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Grand Mosque siege: How the attack on Mecca masjid turned Saudi Arabia into a more regressive Islamic kingdom

Saudi police sent patrol cars to the mosque to understand the gravity of the situation. On being bombarded with bullets, the Saudi National Guard was called in to take back control of the mosque. It became clear to the Saudi authorities that the seizure of the Grand Mosque was well-planned.

Saudi Arabia is considered the epicentre of the Muslim world. Infamous for its strict enforcement of the Sharia law, gender segregation and restrictions on women, the Arabian nation remains a model of inspiration for Islamic hardliners across the globe. As such, even slight amendments to the regressive practices and baby steps towards modernity draw the wrath of Islamists.

It thus came as no surprise when Islamist outfit Raza Academy ran a social media campaign, urging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to revoke the decision of opening cinema halls in the city of Medina. The Islamist outfit also held a protest march outside Minara Masjid in Mumbai. The protestors were heard raising slogans of “Saudi Hukumat Murdabad” and holding placards that read, “Saudi Government Must Stop Desecration of The Holy City of Madina Munawwarah.”

Unlike his predecessors, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman quickly realised the need of the country to reduce dependency on oil and diversify it to other sectors such as health, education, recreation and tourism. In an interview with CBS News, he said, “(Before 1979) We were living a normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries, women were driving cars, there were movie theatres in Saudi Arabia.”

This begs the question: What happened in 1979 that took Saudi Arabia afar from modernity and into the depths of desert tribalism (something that inspires Islamic fundamentalists across the globe to date)? The answer lies in the Grand Mosque seizure of November 20, 1979. It remains the deadliest terror attack faced by the Saudi Kingdom to date. A large group of radical Islamists, led by a 40-year-old preacher Juhayman al-Otaybi laid siege on one of the holiest sites of the Islamic world – the Masjid Al-Haram.

The motives behind the terror attack

Despite being poorly educated, coupled with a lack of proficiency in classical Arabic, Otaybi had a charismatic effect on his followers. “He was true to his mission, and he gave his whole life to Allah, day and night,” recounted a religious student Mutwali Saleh. Juhayman al-Otaybi founded an association named the ‘al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba (JSM)’, which condemned the increasing Westernisation of Saudi Arabia.

Under the leadership of the Saudi royal family (House of Saud) and the increasing oil exports, the Kingdom had become prosperous. JSM members, who lived a life of austerity, dubbed the increased consumerism of Saudi Arabians as ‘degeneration of social and religious values.’ Otaybi was of the belief that the Saudi culture had become corrupt, and ostentatious under the Saudi royal family. He vowed to restore the true legacy of Islam in the Kingdom. He declared a soft-spoken Islamic preacher (later turned brother-in-law) Abdullah al-Qahtan as the ‘Mahdi’ (redeemer of Islam).

Grand Mecca Masjid siege in Saudi Arabia, arrested terrorists
The arrested gunmen (Image Credit: AFP)

In Islamic culture, a Mahdi is one who appears before Judgment day to establish the Kingdom of Allah. Otaybi had military training during his stint with the Saudi National Guard. His plan was to lay siege on the holiest site in the Islamic world and his military experience proved useful. November 20, 1979, was chosen for the execution of his plans as it marked the first day of the year 1400, according to the Islamic calendar. As per Muslim traditions, a person referred to as ‘Mujaddid’ appears at the turn of each century to revive Islam and restore it to its pristine glory.

The Seizure of the Masjd al-Haram and resistance by Saudi Arabia forces

On the fateful day of November 20 that year, about 50000 Muslims from across the globe had gathered in the courtyard near Kaaba for the dawn prayers. The prayers were being led by the Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, the then imam of the Masjid al-Haram. Juhayman al-Otaybi and his 200 odd followers were among the gathering. As the prayers ended, the Islamists quickly took control of the microphone and pushed al-Subayil aside.

From the closed coffins kept in the centre of the yard, the extremists took out handguns and rifles. They were quickly distributed among his followers. “Fellow Muslims, we announce today the coming of the Mahdi… who shall reign with justice and fairness on Earth after it has been filled with injustice and oppression,” one of Otaybi’s followers read out a prepared speech. Otaybi directed his men to shut the doors of the mosque and take up sniper positions in the minarets.

”Attention brothers! Ahmad al-Lehebi, go up on the roof. If you see someone resisting at the gates, shoot them!” he directed. The worshippers were stunned at the sight of armed gunmen in the mosque. Within a span of an hour, Juhayman al-Otaybi took complete control of the Grand Mosque. Given the absence of Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and National Guard head Prince Abdullah who were on a visit to Tunisia and Morocco respectively, King Khalid and Defence Minister Prince Sultan initiated the counter-response.

