Friday, September 12, 2008

Book Review: THE SIEGE OF MECCA by Yaroslav Trofimov—Was this Largely Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine really the Birth of Al Qaeda?

Book Review: THE SIEGE OF MECCA by Yaroslav Trofimov—Was this Largely Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine really the Birth of Al Qaeda?

By Kevin Stoda

I was very anxious to read Yaroslav Trofimov’s THE SIEGE OF MECCA, published by Doubleday, especially in the wake of last year’s release of the film CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR. With the annual commemorations of the horrible events of 9-11 fresh in our memory, I suggest readers to check out Trofimov’s as it shows how both hawks and progressive doves started making mistakes in the Middle East in 1979 in ways that affect the world we live in immensely today.

In contrast to Trofimov’s THE SIEGE OF MECCA, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR has been an important movie production. Nonetheless, a well made film of the non-fiction work, THE SIEGE OF MECCA, is also warranted.

When the film, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, was in the cinema in Kuwait last year it stayed only one or two weeks. I liked the film as a primer to U.S. of the 1980s from a neo-liberal perspective, but I felt that that film had been greatly underdeveloped in terms of making it clear that even prior to the invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas 1979, Saudi Arabia and the USA had been interested in supporting military opponents to the Soviet backed puppet regime in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the CHARLIE WILSON film, didn’t reveal that important Saudi Arabian funding—from both private and government sources—was being sent in great portions to support Afghani opposition to the Soviet Embassy by early 1980. Moreover, revolutionary furvor and trained fighters were being encouraged to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan to support the training of those opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Finally, the fact is, from the very first weeks after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Saudi Arabian leadership and non-governmental religious organizations were consciously already trying to redirect anti-Saud family hostilities in the Saudi Kingdom into that particular foreign conflict with the Soviet Union. In Yaroslav Trofimov’s THE SIEGE OF MECCA, the author clears the murky waters of recent history of the mysterious Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In doing sell he is able to dispel some of both neo-con and neo-liberal propaganda (and misinterpretations of 1980 and 1990) which have adversely affected U.S. policy in the region. In short, in this very readable work, the historical narration of Saudi Arabia and its relationship to the West are greatly demystified.

NOVEMBER 20, 1979 to 9-11-01

Five weeks prior to the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979, the only known siege of Mecca in over 1000 years occurred. According to Trofimov’s fairly important research in THE SIEGE OF MECCA, this singular takeover of Islam’s holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque, had been carried out with relative ease.

Trofimov narrates how an anti-Saud, pro-Islamic revivalism led to a millennialist movement under messianic leadership. This anti-western movement had been allowed to fester in Saudi Arabia for decades while the Saudi secret police and others had focused fully on playing the Cold War game of blaming most of the bad in the Kingdom’s world on either the USA or the Soviet Union. (NOTE: Dear Americans and Russians, do we really want to return to that Cold Warrior nightmare?)

In fact, the main leadership of the millennialist group in Saudi Arabia had been arrested in 1978. However, after a little torture and mistreatment in jail, both the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia (under Wahabi-oriented Ulema leadership) and secret police decided to free the whole lot.

In short, all the main people in power at that time felt that the Cold War and Israel were absolutely the ONLY political games in town that could threaten the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They were greatly mistaken.

Just as in the days before the 9-11 massacres in the USA in 2001, whereby the American intelligence and military establishments failed to rise to the challenge in any timely fashion to facts on the ground, the Saudi Kingdom in 1979 had its head in the sand and was totally unready & unqualified to fight the wrong wars for the next years and decades to come.

Trofimov notes that it wasn’t until 2004 that Saudi Arabian leadership even began publically to admit that its decade’s long support for jihadism to redirect the energies of anti-Saudi regime activities (since 1979) had been a magnificent and dangerous folly. The Kingdom still keeps its own people and neighboring Arab lands in the dark as to what happened in Mecca and the Kingdom in November and December of year 1400 on the Islamic Calendar.

November 20, 1979 on the Islamic Calendar marked the end of the Islamic New Year’s celebration of the faith’s 1400th year.

In the weeks before this date, Juhayman bin Seif al Uteybi, the movement’s chief leader, former national guardsmen, and architect of the uprising at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, led his men into the main plaza and announce that the long awaited Sunni Mahdi or messiah had returned.

