1979 Grand Mosque seizure

1979 Grand Mosque seizure
Saudi soldiers, Mecca, 1979.JPG
Saudi soldiers fighting their way into the Ka'aba underground beneath the Grand Mosque of Mecca, 1979
Date20 November – 4 December 1979
Location
Result

Decisive Saudi Arabian victory

Belligerents

Saudi Arabia

 Pakistan[1]

France

al-Ikhwan[3]
Commanders and leaders
Strength
  • Pakistan
    50 Pakistani SSG commandos
  • Saudi Arabia
    c. 10,000 Saudi National Guard members
  • France At least 3 French GIGN commandos[2]
300–600 militants[4]
Casualties and losses
  • 127 killed[5]
  • 451 wounded
  • 117 killed[6]
  • Unknown number wounded
  • 68 executed

The Grand Mosque seizure[7] occurred during November and December 1979 when armed civilians calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud took over Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The insurgents declared that the Mahdi (the "redeemer of Islam") had arrived in the form of one of their leaders, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, and called on Muslims to obey him. For nearly two weeks Saudi Special Forces, assisted by Pakistani and French commandos,[8] fought battles to reclaim the compound.[9]

The seizure of Islam's holiest site, the taking of hostages from among the worshippers and the deaths of hundreds of militants, security forces and hostages caught in the crossfire in the ensuing battles for control of the site, shocked the Islamic world. The siege ended two weeks after the takeover began and the mosque was cleared.[10] Al-Qahtani was killed in the recapture of the mosque but Juhayman and 67 of his fellow rebels who survived the assault were captured and later beheaded.[11][12][13]

Following the attack, the Saudi King Khaled implemented a stricter enforcement of Shariah (Islamic law),[14] he gave the ulama and religious conservatives more power over the next decade, and religious police became more assertive.[15]

Background

The seizure was led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, a member of an influential family in Najd. He declared his brother-in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi, or redeemer, who arrives on earth several years before Judgement Day. His followers embellished the fact that Al-Qahtani's name and his father's name are identical to Prophet Mohammed's name and that of his father, and developed a saying, "His and his father's names were the same as Mohammed's and his father's, and he had come to Makkah from the north", to justify their belief. The date of the attack, 20 November 1979, was the first day of the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar; this ties in with the tradition of the mujaddid, a person who appears at the turn of every century of the Islamic calendar to revive Islam, cleansing it of extraneous elements and restoring it to its pristine purity.[16]

Al-Otaybi was from one of the foremost families of Najd. His grandfather had ridden with Ibn Saud in the early decades of the century and other of his family members were among foremost of the Ikhwan.[11] He was a preacher, a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard and a former student of Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Baaz who went on to become the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia.

Goals

"Al-Otaybi had turned against Bin-Baaz and began advocating a return to the original ways of Islam, among other things: a repudiation of the West; abolition of television and expulsion of non-Muslims".[17] He proclaimed that "the ruling Al-Saud dynasty had lost its legitimacy because it was corrupt, ostentatious and had destroyed Saudi culture by an aggressive policy of Westernization".[11]

Al-Otaybi and Qahtani had met while imprisoned together for sedition, when al-Otaybi claimed to have had a vision sent by God telling him that Qahtani was the Mahdi. Their declared goal was to institute a theocracy in preparation for the imminent apocalypse. It is important to emphasize, however, that the 1979 rebels were not literally a reincarnation of the Ikhwan and to underscore three distinct features of the former: They were millenarians, they rejected the monarchy and they condemned the wahhabi ulama.[18]

Relations with ulama

Many of their followers were drawn from theology students at the Islamic University of Madinah. Al-Otaybi joined the local chapter of the Salafi group Al-Jamaa Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasiba (The Salafi Group That Commands Right and Forbids Wrong) in Medina headed by renowned Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, chairman of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas at the time.[19] The followers preached their radical message in different mosques in Saudi Arabia without being arrested.[20] The government was reluctant to confront religious extremists. When Al-Otaybi, al-Qahtani and a number of the Ikhwan were locked up as troublemakers by the Ministry of Interior security police (Mabahith) in 1978,[21] members of the ulama (including bin Baz) cross-examined them for heresy but they were subsequently released as being traditionalists harkening back to the Ikhwan, like al-Otaybi's grandfather and, therefore, not a threat.[22]

Even after the seizure of the Grand Mosque, a certain level of forbearance by ulama for the rebels remained. When the government asked for a fatwa allowing armed force in the Grand Mosque, the language of bin Baz and other senior ulama "was curiously restrained". The scholars did not declare al-Otaibi and his followers non-Muslims, despite their violation of the sanctity of the Grand Mosque, but only termed them "al-jamaah al-musallahah" (the armed group). The senior scholars also insisted that before security forces attack them, the authorities must offer them the option to surrender.[23]

Preparations

Because of donations from wealthy followers, the group was well-armed and trained. Some members, like al-Otaybi, were former military officials of the National Guard.[24] Some National Guard troops sympathetic to the insurgents smuggled weapons, ammunition, gas masks and provisions into the mosque compound over a period of weeks before the new year.[25] Automatic weapons were smuggled from National Guard armories and the supplies were hidden in the hundreds of tiny underground rooms under the mosque that were used as hermitages.[26]