First, the Saudi police sent patrol cars to the mosque to understand the gravity of the situation. On being bombarded with bullets, the Saudi National Guard was called in to take back control of the mosque. It became clear to the Saudi authorities that the seizure of the Grand Mosque was well-planned. In response, special troops, paratroopers and armoured vehicles were dispatched to free the hostages. The Saudi military launched frontal assault but Otaybi and his men continued to put up resistance.

Grand Mecca Masjid siege in Saudi Arabia
Saudi forces respond to the offensive carried out by the Islamists, image via BBC/Alamy

A heavy cloud of smoke was generated by the Islamists by setting carpet and rubber tires on fire. They took refuge behind columns and occasionally came out to ambush the Saudi forces. Major Mohammad al-Nufai recounted, “This was a man-to-man confrontation, within a limited space. A combat situation with bullets whizzing by, left and right – it’s something unbelievable.” The mosque had turned into a ‘killing zone.’ The Mahdi aka Abdullah al-Qahtan believed that he was invincible. His overconfidence led to his eventual doom when he was killed in the gunfire.

To keep the morale of his men high, Juhayman al-Otaybi misled them into believing that the Mahdi was alive. “The smells surrounded us from the dead or the injuries that had rotted. In the beginning, water was available, but later on they started to ration supplies. Then the dates ran out so they started eating balls of raw dough… It was a terrifying atmosphere. It was like you were in a horror movie,” a witness recounted. It was finally on the 6th day that the Saudi forces gained control of the mosque’s courtyard.

The French intervention and execution of the Islamists

The Islamists took shelter into the cells underneath the mosque and it was becoming difficult to remove Otaybi and his men from the Grand Mosque. King Khalid of Saudi Arabia reached out to French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. After realising that the homegrown conflict in the Kingdom could impact oil exports in the world, Estaing dispatched three advisers from France’s counter-terrorism unit (GIGN) to Saudi Arabia.

“Our ambassador told me that it was obvious the Saudi forces were very disorganised and didn’t know how to react. It seemed to me to be dangerous, because of the weakness of the system, its unpreparedness and the repercussions this could have on the global oil market,” the French President told the BBC. The French military advisers took shelter at a hotel in Taif town. They recommended the use of gas canisters to make air unbreathable in basements, where Otaybi and his men were hiding.

“Holes were dug every 50m in order to reach the basement. Gas was injected through these holes. The gas was dispersed with the help of grenade explosions into every corner where the rebels were hiding,” informed French Capt Paul Barril, who headed the mission.” Otaybi and his men soon ran out of food and ammunition. With the constant dispatch of smoke bombs, the Islamist, who set out to free Saudi Arabia of moral corruptness, surrendered with 63 other men.

Grand Mecca Masjid siege in Saudi Arabia
Pittsburg Post- Gazette newspaper report about the execution of the Islamic terrorists

The seizure came to an end on December 4, 1979. 117 of Otaybi’s men were killed in the gunfight while 63 were executed by the Saudi government. Juhayman al-Otaybi was one of the first Islamists to be publicly beheaded. Reportedly, the beheading was carried out in 8 Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, Buraidah, Dammam, Abha, Ha’il and Tabuk.

Cultural implications on Saudi Arabia after the Grand Mosque Seizure

One of the direct consequences of the terror attack was the giant leap of the Kingdom towards religious dogmatism and archaic mindset. Having fully realised the potential of future attacks against the monarchy, King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took refuge of Islamism. After the Grand Mosque seizure of 1979, Saudi Arabia rebranded itself as the Guardian of Islam and defenders of Faith. King Khalid took measures to listen to the grievances of the clerics.

Reportedly, the Kingdom renewed ties with Wahabi clerics and appointed them to important positions in education, judiciary and religious guidance. The House of Saud also made efforts to globally propagate the tenets of Wahabism and gave into to the demands of the Ulemas against increasing modernisation of the Kingdom. In that way, King Khalid was able to nullify domestic criticism of the monarchy.

Prior to the seizure, there were talks about increasing women’s freedom, right to participate in public life, and education. All of that ended with the strict adherence to 7th century Sharia law. In hindsight, Juhayman al-Otaybi was successful in making the Kingdom adopt his regressive ideas about life. The Islamists had set out to restore the pristine purity of Islam, something which was made possible by banning public concerts, movie theatres, enforcing strict dress codes on women.

According to Nasser al-Huzaimi, all measures towards achieving modernisation came to a halt after the cease. He recounted, “Let me give you a simple example. One of the things he demanded from the Saudi government was the removal of female presenters from TV. After the Haram incident, no female presenter appeared on TV again.” The Grand Mosque seizure also inspired the likes of slain Al-Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden, who went on to execute the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

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Dibakar Dutta
Dibakar Dutta
Centre-Right. Political analyst. Assistant Editor @Opindia. Reach me at [email protected]

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