THE REST IS HISTORY
By John R. Bradley
Financial Times (London)
January 5, 2008
[Review of The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al-Qaeda by Yaroslav Trofimov (Allen Lane). £22, 320 pages.
At dawn on November 20, 1979, the first day of the new Muslim millennium, hundreds of armed jihadists from more than a dozen countries stormed Mecca's Grand Mosque -- Islam's holiest site and home of the Kaaba towards which Muslims pray five times a day. They bolted the thirty-nine doors, fired their weapons in the air, and announced to the more than 100,000 worshippers trapped inside that their aim was to overthrow the corrupt, pro-western Saudi royal family, and usher in a new Islamic era.
Led by a charismatic young Saudi preacher, Juhayman al-Utaybi, the rebels were convinced that the Mahdi, or redeemer, was among their ranks, poised to purge the world of evil and injustice. For two weeks they held out against the Saudi forces. Eventually, 62 jihadists, including al-Utaybi, were captured alive. All were then beheaded in public.
Yaroslav Trofimov's The Siege of Mecca, based on a wealth of information amassed from classified documents and face-to-face interviews, offers a gripping, highly informed narrative of this momentous event. Trofimov places the siege in its historical context, and illustrates how the al-Sauds' response would pave the way for a wave of Islamist extremism and terrorism inspired by the conservative Wahabi creed.
Short of suitably trained men, the al-Sauds' attempts at dislodging the rebels were a fiasco. The natural choice for outside help was Jordan, a fellow Muslim monarchy with a British-trained army. However, the al-Sauds had booted these rival Hashemites out of Mecca in the 1920s. As a Saudi official tells Trofimov, the fear was that "if the Jordanians come to Mecca, they will never leave!"
Losses mounted. A failure to broadcast Friday noon prayers from the mosque exposed the Saudi claim of victory for the lie it was. With rebels entrenched in the vast network of the mosque's underground tunnels, and the National Guard no longer considered loyal to the regime, the al-Sauds turned to Washington for help.
CIA operatives were quickly converted to Islam so they could enter Mecca, but their plan to gas out the jihadists backfired with the gas knocking out the Saudi forces instead. The French Foreign Legion then came to the rescue, pumping gas through specially bored holes before overpowering the rebels.
The al-Sauds had called on the official religious establishment to issue a fatwa approving the use of force inside the sacred compound. The clerics extracted a heavy price: the al-Sauds would have to commit to their Wahabi obligations, and social liberalization be rolled back. The Saudi princes adopted al-Utaybi's agenda in order to crush the rebellion. Saudi petrodollars were soon being poured into spreading hard-line Wahabi doctrine around the planet.
A young Osama bin Laden watched this duplicity in disgust. The rest is history we all know well.
--John R. Bradley is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan).
A TALE THE HOUSE OF SAUD WOULD AS SOON FORGET
By David Barett
Daily Star (Beirut)
December 8, 2007
In a fascinating and occasionally unsettling thriller, Yaroslav Trofimov, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, describes what could be termed the most under-reported event in modern Middle East history. While the world's attention was focused on the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, another hostage crisis was developing in Mecca, the closed-off birthplace of Islam. What the Saudi state shrugged off as a "domestic crisis" was in fact the first large-scale operation by an international jihadi movement in modern times.
In The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al-Qaeda, published last month by the U.K.'s Allen Lane, Trofimov draws a background to the crisis based on history and the global issues that surrounded the attempt to usurp the House of Saud. He connects the siege of Mecca to the spread of hard-line Islamist movements in the aftermath, beginning with the Afghan-Soviet conflict.
However, the main attraction is the author's painstaking narrative of the Siege of the Grand Mosque, and the internal politics of Saudi Arabia while the country's leaders tried to quell the most dangerous attack on their legitimacy in the history of the kingdom.
Juhayman al-Uteibi is not a household name, even in the minds of many who would claim to be well-versed in the history and politics of the Middle East. Yet it was Uteibi and a group of around 500 armed, hardcore Wahabbi followers who seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on the first day of the Islamic New Year in 1400, or, on the Gregorian calendar, November 20, 1979.
The story relates how Uteibi and his followers seized the mosque and engaged in a bloody, two-week battle in a place where fighting and killing were believed to be strictly forbidden by the Koran. Uteibi's mission was fueled by distaste for the increasing liberalization of Saudi Arabia and what he viewed as the House of Saud's hypocrisy. The rebels included Mohammad al-Qahtani, whom the group insisted was the messianic figure of the Mehdi, placed on Earth to rescue true Muslims before to the coming of the apocalypse.
