Today in Terrorism: November 20, 1979 – Siege at Grand Mosque in Mecca

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The importance of the terrorist takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and its resolution cannot be overstated: without it 9/11 may never have occurred.

Today is one of those days in history where I have an unfortunate richness in terrorist attacks to choose from. Research uncovered no less than eleven attacks on this day in a variety of countries. It proved rather easy to settle on one to focus on, as it turns out, but a few more warrant honourable mention:

At least 55 people died in Kabul in 2018 where worshipers were commemorating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

Siege at Grand Mosque in Mecca

But as horrific as any of these incidents were they pale in comparison to the enormous importance of the one I have elected to present. On this day in 1979 a siege began at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in the Islamic world. Islamist extremists occupied the site and were not ousted until December 4, thanks in large part to the role of French commandos who were brought in to assist.

The affair centred on a man named Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani who was seen by his followers as the ‘Mahdi’, an end of time figure in Islam. Al Qahtani’s brother-in-law Juhayman al-Otaibi led the operation, which began on the first day of 1400 in the Islamic calendar. The whole affair was planned to ‘purify’ Islam of its sins. I highly recommend Yaroslav Trofimov’s book The Siege of Mecca in this regard.

Islamist extremists occupied the site and were not ousted until December 4, thanks in large part to the role of French commandos who were brought in to assist.

When the dust settled and the terrorists were ‘defeated’ – after having killed and wounded more than a thousand people – the Saudi monarchy initiated a bizarre series of ‘remedies’. One would think that in the aftermath of an attack by religious extremists a regime would take steps to reduce future events of a similar nature. Instead, the Al Saud royals implemented a STRICTER form of Sharia law, emboldened religious preachers and police and ushered in an even more conservative era in the Kingdom. Al Otaibi’s son was even later made colonel in the Saudi National Guard.

On this day in 1979 a siege began at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in the Islamic world.

The cause of 9/11?

This transformation cannot be overemphasised as the Saudi decisions led directly to where we are today. Islamist extremism is widely seen as having taken off in 1979, largely due to the Mecca siege and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which spawned Al Qaeda (NB the third seminal event of that year, the Iranian Revolution, is not tied to Islamist extremism in the same way). The events in Mecca and the response chosen by Saudi Arabia constitute one of the parents of 9/11. This is not hyperbole.

We are now in year 40 of the ‘religious wave’ of terrorism described by David Rapoport (see November 17 Today in Terrorism blog for more on his work). Not only does that wave show little signs of ebbing, contrary to the usual two-generation lifespan of these phenomena, but it has been nourished to a large extent by Saudi Arabia, our supposed ‘ally’ in the Middle East. Despite the ‘openness’ championed by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman today, intolerant and hateful Saudi Wahhabi Islam is still spread around the world thanks to Saudi-funded schools.

The events in Mecca and the response chosen by Saudi Arabia constitute one of the parents of 9/11. This is not hyperbole.

I wish I could say that there is light at the end of the terrorist tunnel, in particular the Islamist brand of terrorism. I fear there is not and that we are in for more and more attacks in dozens of countries around the world.

We can thank (blame?) the Saudis for a lot of this.

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