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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Siege of Makkah - 2 0 1 1 1 9 7 9 -

November 20th, the anniversary of the siege of Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah that caused congregational prayers to be inturrepted for the first time in Islamic history. From November 20, 1979--the first day of the first month of year 1400 AH--until December 5, 1979 the Sacred Masjid remained locked with hundreds of pilgrims trapped inside along with some 200 militants. This is the incident that led to the loss of many hundred people and destroyed large portions of the Sacred Masjid. But you will be hard pressed to find many who know much about what happened.

Most of us were not even born yet, but reading about those days I can't imagine what it must have been like.

A revolution in Iran overthrew the Shah and brought in Islamists in early February that year.

On February 17, China invaded Vietnam.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in Washington in March that year, drawing strong condemnation from around the Muslim world. Egypt subsequently got kicked out of the Arab League.

The North and South Yemen were on the verge of war in March of 1979 that was only prevented by Arab League intervention.

On April 11, Tanzanian troops invade and take over the Ugandan capital as Idi Ameen flees and takes refuge in Saudi Arabia.

In July 400 Iranian pilgrims were killed in Makkah after clashes with Saudi forces during the month of Ramadan.

In September of 1979 the prime minister of Afghanistan was killed in a palace shootout--a link in the chain of events that led to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 24, 1979.

On November 4, the infamous Iranian hostage crisis began. A number of U.S. embassy employees were held hostage until January of 1981.

And then, on November 20--first of Muharram of the new hijri century--some 200 mostly Saudi militants take over Masjid Al-Haram after the fajr prayers. The brought in weapons in coffins, stored ammunition in the basement and declared that mehdi is among them.

The next day, New York Times said on its front pages that Makkah Mosque was taken hostage by Iranian militants. In Pakistan and rest of the Muslim world, the American-Zionist lobby was blamed and the American embassy in Islamabad was set burnt down. Protesting for the sanctity of the Sacred Masjid, the students from Qauid-e-Azam University poured gasoline on an American embassy worker and watched him burn. A few days later, the American embassy in Libya met a similar fate.

And though the U.S. and Israel, or Iran for that matter, had nothing to do with the incident, many in still believe that they were to blame. And in blaming those who we don't like, we forgot who was really behind this incident, what were their reasons, and most importantly, why should we know about the incident that has been a taboo for history books all around the Muslim world.

I searched for the details on this incident for years until I found the first ever fact based account of it a few days ago. And now that I found it, I would like to share it with others I know.

For most of his life, few people would have thought that Juhayman al-Uteybi will ever do anything that will outlast him. He was an average corporal in Hars al-Watni--the National Guard of Saudi Arabia for some 15 years before he left public service while in his mid-thirties. He was always a devout Muslim, but in 1973 he decided to dedicate himself to studying and propagating Islam. This is about the time when Sheikh Bin Baaz rahimhullah became the supreme religious authority in Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Bin Baaz was known around the Muslim world for his intricate knowledge of hadith and Islamic fiqh. His fatawa were published in many languages, and he was well respected by the royalty and the commoners. Sheikh Bin Baaz was also known for keeping the royalty from blindly following the West in its immorality. He often strongly and fearlessly condemned the princes and the royal families for their loose behaviour outside of Saudi Arabia. That did not, however, mean that what he said was always done. And often, Sheikh Bin Baaz, being a scholar of the high calibre that he was, gave permissions to the government for certain "evils" in the interest of preventing a bigger evil.

For example, in 1940 Sheikh Bin Baaz gave a fatwa that the land of Arab, not just Makkah, is prohibited for the non-Muslims. However, later realizing the necessity of having non-Muslim experts in a mostly illiterate land, he allowed for a rukhsa. Famously, he did that again in 1991 when he allowed the Saudi regime to call upon the Americans and the Britains to help defend against Saddam Hussain's invading armies. The Sheikh has been unfairly criticized for that in many circles--though the text of his fatwa made it clear that it was in the interest of stopping a greater evil from spreading.