Numerous disastrous raids by the Saudi armed forces are detailed dramatically in The Siege of Mecca, culminating in a CIA-assisted gas attack that failed miserably. Eventually, the Saudis resorted to secretly importing a French military team, entrusted with providing the Saudis with the necessary equipment and training to quell the fighting, which is believed to have caused more than 1,000 deaths. Whether or not the French ever set foot in the holy city of Mecca is still debated, with conflicting stories emanating from the men involved.
The ineptitude of the Saudi military apparatus during the crisis is clearly evident. Readers of Trofimov's book learn that the Saudi military is split into different factions to ensure that no one faction ever achieves a degree of power that could threaten the House of Saud's rule.
Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is known for its secrecy and its muzzling of the local press, some of the public statements announced during the crisis still make for shocking, and even occasionally humorous reading. One statement a few days into the battle claimed victory, yet at the same time pointed out that forces would continue to engage until the problem was solved.
In fact, the Saudi refusal to disclose the truth instigated a vicious worldwide rumor mill, with both the U.S. and Iran accused of being involved in the siege from different quarters.
Ironically, despite public statements by Saudi officials deeming the rebels "infidels and heretics," the outcome of the crisis saw the Saudis actually taking steps to apply the same agenda that Uteibi had been fighting for.
The intriguing relationship between the ruling Saudi officials and the religious establishment is noted by Trofimov. Along with the narrative of the siege itself, this is perhaps the most captivating part of the book.
Islamic legitimacy is the key to the existence and survival of the Saudi dynasty. Uteibi and his men brazenly challenged that legitimacy. In its moment of crisis, the Saudi leadership was forced to turn to the religious establishment for a fatwa, or religious edict, underlining its authority and providing it with permission to carry out whatever mission was needed to end the siege.
In return, Saudis rulers rolled back the liberalization measures that had been slowly evolving in the 1960s and 1970s, at the request of the ulama.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef (who is still in that position to this day) announced that women news announcers would be removed from screens, and companies were told not to employ women at all. The religious police were given permission to raid western enclaves, areas they previously did not have permission to enter. Finally, a large influx of cash was awarded to the ulama and Islamic universities to aid the spread of the Wahabbi creed around the world.
Despite the failure of his mission, his arrest and his eventual beheading, Uteibi's goals were being implemented.
A notable inclusion in the latter part of Trofimov's book is the comments of an Al-Qaeda militant inspired by the writings of Uteibi. While expressing deep admiration for Uteibi's uprising, he notes that if the rebels had opted to attack government installations instead, they would have likely achieved more success. The siege of the Grand Mosque left many Muslims uneasy and the Saudi monarchy was seen to be defending Islam, whereas an attack on government property would have been viewed solely as an attack on the Saudi dynasty. The future of the House of Saud, based on these premises, would appear precarious.
It is impossible to fault the author for his descriptions of the siege or for divulging fascinating tidbits concerning the Saudi establishment. However, one can be irritated by his tendency to include unnecessary information, such as the numerous references to the planning and building of the mosque itself by the Bin Laden construction firm. One imagines that had this been any other contractor it would not have warranted a mention. Yet because the Bin Laden name ties in with Trofimov's thesis, it seems to have been inserted at every opportunity.
Also the author of Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu, Trofimov furthermore takes as fact the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was responsible for an assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. While Nasser insisted this was the case, concrete evidence has never been produced to support these allegations.
Finally, in terms of criticism, the narrative occasionally includes comments that border on the melodramatic. Perhaps the author was hoping to market the book toward an audience that reads mass market thrillers over more academic texts.
The material here is so compelling that such comments could have been deleted without sacrificing the book's appeal. In fact, *The Siege of Mecca* makes for compulsory reading, whatever its admittedly minor faults. It sheds light on a topic rendered even more intriguing by the continued attempts to blot the event out of history by the Saudi authorities. Trofimov's disclosure of fascinating details and his engaging narrative combine to create a tour de force which, once you begin, is incredibly difficult to put down.
--Yaroslav Trofimov's *The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al-Qaeda* is published by Allen Lane in the U.K. and Doubleday in the U.S. The book is available at Virgin Megastores throughout the Mideast.
