The Grand Mosque seizure occurred during November and December 1979 when extremist insurgents 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 commandos fought pitched battles to reclaim the compound.
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. Following the attack, the Saudi state implemented a stricter enforcement of Islamic code. While the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was taking place, between 26 November to 3 December 1979 a revolt by the Shiite Muslim minority in the oil-rich Al-Hasa province of Saudi Arabia, known as the 1979 Qatif Uprising, took place.
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.
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. 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.
Juhayman had turned against al-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." 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."
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. They differed from the original Ikhwan and other earlier Wahhabi purists in that "they were millenarians, they rejected the monarchy and condemned the Wahhabi ulama."
Many of their followers were drawn from theology students at the Islamic University in Medina. 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. The followers preached their radical message in different mosques in Saudi Arabia without being arrested. 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, members of the ulema (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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
In the early morning of 20 November 1979, the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, was preparing to lead prayers for the 50,000 worshippers who had gathered for prayer. At around 5:00 am he was interrupted by insurgents who produced weapons from under their robes, chained the gates shut and killed two policemen who were armed with only wooden clubs for disciplining unruly pilgrims. The number of insurgents has been given as "at least 500" or "four to five hundred", and included several women and children who had joined al-Otaybi's movement.
At the time the Grand Mosque was being renovated by the Saudi Binladin Group. An employee of the organization was able to report the seizure to the outside world before the insurgents cut the telephone lines.
The insurgents released most of the hostages and locked the remainder in the sanctuary. They took defensive positions in the upper levels of the mosque, and sniper positions in the minarets, from which they commanded the grounds. No one outside the mosque knew how many hostages remained, how many militants were in the mosque and what sort of preparations they had made.
At the time of the event, Crown Prince Fahd was in Tunisia for a meeting of the Arab Summit. The commander of the National Guard, Prince Abdullah, was also abroad for an official visit to Morocco. Therefore, King Khalid assigned the responsibility to the Sudairi Brothers - Prince Sultan, then Minister of Defence, and Prince Nayef, then Minister of Interior, to deal with the incident.
Soon after the rebel seizure, about 100 security officers of the Ministry of Interior attempted to retake the mosque, but were turned back with heavy casualties. The survivors were quickly joined by units of the Saudi Arabian Army and Saudi Arabian National Guard. At the request of the Saudi monarchy, the Pakistani military's special forces units, operatives and commandos were rushed to assist Saudi forces in Mecca to lead the operation to recapture the Grand Mosque.
By evening the entire city of Mecca had been evacuated. Prince Sultan appointed Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, head of the Al Mukhabaraat Al 'Aammah (Saudi Intelligence), to take over the forward command post several hundred meters from the mosque, where Prince Turki would remain for the next several weeks. However, the first order of business was to seek the approval of the ulema, which was led by Abdul Aziz bin Baz. Islam forbids any violence within the Grand Mosque, to the extent that plants cannot be uprooted without explicit religious sanction. Ibn Baz found himself in a delicate situation, especially as he had previously taught al-Otaybi in Medina. Regardless, the ulema issued a fatwa allowing deadly force to be used in retaking the mosque.
With religious approval granted, Saudi forces launched frontal assaults on three of the main gates. Again the assaulting force was repulsed as they were unable to break through the insurgents' defenses. Snipers continued to pick off soldiers who revealed themselves. The insurgents aired their demands from the mosque's loudspeakers throughout the streets of Mecca, calling for the cut-off of oil exports to the United States and the expulsion of all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arabian Peninsula. In Beirut an opposition organization (the Arab Socialist Action Party – Arabian Peninsula) issued a statement on 25 November, alleging to clarify the demands of the insurgents. The party, however, denied any involvement in the seizure of the Grand Mosque.
Officially, the Saudi government took the position that it would not aggressively retake the mosque, but rather starve out the militants. Nevertheless, several unsuccessful assaults were undertaken, at least one of them through the underground tunnels in and around the mosque.