How is all that at all relevant to the siege of Makkah?

For many of us it is not; for Juhayman and many like him, it was of utmost relevance.

Juhayman had attended many lectures given by Sheikh Bin Baaz. He was a regular at Madinah University--though he never sat for the exams. He was also a committed Daiee of Islam, traveling far and wide in the desert lands and the oases of Saudi Arabia. He was an eloquent speaker and was able to connect readily with the youth. And he was a man of knowledge--afterall, he had sat in the lectures of Sheikh Bin Baaz.

Within a few years of leaving public service and joining the Dawah organized by Sheikh Bin Baaz, Juhayman became somewhat of a legend. Young people flocked around him as he went from village to village, tribe to tribe, calling people to tawheed.

But Juhayman was becoming increasingly frustrated as well. He saw Saudi Arabia going down the route of indecency and immorality. He despised the Western ways of the royal family, especially the crown prince Fahd, known as somewhat of a playboy. He was also infuriated by the Saudi policy of sending scores of young people to American universities for higher education, from where they came back heavily influenced by the civilization of Satan. And above all, he saw the permissions given by Sheikh Bin Baaz and other scholars as betrayal of the true faith by these scholars.

In 1978, Juhayman printed a small booklet called Saba Rasail (Seven Letters). The basic tenets of his ideology were as follows:

1- The duty to follow the Prophet's example
2- The necessity for Muslims to overthrow their corrupt leadership
3- The requirement for the leadership to be true to the Quran and the Sunnah, be of Quraishi roots, and be elected by the Muslims
4- The duty to base the practice of Islamic faith of the Quran and the Sunnah and not on taqlid of scholars and their incorrect teachings
5- The necessity to isolate oneself from the sociopolitical system by refusing to accept any official positions
6- The advent of Mehdi from the lineage of the Prophet to remove the current corrupt leadership
7- The duty to reject all worshippers of other than Allah
8- The duty to reject the worshippers of Ali, Fatimah, Hassan, Hussain and others from the lineage of the Prophet
9- The duty to reject immoral innovations such as music, television
10- The duty to establish a pure homeland for Islam and Muslims that does not court the unbelievers

The booklet was printed illegally in Kuwait and was smuggled back into Saudi Arabia. Within days, Juhayman and over 200 of his followers were arrested and put away with Prince Nayef personally overseeing the operation.

That should have prevented any operation that Juhayman may have been planning, but it did not. Juhayman was not destined to be behind bars for long and within a year he became the commander of the militant group that overtook the Scared Masjid. Juhayman, who was no more than an average unknown corporal in 1973, was on the front page of every newspaper in the world by 1979. And long after he was beheaded for what he did, another man whose life was altered by the events of November 1979--by the name of Osama bin Laden--would praise Juhayman for his true understanding of Islam, his courage, and his stance against the immorality and the illegitimacy of the Saudi government (in an October 2001 interview to Al-Jazeera).

Even today, you will find young people (Mostly in Arab) who say rahimahullah with the name that spilled the blood of innocent Muslims on the most sacred land in the universe. The man who forced old pilgrims to drink their own urine out of thirst while locked up in the basement of Masjid Al-Haram; the man who was responsible for preventing congregational prayers to be held in Masjid Al-Haram, is considered an exemplary believer and a role model.

How did Juhayman get out again? What were his motivations? How did he gather that many followers and why is his ideology still popular? These questions will be answered in the coming days inshaAllah.

I, for one, cannot find much fault with at least six of Juhayman's tenets. And depending on what he actually meant, I might be okay with another couple of them. The scholars of Saudi Arabia, for the most part, could find little wrong with any of his points. Afterall, Sheikh Bin Baaz was jailed in 1940 for a number of his fatawa, one of which was strong condemnation of putting the pictures of Saudi royalty on walls and the currency. Bin Baaz had also criticized King Faisal for bringing TV to the Kingdom and had more than once shown disapproval for women newscasters on Saudi TV. The scholars were also infuriated by women getting employment in the private sector, especially at ARAMCO, where women secretaries were commonplace until then.