Arts & living
A MISSING LINK IN TERROR'S CHAIN
By Thomas W. Lippman
** A reporter pierces Saudi secrecy about a seminal event in the evolution of radical Islam. **
October 21, 2007
The subtitle of Yaroslav Trofimov's fascinating and important book about the 1979 takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca by heavily armed fanatics refers to that event as "the forgotten uprising." Perhaps it has been forgotten here but not in the Muslim Middle East, where it was a seminal event of the region's most traumatic year in modern times.
That year began with the Iranian revolution and ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In between, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, radicalizing the Palestinians. Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq. And the former prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by the general who overthrew him, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq -- the leader who would turn the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan into a religious war that inspired zealots such as Osama bin Laden.
As Trofimov notes, the struggle over the mosque in Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and of Islam itself, is the least known event in that sequence because most of the radicals who seized the shrine were executed and just about everyone else involved, including senior officials of the Saudi Arabian government, long refused to talk about it.
The mosque's seizure humiliated the Saudi regime, which bases its legitimacy on its role as upholder of Islam and keeper of the faith's holy places; the kingdom's leaders at first refused to acknowledge that it had happened and later tried to minimize its importance.
Now, in a remarkable feat of reporting, Trofimov, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, has pierced that veil of secrecy. He found and interviewed Saudis who wished to stay unknown, persuaded French adventurers to talk, and used the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose U.S. documents, including the diary of the ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, John C. West. It is clear throughout Trofimov's brisk narrative that he got a lot of help from Prince Turki al-Faisal, the longtime chief of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador in Washington.
Trofimov tells the story in straightforward language that caters to readers with short attention spans; there are 31 chapters and an epilogue in 255 pages of text. Anyone can read The Siege of Mecca, and everyone should. Nonspecialists may struggle with the first few chapters, which trace the history of Islam and of Saudi Arabia and the origins of contemporary Muslim extremism, but Trofimov keeps this section brief, and the material provides useful context for understanding the significance of the mosque takeover.
Trofimov unearths many new details about the uprising, including the reasons the Saudis spurned offers of help from neighboring Jordan and turned instead to France, as well as the exact role played by French commandos in ending the siege and capturing the rebels -- but the book's value goes well beyond these findings. It establishes two points essential to understanding the turbulence in today's Middle East and the rise of al-Qaeda:
First, the Islamic extremists who seized the mosque on Nov. 20, 1979, and their leader, Juhayman al Uteybi, represented a crucial link in an unbroken chain of radical Islamic violence that runs from the fundamentalist warriors who helped Abdul Aziz ibn Saud take over the Arabian peninsula and create Saudi Arabia early in the 20th century, through the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the group that assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat after he made peace with Israel, to the Taliban in Afghanistan and, finally, to al-Qaeda and today's terrorists. None was an isolated phenomenon; all are part of the same movement. Their tactics differ, but their aspirations are the same: a return to what they imagine as a pure, pre-modern Muslim society as the Prophet Muhammad would have run it, untainted by Western ideas and Western materialism.
Second, Uteybi and his surviving companions, who were publicly beheaded after French commandos helped Saudi authorities retake the mosque, may have lost the battle, but they won their war. Saudi rulers, terrified by what Uteybi represented, essentially gave in to his demands that the country's drift toward liberalization be reversed. Women were taken off television, theaters were closed, and huge amounts of cash were disbursed to the country's most xenophobic, reactionary preachers and teachers. Therein lie the roots of the terrorism that arose from Saudi Arabia two decades later and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
"At the time," Trofimov explains, "such an embrace of the Wahhabi orthodoxy seemed like a wise survival policy for the House of Saud. It was only after decades of this indoctrination produced a new generation of al Qaeda radicals that some senior princes realized the extent of the folly."
As for the errors of the United States, Trofimov is equally blunt. Policymakers in Washington completely misunderstood what Juhayman represented -- he was a home-grown Sunni Muslim, but they thought he was a Shiite agent of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini -- and drew the wrong conclusions. Trofimov is especially critical of Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, who envisioned the rise of violence-prone Muslim zealotry as a tool that could be useful in combatting Soviet communism rather than as a threat to the West.
In a relatively brief narrative that can be read in a weekend, Trofimov manages to explain who the radicals were, what they wanted, how they smuggled their weapons into the mosque, why the takeover traumatized the Saudi royal family and why the story still matters. Many works of far greater length are less illuminating.
--Thomas W. Lippman, a former Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post, is the author of Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership With Saudi Arabia.