Religious fervor was truly in the air in 1979. Presumably we don’t need to go into much detail about that year’s Islamic Revolution in Iran, which toppled our old pal Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his secret police/torture network in favor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and, uh, his secret police/torture network. But across the Persian Gulf Saudi Arabia had its own run in with Islamist extremism in 1979, and while it didn’t topple the Saudi monarchy–boy we all really dodged a bullet there–it did change Saudi Arabia for better (not really) or worse (yes, it was for the worse).
Before dawn on November 20, 1979, a group of armed militants numbering probably in the 400-500 range took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They were well-armed, having stolen their weapons from the Saudi National Guard, and came from across the Arab world and even beyond. The gunmen killed two police officers and barred the doors. There were thousands of people gathered in the mosque for prayers, and the attackers–presumably realizing that they had no chance of controlling a crowd that size–let most of them go while keeping a more manageable number as hostages. They proclaimed to the worshipers that the arrival of the Mahdi was at hand. November 20, 1979 was the end of the month of Dhu’l Hijjah and thus the end of the Islamic year 1399. So it was kind of an auspicious date for some kind of end-of-the-world nuttiness.
The leader of this gang of hostage takers was Juhayman al-Otaybi (d. 1980), a member of the well-connected Otaybah tribe who had gotten wrapped up in a Salafi puritanical movement and despised what he saw as Western corruption rotting Saudi society. Somewhere along the way he’d gotten arrested, as folks like this often do, and did some time with a man named Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Qahtani. He claimed that one night God had revealed to him in a dream that his pal Muhammad was the Mahdi. He told Muhammad this and, well, Muhammad was sold. I mean, it seems a little strange that God wouldn’t have spoken with the supposed Mahdi directly, I guess, but you know how He is about mysteries. Besides, there was a prophecy that the Mahdi and his father would have the same names as the Prophet Muhammad and his father Abdullah, and he was Muhammad, son of Abdullah, so clearly the pieces all fell into place. Otaybi either married Qahtani’s sister, or vice versa, or they each married one another’s sisters–I can’t get a straight answer on this and frankly it doesn’t really matter.
Otaybi’s demands mostly revolved around cutting ties with the West and getting Western innovations the hell out of Saudi society. This would include the Saudi kingdom divesting itself of the Saudi family itself, who were too corrupt and had amassed too much wealth to be reformed.
The Grand Mosque was being renovated by none other than the Saudi Binladen Group (yes, that one), and it was one of their workers who managed to get a call out to Saudi officials to let them know that the holiest site in all of Islam had just been seized by a group of untrained fanatics. The operation to retake the mosque was overseen by Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz (d. 2011), the Saudi defense minister, and Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz (d. 2012), the Saudi interior minister, with the involvement of Prince Turki bin Faisal, then the newly minted head of Saudi intelligence. The Saudis responded with all the military precision and excellence we’ve come to expect from them over the years. They quickly sent 100 crack Saudi interior ministry troops in to the mosque to bust up the siege, who were promptly gunned down en masse by Otaybi’s forces.
Chastened a bit by this initial failure, the Saudis put together a much larger assault force including soldiers from the Saudi army and from the Saudi national guard. But in order to make such a large attack against the Grand Mosque they first needed to get legal permission from the Saudi ulama, or religious scholars. And, well, the thing is, the ulama kind of had a soft spot for Otaybi and his followers. They seemed like Good Folks, throwbacks to the old days in the early 20th century when the passionate Ikhwan had followed Ibn Saud and conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula for him. Otaybi had studied under Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, a leading Saudi scholar who would eventually serve as Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Ibn Baz still seems to have been fond of Otaybi even though the increasingly radicalized Otaybi later denounced his former teacher. Nevertheless, after some negotiations with King Khalid himself, ibn Baz and the rest of the ulama gave the Saudis permission to go in with guns blazing.
With the gloves taken off the mighty Saudi war machine, it was only a matter of time before the ragged insurgents were wiped out. Of course I’m kidding. The Saudis literally attacked the mosque with artillery, doing significant damage to what–again–is the holiest site in Islam, before assaulting all three of its gates. They were soundly thrashed by Otaybi’s forces. Soldiers who came out from behind cover usually found themselves getting shot by Otaybi’s snipers. Prince Sultan ordered a daring raid whereby his commandos would rappel into the courtyard of the mosque via helicopter, and then watched those men get gunned down. It was after that particular fiasco when King Khalid put Prince Turki bin Faysal in charge of the operation.
Turki, working with the bin Ladens, was able to use their detailed schematics of the mosque to begin to get his men inside the building, and by November 25 or so the Saudis had control of part of the building and had managed to kill a considerable number of Otaybi’s men including the Mahdi himself, Qahtani. But the remaining militants took their hostages and retreated to prayer alcoves dug beneath the courtyard. This left them in a position where they could put up a very strong defense against any Saudi assault and certainly could have killed the hostages before the Saudis would have been able to stop them.
Desperate to end the siege and the embarrassment it was causing to the royal family, the Saudis considered some really off the wall ideas, like flooding the alcoves and electrocuting everybody–attackers and hostages–inside, or sending dogs strapped with explosives into the place as unwitting suicide bombers. Then Turki turned to Pakistani special forces and France’s elite Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) police unit to finish off the militants. Three French commandos hastily converted to Islam (this is disputed by both France and the Saudis) so that they could enter the mosque and carry out their plan to gas everybody in the prayer niches. This plan failed, presumably because they didn’t really have any idea how the underground air currents worked. So then the Saudis decided to just start drilling holes into the alcoves and dropping grenades down the holes. This probably killed several hostages, maybe dozens of them, but it also killed several militants and forced others to come out of cover where they could be killed by Saudi snipers. It took two weeks, but in the end the remaining militants, including Otaybi, surrendered to Saudi authorities. He and his remaining followers were later beheaded for their trouble.
The death toll from this siege remains an ongoing point of controversy. Officially the Saudis say that they lost 127 men against 117 militants and 12 hostages. Unofficially there are claims that the toll was in the thousands, mostly Saudi soldiers but also a large number of hostages and quite a few more militants. The damage to the mosque was severe, but even more severe may have been the damage to the Saudi monarchy’s image. In order to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again, King Khalid rooted out religious extremism wherever he could find it, turning Saudi Arabia into the tolerant bastion of liberalism that it is today.
Obviously I’m kidding again. In reality, he decided that the only way to beat the religious zealots was to join them. From then on the Saudis gave the most conservative elements in Wahhabi Islam free rein to run amuck over Saudi society and a virtual blank check to proselytize their brand of fanaticism around the world. While Wahhabi Islam has never been anything that one might consider objectively “moderate,” when Donald Trump’s pal Mohammad bin Salman talks about returning Saudi Arabia to “moderate” Islam what he means is returning it to the days before the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979, before the inmates, so to speak, completely took over the asylum.