Juhayman and his followers were well known to the scholarly community. They had attended many lectures and were very active in the field of Dawah. So when the scholars sat down in Madina to debate the issue of Juhayman and his followers, they couldn't find much fault with the ideals Juhayman preached. After all, many of them had given fatawa espousing the same views. They strongly believed, however, that the house of Saud, with all its deficiencies, is best placed to defend Islam against the forces of secularism and communism.

When Juhayman and his followers were arrested, it was Sheikh Bin Baaz himself who called Prince Nayef and asked him to release the group (Yaroslav Trofimov based on an interview with Prince Turki Al-Faisal).

The release, though, wasn't soon enough for the group. Many of them were severely tortured during the few days they spent in the Saudi prisons. One of them, a 25 year old Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Qahtani had his fingernails pulled out violently. Once release, the experience only strengthened Juhayman and his band in their belief that the Saudi government was illegitimate.

It is difficult, if not nearly impossible to find much accurate information on what exactly happened--you will still find people who should know better blaming this on the Shi'as of Iran--and I believe that we will never know all the details. I had passively searched on this topic, on and off, for many years. My father had first told me of this episode of Islamic history when I was about ten; he was was in Masjid Al-Haram hours before it was taken over and was present at the beheading of many of the accused. But even he knew very little. Searching the Internet proved more difficult--though I was able to find many references to Juhayman and his siege on websites related to mujahideen and militant groups within the Muslim world.

And then I came across "The Siege of Mecca" by Yaroslav Trofimov. Though the author tries to be objective, his frequent Wahhabi-bashing rants take away from his objectivity. Nevertheless, the facts he presented in his book are as close to the truth as anyone has ever been, and they are nearly indisputable as far as I can tell. He obtained previously classified documents from the CIA files, as well as letter and cables exchanged between President Carter, ambassador West and the Saudi government officials. He interviewed dozen of people present in the Masjid at the time. He interviewed many of the Saudi princes involved in the episode, especially Prince Turki Al-Faisal--the head of Saudi intelligence agency--as well as Saudi and French commandos who ultimately freed the Masjid from the militants. He interviewed Imam Subiel, who was the Imam of the Fajr prayer after which Juhayman seized the microphone from him. He even dug up surviving militants who were spared because they were only 16 at the time.

I cannot take everything he says word for word, but I am relating here whatever I believe to be accurate given independent research, which was primarily on the Internet, but also included looking through old newspapers at libraries in Mississauga, Toronto, University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. I still have to give credit to the incredible research done by Trofimov.

And though Trofimov would argue that Juhayman became obsessed with the idea of Mahdi after he was tortured in 1978, there are many indications that he had been eagerly waiting for the Mahdi for many years.

Juhayman believed the Mahdi will appear near the end of time, on the first day of the new hijri century, and will take the oath of allegiance by the believers near Ka'baa, standing between the station of Ibrahim and the Hateem. Juhayman also believed that Mahdi will be from the family for the Prophet, a Qurayshi, and will bear the name of the Prophet--Muhammad bin Abdullah--and will have a red mark on his cheek, like the Prophet himself. After his experience in the prison, he became increasingly convinced that the end of the world must be near. So when Juhayman saw that with less than a year to go, there are no signs of the messiah, he actively started looking for one.

Among his followers was the young graduate of Kind Saud University, Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Qahtani. He had the right name. His features, if you tried real hard, were similar to those described in the books of Seerah as the Prophet's. And he had a red mark on his right cheek. He was an eloquent Khatib at a Masjid in the district of Malaz in Riyadh. Everyone who knew him believed that this kid was destined for greatness in the service of Islam.

There was one problem though. The tribe of Quraysh was from the Adnani branch of Arabs, the descendents of Prophet Ismail, whereas the Qahtanis were the indigenous population of Arabia from Yemen. A Qahtani Arab, according to Juhayman's understanding, could not have been the Mahdi and there was no one else Juhayman could see who would be fit to be al-Mahdi. He was in a quandary. That was until Saeed, the older brother of Muhammad, told Juhayman of his family's history.