In the months and weeks leading to the takeover of Islam’s most holy site, Juhayman had been preaching that the return of the Mahdi was near. In fact, the pilgrims at Mecca that particular Hajj had been buzzing with the possibility that at the turn of the Islamic century they might see the Mahdi.

Juhayman and his compatriots, upon taking over the mosque with thousands of captives on hand, took to the Grand Mosque’s microphone and preached that the arrival of the Mahdi had occurred. A new age had dawned.

The twenty-something year-old Mahdi, Mohammed Abdullah Al-Qahtani, finally stepped to the microphone and forever the modern world (according to Trofimov’s narration) was irreversibly tilted.

I was first reminded of this particular 14-day-long “Takeover in Mecca of 1979” some months ago as I thumbed through a dated copy of Sandra Mackey’s SAUDIS: INSIDE THE DESERT KINGDOM.

Unlike Trofimov, Mackey had been living in Saudi Arabia at the time. In Mackey’s book I had read for the first time that Shias (even Iran’s Khomeini) had had no role at all in the misguided Sunni millenialist takeover of Mecca. Mackey tried to pinpoint the source of discontent leading to calls to overthrow the Saudi Kingdom’s leadership as coming from several sources, including the Ikwahn movement of the 1920s.

In fact, Juhayman was a second or third generation of the groups, known as Ikwahn in Islamic and Saudi history, who were the last Arabians in the desert kingdom to take a stand against the House of Saud in the 1920s. The Ikhwan had claimed even 8 decades ago that the founder of modern Saudi Arabia was no longer loyal to the Wahabi (Safeerist) ideals and beliefs that had enabled him to capture Mecca and Medina a decade earlier.

These Ikhwan had been avid Shia haters and saw them as infidels and soon called the King of Saudi Arabia such an infidel. However, by 1927 the Ikhwan revolt had been put down.

Trofimov, however, has spent many more years than any other writer searching specifically after the events and personages involved in the 1979 siege of Mecca than did Mackey. Trofimov traveled over several years to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, other Muslim lands, Britain, the USA, and France in order to undertake this important work.

As this subject itself remains very sensitive in the Saudi Kingdom, where no books nor textbooks on the subject are permitted, it is quite amazing that this former Wall Street journalist, Trofimov, was able to do so many interviews and gain access to so many documents there.

Trofimov’s cites many important source notes in the back of his book, and his claim that he cannot cite certain sources due to the fears they may have for their lives or careers appears to be valid.

However, occasionally Trofimov does go too far and makes a claim that is too vague, such as at the end of the last chapter when he claims a fairly direct link between writings and activities of later follower of Juhayman and the 1995 bombing in a Riyadhi National Guard building. In that particular case, Trofimov simply fails to cite who the immediate link was. Normally (i.e. in other parts of his writings) Trofimov at least provides a pseudonym of the bomber in Riyadh or the name of the source who claimed the bomber to be of an avid reader of Juhayman’s writings.

Aside from such sophomoric shortfalls, Trofimov’s work is over-all sound,and his conclusions and observations from a historical perspective are outstanding.

For example, unlike many Western scholars and journalists before him, Trofimov not once makes the mistake of equating the takeover of Mecca with the events in the same November 1979 in Iran, where the U.S. Embassy was taken over by students under the spell of radical Shiasm under Ayatollah Khomeini. This distinction makes Trofimov stand out from many neo-liberal and neo-conservative writers who ignored this key point for decades.

As well, Trofimov does a wonderful job of discussing the strong rising anti-Americanism in both the Arab and Islamic worlds in 1979—i.e. in the period leading up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which-in-turn led to many Arabs and Islamacists turning away temporarily from using America as the whipping boy of radical nationalism in favore of taking on the other Great Satan: Communist Soviet Union. Trofimov reminds us, for example of the forgotten attacks on U.S. embassies in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Libya—all in November 1979. The takeover in Pakistan and in Libya are described in great detail.

This sort of writing is much more helpful than many post-Cold War writings which failed to raise the issue of Islamic sensitivies to growing U.S. expansion into the Gulf.


By looking at the takeover or attack of 6 U.S. embassies in South Asia and the Middle East in November 1979, Trofimov’s narration makes a sound basis for the Carter Administration’s horror that the Saudi regime failed to come forward with the truth about Mecca on November 20, 1979. That is, it took nearly a week for the Saudi government and the religious Ulema to let the Islamic world know that neither the USA nor Iran had had anything to do with the Saudi homegrown dissent and millenialist disorder which led to the takeover of the Mecca Kaba, the Hajj pilgrimage destination of all Muslims worldwide.

