on 9 August 2008
Reading just like a classic thriller written by the likes of Graham Greene or John Le Carre, Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov's "The Siege of Mecca" is an important, comprehensive examination of the events leading up to the two-week siege of Mecca's Grand Mosque, the siege of itself, and subsequent events afterwards, which would lead inexorably to the rise of Al-Qaeda and the spectacular 9/11/01 terrorist attacks upon the United States. This is without question, an important event not only in contemporary Islam, but for the world too, and yet it is one that has been ignored these past few decades. Now, finally, the untold story of the 11/20/79 seizure of the Grand Mosque, has been pieced together by Trofimov, who has written what ought to be regarded as one of the most important books of the year. Surprisingly, Trofimov covers much terrain in what proves to be a relatively terse book on this bloody episode in recent Saudi Arabian history, emphasizing the origins, but even, the aftermath of this attack, which, he asserts was the first of many bloody incidents of Islamofascist terror leading up to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks.
Trofimov opens with a brief, but concise, history of both the Saudi royal family, emphasizing its 20th Century history and, especially, of the fundamentalist Sunni Islam sect known as Wahhabism; a sect which has been preaching Islamic Jihad (`Holy War") against the Western infidels encroaching upon Middle Eastern land for centuries. He emphasizes the close, centuries-old ties between the al-Saud family and Wahhabi clerics, reminding us of an early 19th Century Saudi-led effort to conquer the entire Arabian peninsula, hoping to transform it into a Wahhabi Islamic state; an attempt defeated only by an Egyptian military force acting on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, after more than five years of bloody warfare (The Saudi ruler was finally captured, taken to Constantinople, and beheaded there amidst "fireworks and a public celebration".). A century later, the Saudis were far more successful in their religiously-motivated desire for empire-building, imposing upon their newly conquered domains, a strict adherence to Wahhabi Sunni Islam, cleverly using a crack troop of fanatical Wahhabis, the Ikwan, to lead the conquest of much of Arabia from the early 1910s to the late 1920s. Eventually, however, the Ikwan revolted against the Saudis, appalled by the king's embrace of Western beliefs and technology, such as telephones, only to be crushed decisively at the March 1929 battle of Sbala. Years later, one of these Ikwan veterans would celebrate the birth of a son, Juhayman, the future mastermind behind the 11/20/79 seizure of the Grand Mosque.
Through Juhayman's eyes, Trofimov traces the rise of radical Islamist movements throughout the Middle East, especially Egypt, from the 1950s through 1970s. Juhayman acquires his devout, fanatical adherence to Wahhabism via service as a member of the Saudi National Guard. Eventually he's influenced strongly by the charismatic blind cleric Bin Baz; the arch foe of Saudi Arabia's incessant rush towards modernization, criticizing sales of cigarettes, displaying portraits of the royal family in public buildings, and, in particular, the emerging emancipation of Saudi women. But Juhayman would go much further than Bin Baz, by criticizing the very existence of the Saudi kingdom in a religious manifesto smuggled out of the country, and published in neighboring Kuwait. He would anoint a young religious student, Mohammed Abdullah, as Islam's Mahdi (redeemer), destined to lead the faithful at the Grand Mosque at the dawn of Islam's 14th Century (11/20/79). He would smuggle arms and munitions into the Grand Mosque, drawing elaborate plans for its seizure at the dawn of the new century; plans which nearly resulted in success.
Trofimov demonstrates that not just the Saudi ruling family, but the West, too, was caught completely off guard by Juhayman's seizure of the Grand Mosque. While some of this was attributable to a strict ban against non-Muslims entering Mecca itself; another, equally compelling, reason was the ongoing hostage crisis at the United States Embassy in Teheran, Iran (Erroneously, at first, Iran was thought to have been the foreign power responsible for the siege itself.). A bloody comedy of errors ensues, as ill-equipped Saudi troops try storming the mosque, only to be mowed down by superior weaponry possessed by Juhayman and his band of militants (A band that includes Afro-Americans with military training.). Meanwhile, the Saudi family receives permission from leading Wahhabi clerics - including Bin Baz - to mount an all-out assault upon the mosque itself, in exchange for ending the family's modest efforts at Western-influenced modernization, and other measures which set the stage for the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks upon America itself. Last, but not least, at the Saudi family's urging, France sends an elite team of anti-terrorist commandos and tear gas; it is this team that directs the final, successful assault upon the mosque.