The family of Muhammad bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani traced their ancestry back to the Prophet, through the Turks. Not many of Juhayman's followers actually believed it initially as many Arabs then, and even now, rarely gave much credence to millions of Syeds and Aghas in the Indian subcontinent, Iran and Turkey that claim descendence from the Prophet. Soon, however, a number of people in Juhayman's band started reporting seeing Muhammad al-Qahtani taking the pledge of allegiance near the Ka'baa. These dreams were even reported by people who had never seen Juhayman.

As we all know, the Prophet called lying about a dream one of the worst types of a lie. People who were reporting these dreams were well aware of that, and were all active in da'wah. Many had learned Islam in universities around the Kingdom and were considered men of knowledge and understanding. Their dreams had to carry weight. And the fact that it was dozens of them who reported the same dream, removed even a shadow of doubt from any one's mind about Muhammad al-Qahtani. Even Muhammad, who was extremely reluctant in the beginning, caved in and accepted that he is the Mahdi once he heard about these dreams.

With 1400 hijri just months away, Juhayman went to meet Sheikh Bin Baaz and other leading scholars of the Kingdom. He told them of his intention to anoint the Mahdi in the Haram on Muharram 1, 1400 hijri. The scholars reprimanded him, told him it would be a mistake, and made it clear to him that such a Mahdi will have no support from the Ummah in general, and will most certainly be arrested and put to death. They never thought that Juhayman would actually go through with his plans, and they certainly never imagined he would do something by force. They still believed him to be harmless. Hence, they never reported Juhayman to the authorities.

For his part, Juhayman started planning. Along with some followers, he spent my weeks in the Masjid, becoming familiar with every nook and corner of the vast building. Among his followers were many students in Makkah, who spent all their days in the Masjid, even sleeping in the basement of the Masjid. As a former National Guard corporal, many of his contacts and indeed many of his followers were from the National Guard. The band helped itself to a generous supply of ammunition from the National Guard ammunition depots. They also smuggled in sniper rifles and machine guns from Kuwait.

Some of his followers asked why, if Muhammad al-Qahtani was the Mahdi, would they need so much ammunition to anoint the Mahdi. Juhayman always answered that he had no intention of desecrating the Sacred Masjid by using the weapons--the weapons will only be used when absolutely needed and even then only for self-defence. His definition of self-defence, as it turned out, was much broader than what many had thought.

In the days leading up to the day, Juhayman smuggled into the Masjid ammunition and weeks worth of food supply with the help of Mahrous bin Laden, the older brother of the more famous Bin Laden, and a devout follower of Juhayman. (As many of you would know, the Bin Laden family is responsible of the expansion and maintenance of the Sacred Masjid.) The day before the assault on Ka'baa, Juhayman and his followers trickled into Makkah from all over the Kingdom. Many brought their wives and children with them; others were perhaps less optimistic and chose to drop off their families in Yemen or Kuwait before joining Juhayman.

Muharram 1, 1400 hijri was not as big a deal as January 1, 2000, but scores of Muslims made their way to Makkah anyways to see the dawn of the new hijri century from the Scared Masjid. Add to it the many hajis who had stayed behind, and there were well over 200,000 believers in the Scared Masjid at the time of fajr. If anyone was keeping count, they would have noticed that it wasn't just the number of believers that was unusually high; there were many more coffins than usual as well--most of which were full of death, not dead bodies. Given that there were some three dozen gates to the Sacred Masjid at the time, the militants were able to cover up the unusually high number of coffins by bringing a few in from every gate of the Sacred Masjid.