Moreover, the subsequent Kingdom lies and manipulation of news (after the fact of Mecca’s Siege) through its media, its ministries, and official historians in the 1980s led many in the Islamic world to believe the claim that the rebellion in Mecca under Juhayman had been small and that fears of a misguided Islamic extremist takeover were simply misguided. Furthermore, Saudi regimes continued to blame Shias for many of the land’s regions ill—i.e.without taking the bull by its horns and taking on homegrown extremism in its Sunni heartland which was fostered by Ulema leaders, like Abdeliz Bin Baz.

Meanwhile, Bin Baz and many Saudi ministerial leaders were allowed to stay in office in 1979--right through this very decade & with never suffering any repercussions for failures to stem Wahabi or Juhaymen extremism over recent decades.


In short, most of the Islamic world never really appreciated that Juhayman almost toppled the Saudi Regime in 1979. I have talked with two Egyptian brigadier generals in recent years who have noted how illusive it has been to gather facts about the Meccan takeover since 1979. For example, almost no one was informed at the time that there was any connection between the Ikhwan of the 1920s and the movement that raised its head in the Saudi Kingdom a half century later.

In the case Egypt, there is an outstanding lack of cultural memory related to the take over of the Grand Mosque because many Egyptians were involved alongside Saudis as part of Islam’s first multinational terrorist force spreading a global turn-back-the-clocks message to Middle Eastern Rulers and Westerners. Yemenis, Pakistanis, and even North Americans were also active in Juhayman’s 14 day occupation of the Grand Mosque.

More importantly, according to Trofimov, there was in Egypt a fairly direct link between the man who assassinated Anwar Sadat and the men who participated in or observed the millenialist movement of Mecca in November 1979

Trofimov explains, “One of the pilgrims who watched the takeover in Mecca, and who brought Juhayman’s writings home to Egypt, was a student named Mohammed Shawqi Islambouli. An activist in the burgeoning Islamic revival, Mohammed shared his literature, and exited tales of Meccas events with his brother Khaled.”

On October 6, 1981, Khaled Islambouli shot and killed President Sadat. Trofimov notes, “Juhayman’s writings, meanwhile, have become a success in Egypt. . . . [a 438 page volume] is now in its third edition.”

Moreover, Trofimov observes that many of those Juhayman followers who were not executed by Saudi Arabia were released and later encouraged to go to Afghanistan and fight the great Communist Menace, the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

Finally, Trofimov makes a case for an important interpretation for global historians, “In many ways, Juhayman’s venture, which blended for the first time the Saudi militants [Ikhwan] Wahhabi-inspired zeal and the Egyptian jihadis’ conspiratorial skills, was a precursor of Al-Qaeda itself.”

Trofimov adds that despite being “shocked by the ferocity of the battle in Mecca [in 1979], Al Qaeda’s future founder couldn’t help feeling sympathy for Juhayman and the rebel cause.”

In fact, in a 2004 interview, Osama Bin Laden talked about his reverence for Juhayman and what Juhayman had done and written.


In conclusion, I recommend that all victims and those affected through the blow-back from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East in recent years take time to read Trofimov’s fairly factual non-fiction work, THE SIEGE OF MECCA, and then inform others about its contents.

This is not a conspiracy theory book but a fairly well researched and extremely readable work. You won’t be able to put it down and the clarity it provides can be helpful in discussing peacemaking (conflict resolution) efforts in the future.

Through its strong critique of the Saudi Kingdom’s cover-up of the events on the ground in November and December 1979 and subsequent bad interpretations of the events by America’s national security teams and CIA in the 1980s, the novel fully supports progressive calls for change in foreign policy and more truthfulness and accuracy in reporting in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf region, Pakistan, and elsewhere in a region that is constantly allowing problems to stew and get worse for far too long.

The world does not need nor desire any more 9-11s.

Arm yourself with historical facts and talk to your leaders before the next one occurs.



Mackey, Sandra, SAUDIS: INSIDE THE DESERT KINGDOM, Boston: Houghton Mifflan, 1990.

Trofimov, Yaroslav, THE SIEGE OF MECCA, New York: Doubday, 2007



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