What: Religious extremists in Saudi Arabia under the charismatic leadership of man disgruntled with Western access to the Kingdom, took over the Grand Mosque of Makkah for two weeks.
When: 20 November – 4 December 1979
Where: Makkah, Saudi Arabia
Some years are quiet, and others are filled with incidents that send ripples around the world. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamic Revolution in Iran led by Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein’s official cementing of power in Iraq, and the siege of the holy city of Makkah, 1979 was one of those momentous years.
Makkah – held in the hearts of all Muslims as the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad and the site of the Kaaba, the first structure on earth built for the worship of One God, and so the centre of pilgrimage for millions every year – is a city that is difficult to imagine being invaded. However, such incidents have taken place throughout Islamic history – the Umayyad, Abbasid and other Islamic empires; and even the forces of Ibn Saud in 1924 – but many forget that the siege of 1979 even occurred.
Early on the morning of 20th November 1979, two weeks after that year’s Hajj pilgrimage and on the eve of the new century of the Islamic Hijri calendar (1399/1400), shots rang out in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Makkah moments after the Imam of the sanctuary had finished the morning congregational prayers. As panic spread, two unarmed guards were killed — the first victims of the siege — and the gates were closed to prevent pilgrims escaping and reinforcements from arriving. Then one of the attackers grabbed the microphone beside the Kaaba.
“Get on the minarets! Position the snipers! Close the doors! Deploy the guards! Position the guards and sentinels in front of the doors!” the man ordered. He was one of the ringleaders of the incident, Juhayman Al-Otaybi. Another man then shocked the Muslim world by stating that the group’s leader Muhammad Bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani was the Mahdi, the long-awaited figure who will lead the Muslim world towards the end of times, who had arrived to rid the modern world of evil. He added that the Saudi royal family and the scholars were illegitimate, that their authority must be rejected, and that all within the sanctuary must come forward and pledge their allegiance to the “Mahdi”.
Juhayman Al-Otaybi was a former soldier in the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a prominent military corps traditionally made up of Bedouin fighters loyal to the Saudi royal family and the Salafist branch of Islam with which it is associated. His own grandfather was the famed leader of the Ikhwan movement (not to be confused with the Muslim Brotherhood), Sultan Bin Bajad Bin Hameed Al-Otaybi, who led a rebellion against the Kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud in the late 1920s after being his most devoted supporters. When seeing Al-Saud’s deals with Western powers, his mission to modernise the country and his orders to cease the expansionist raiding expeditions into Iraq and border regions of the Kingdom, the Ikhwan fighters waged a war against the King, in which Juhayman Al-Otaybi’s father also joined before it was crushed with the help of the British.
These vestiges of the polarising and extreme thought of Al-Otaybi’s forefathers lived on in him, and with his reported charisma and ideological mission he carried on that legacy by seizing the very heart of the Islamic world. He looked around at the rapid modernisation of the Kingdom and its adoption of new technological advances, particularly in daily life and entertainment; like much of the conservative clerical class in Saudi Arabia, he opposed it.
With 400 militants occupying the Grand Mosque and holding its inhabitants and pilgrims hostage, it later emerged that they had smuggled weapons, food and ammunition into the sanctuary by carrying them in coffins. The latter are not an unusual sight with the Imam regularly leading numerous funeral prayers on a daily basis.
After two weeks of shooting between the militants and the Saudi security forces – of which dozens were killed and even more wounded — Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz affirmed the Kingdom’s difficulty in handling the situation and called on France’s elite counter-insurgency force, the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), to help end it. It is also reported by many that in order for the members of the GIGN to enter the city of Makkah, which is strictly for Muslims only, they had to recite the Islamic declaration of faith and enter the religion officially.
The GIGN approached the crisis strategically, releasing gas inside the Grand Mosque which caused vomiting and temporary blindness, allowing Saudi forces along with Pakistani commandos to enter the site and take out the militants. After fighting their way deeper into the sanctuary and killing the self-proclaimed “Mahdi” Al-Qahtani himself, the remaining militants were disarmed and detained; Al-Otaybi was among them.
On 4 December 1979, the crisis ended with the Grand Mosque of Makkah completely purged of the militants and their ideological leaders. Following a trial, Juhayman Al-Otaybi and 67 of his fighters were publicly beheaded in various cities around Saudi Arabia the following month.
Al-Otaybi and his group, many of whom were ethnically and culturally diverse and hailed from regions outside Saudi Arabia, failed in their mission to be the “saviours” of the Islamic world with the false Mahdi at their head. The ideology which drove them, however, has lived on and allegedly inspires many extremist militants across the region and the world to this day, including Daesh. Their disdain for increasing modernisation rings true with many of those groups, who see such policies as an encroachment of Westernisation and cultural imperialism.
As usual, it would be foolish to blame the religious element of their ideology; they opposed even the greatest Salafist scholars at the time such as Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, and were deemed extremists even prior to and leading up to their plot. While many would disagree with the policies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today, it is fair to say that Al-Otaybi and his militant followers were essentially the descendants of the crushed Ikhwan movement and the predecessors of the groups which currently plague, and are exploited by, security agencies all over the world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.