEI: They released gas into the underground chambers, as they were instructed by the French. A firefight ensued.


KECHICHIAN: It was very chaotic. It was an environment where everybody was panicking.

ARABLOUEI: In the darkness and crossfire, militants and hostages and soldiers were all killed.


ABDELFATAH: By the end of the day, many of the militants were dead, and dozens were arrested, including Juhayman himself.

TROFIMOV: He was dragged out, his soiled clothing and, you know, smoke in his face, and brought him out to the cameras.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Foreign language spoken).


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Juhayman ibn Sayf al-Otaiba, one of the ringleaders of this vicious gang of renegades, looking very grim and mumbling, now that he's captured and awaits his fate.

ABDELFATAH: The photos of the captured militants are haunting. There they are, dressed in long robes, some with beards, others as young as teenagers, covered in dust. Most of them had a look of shock and confusion on their faces. It was over; the siege had failed. More than 60 people were arrested.

KECHICHIAN: Including Juhayman al-Otaiba. They were all tried.

TROFIMOV: And then they were all beheaded.

KECHICHIAN: The executions did not all take place in Mecca. They took place throughout Saudi Arabia in order for the government to send a clear message to one and all that the justice of Al Saud would be imposed in total.

TROFIMOV: Hostages were killed. Civilians were killed. Troops were killed. Nobody knows exactly how many because obviously all the numbers that come out from the Saudis after the fact are highly questionable, and the real death toll may be much higher than if you had - than they say.

KECHICHIAN: This was a horrible event - weeks of daily warfare, sometimes hand-to-hand combat. So you can imagine - only you can imagine the damage that was done.

TROFIMOV: And parts of the Kaaba were damaged.

KECHICHIAN: There were eyewitnesses that went inside the mosque immediately after the assault. The defiguration of the facility, the blackened walls, the burnt smell of flesh. And it was a horrible sight.


ABDELFATAH: On December 4, the Saudi government was back in control of the Grand Mosque, and they immediately...

TROFIMOV: Proclaimed a great victory. Now, the extent of the damage was not known to the outside world. They actually managed to keep quite a tight lid, not to reveal just how bad things were, just how much destruction there was, just how many casualties there were.

ABDELFATAH: The Saudi government did their best to try to erase the event from the memory of its citizens.

TROFIMOV: There was a book published shortly after the siege that contain all the official statements and declarations and kind of the official narrative. That book was taken out of libraries and destroyed. Then suddenly, it was forbidden to mention that this has ever happened. It was wiped off the history books. It was shameful to admit that, you know, such a major failure occurred - also, because up until not so long ago, all the people who ran Saudi Arabia at the time were still in power. So you know, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense, the head of National Guard - there were all either in the same positions or, in the case of the National Guard, he was the king up until, you know, just a few years ago.

ABDELFATAH: What are the ramifications of this event on Saudi Arabia and the world?

TROFIMOV: The biggest ramification was that it stopped the modernization of Saudi Arabia society for a very long time.

KECHICHIAN: Saudi Arabia became a very conservative country after 1979. It became very much interested in Puritanism. For example, movie theaters were banned. The condition of women became much more difficult. The wearing of abayas, even the burqas to close their faces became much more prevalent. The liberal approach was essentially in abeyance. So a dark chapter really started in the country.

TROFIMOV: And at the same time, it empowered the conservative clerics of Saudi Arabia to not just control the social developments in the kingdom but to export their very austere conservative vision of Islam around the world, where it was really very marginal up until then.

KECHICHIAN: The religious establishment gained a great deal of power. They received large sums of money to build much - many more mosques, to gain control over the curricula for students in universities and schools.

TROFIMOV: So there were lots of peculiarities that suddenly became mainstream. Suddenly, young illiterate people going to seek some Islamic guidance education all over the world in a village in Nigeria, you know, in Java would suddenly think this is what Islam is. It really gave the Saudi establishment this massive soft power around the world and something that truly fostered the development of jihadi groups and extremist groups from Nigeria to Indonesia.

ARABLOUEI: Even though Juhayman's mission ultimately failed, his actions and his apocalyptic view of Islam's future has had a lasting effect on other extremists.

KECHICHIAN: Juhayman was an inspiration to many extremists over the past few decades.

TROFIMOV: Messianic vision that Juhayman had was adopted almost word by word by Islamic State, and they really found inspiration in him.


ABDELFATAH: There's no way that Juhayman and his followers could have understood the impact they would have; I mean, no one really did. But the fact is, those 15 days pushed Saudi Arabia and many parts of the Islamic world in a new direction. It allowed what was a fringe ideology, Wahhabism, to have more of an influence globally. In some places, it completely reframed the faith. And in others, it pushed people towards a militant, apocalyptic view that's had profound consequences. And today, we still live in the shadow of the siege of Mecca.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...






ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Stephanie Hayes (ph).

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Mohamed El-Bardisi (ph).

ARABLOUEI: Alex Curley.

ABDELFATAH: Nikolai Hammer (ph).

ARABLOUEI: And of course, Rund's dad, Naail (ph) for his voiceover work.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks, baba (ph).

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann and Jason Fuller.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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