A team of three French commandos from the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) arrived in Mecca. Because of the prohibition against non-Muslims entering the holy city, they converted to Islam in a brief, formal ceremony. The commandos pumped gas into the underground chambers, but perhaps because the rooms were so bafflingly interconnected, the gas failed and the resistance continued. With casualties climbing, Saudi forces drilled holes into the courtyard and dropped grenades into the rooms below, indiscriminately killing many hostages but driving the remaining rebels into more open areas where they could be picked off by sharpshooters. More than two weeks after the assault began, the surviving rebels finally surrendered.
However, this account is contradicted by at least two other accounts, including that of then GIGN commanding officer Christian Prouteau: the three GIGN commandos trained and equipped the Saudi forces and devised their attack plan (which consisted of drilling holes in the floor of the Mosque and firing gas canisters wired with explosives through the perforations), but did not take part in the action and did not set foot in the Mosque. He claims that Pakistani SSG commandos carried out the operation instead.
The Saudi National Guard and the Saudi Army suffered heavy casualties. Tear gas was used to force out the remaining militants. According to a US embassy cable of 1 December, several of the militant leaders escaped the siege and days later sporadic fighting erupted in other parts of the city.
The battle had lasted for more than two weeks, and had officially left "255 pilgrims, troops and fanatics" killed and "another 560 injured ... although diplomats suggested the toll was higher." Military casualties were 127 dead and 451 injured.
Shortly after news of the takeover was released, the new Islamic revolutionary leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, told radio listeners, "It is not beyond guessing that this is the work of criminal American imperialism and international Zionism." Anger fuelled by these rumours spread anti-American demonstrations throughout the Muslim world—in the Philippines, Turkey, Bangladesh, eastern Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. In Islamabad, Pakistan, on the day following the takeover, the U.S. embassy in that city was overrun by a mob, which burned the embassy to the ground. A week later, in Tripoli, Libya, another mob attacked and burned the U.S. embassy. Soviet agents also spread rumours that the U.S. was behind the Grand Mosque seizure.
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. They were not shown leniency. The king secured a fatwa (edict) from the Council of Senior Scholars which found the defendants guilty of seven crimes:
On 9 January 1980, 63 rebels were publicly beheaded in the squares of eight Saudi cities (Buraidah, Dammam, Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, Abha, Ha'il and Tabuk). According to Sandra Mackey, the locations "were carefully chosen not only to give maximum exposure but, one suspects, to reach other potential nests of discontent."
Saudi King Khaled however, did not react to the upheaval by cracking down on religious puritans in general, but by giving the ulama and religious conservatives more power over the next decade. He is thought to have believed that "the solution to the religious upheaval was simple--more religion." First, photographs of women in newspapers were banned, then women on television. Cinemas and music shops were shut down. School curriculum was changed to provide many more hours of religious studies, eliminating classes on subjects like non-Islamic history. Gender segregation was extended "to the humblest coffee shop". The religious police became more assertive.
Not since the tenth century had such a maverick crew occupied Islam's holiest sanctuary, and for nearly two weeks Saudi Special Forces assisted by Pakistani and French commandos fought pitched battles to reclaim the compound.
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.
Their language was curiously restrained. The sheikhs had a rich vocabulary of condemnation that they regularly deployed against those who incurred their wrath, from kuffar ... to al-faseqoon (those who are immoral and who do not follow God). But the worst they could conjure up for Juhaymand and his followers was al-jamaah al-musallahah (the armed group). They also insisted that the young men must be given another chance to repent. ... Before attacking them, said the ulema, the authorities must offer the option`to surrender and lay down their arms.`
`Those old men actually believed that the Mosque disaster was God's punishment to us because we were publishing women's photographs in the newspapers, says a princess, one of Khaled's nieces. The worrying thing is that the king [Khaled] probably believed that as well . . Khaled had come to agree with the sheikhs. Foreign influences and bida'a were the problem. The solution to the religious upheaval was simple--more religion.