During the Fajr prayers, Juhayman stood just a few feet from Imam Subiel. As soon as the prayer finished, he stood up, took out his machine gun and fired in the air. Other followers around the Masjid fired similar shots to get attention. Surprisingly, this did not cause mass commotion that one would expect. If it was any other place, the 200,000 people would have made a run for the gates. But this was the Sacred Masjid--the grounds where any shedding blood is forbidden. No one expected anything violent would happen here. Many of the pilgrims, and even the locals, took it as some bizarre celebration of the new century. Some pilgrims thought that perhaps the King was coming to the Masjid and shots were fired to draw attention to His Majesty. His Majesty, however, was still in bed.

Juhayman made his way to Imam Subiel, who was getting ready to lead a funeral prayer over a coffin that did contain a dead body, and pushed him away from the microphone. He took the microphone and the declared that the promised messiah, Imam Mahdi, has arrived and is in the Masjid. He announced that the pledge of allegiance will be taken here, right next to the Ka'baa. Those who knew Arabic in the crowd were confused--those who did not understand the language were more confused by the appearance of Juhayman. His disheveled beard and long, dirty hair, with clothes that seemingly hadn't been changed in weeks were a stark contrast to the white robe and the elegant jubba of Imam Subiel.

Juhayman then passed on the microphone to the older brother of Muhammad al-Qahtani, who was known for his eloquence. Saeed narrated the many ahadith on the eventual advent of Mahdi, and recounted the many shortcomings of the illegitimate Saudi monarchy. As he was talking, Juhayman's band were closing and chaining up the doors to the Sacred Masjid.

The pilgrims were told that a pledge of allegiance will be taken for the Mahdi and that the Masjid is locked up to protect the Mahdi against the likely Saudi opposition. The pilgrims were told to cooperate and do as they were told. Among the followers of Juhayman were students from various countries, who started translating the commands in other languages.

Muhammad al-Qahtani was introduced to the pilgrims then, as Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Qurayshi. Juhayman pledged his allegiance first, followed by all of the militants one by one. Some people from among the pilgrims stood up to take the pledge willingly, others did it for the fear of their lives. They came up one by one and kissed the hands of the man they considered Mahdi. The significance of their action was, no doubt, very apparent to them and showed in their humility in front of the young man.

Soon, the pilgrims were given various orders. Some were told to leave the Masjid by climbing out of the windows. These were primarily non-Arabs who would have been a liability due to communication barriers. Others, the African pilgrims, were told to carry rolls of rugs and stack them up against the doors and to take ammunition up to the minarets where the snipers among the militants were taking positions. The Arabs were told to help militarily, or get locked up in the basement. Imam Subiel, on seeing this, took off his outer robe, tied his head scarf around his head in a turban, and made it out of the Masjid in a group a Indonesian pilgrims. Before he left, however, he called the Makkah police station to update them on the situation since the police inside the Masjid was armed in nothing more than batons.

An hour into the siege, the world outside the walls of the Masjid knew little of what was happening inside. Even after Imam Subiel's detailed explanation to the police station, no one imagined a siege involving over 200 militants. An hour later the police station sent a single patrol car to investigate the "trouble caused by a couple of people" at the Sacred Masjid. As the patrol car approached the Masjid, bullets rained from the minarets, killing the two officers inside. These were the second and the third casualty of the siege. The first one was the father-in-law of Muhammad al-Qahtani, who was killed moments earlier when a warning shot ricocheted off a pillar and killed him.

Imam Subiel did all he could to warn the authorities of the severity of the situation, but no one seemed to believe him. The police station sent three more patrol cars that met a similar fate. The militants on top of the minarets made it a point to single out uniformed police officers only--letting the civilians be.

Imam Subiel was finally able to reach Sheikh Nasser bin Rashid, the senior Imam responsible for the two Harams--Makkah and Madina. He had the authority to go to the top, and it was he who rose Kind Khalid from his bed to give him the news. Within minutes Prince Nayef and Prince Turki Al-Faisal were on their way to Makkah. Crown Prince Fahd and Prince Abdullah (the current monarch) were not available, with Fahd at an Arab League summit in Tunis and Abdullah vacationing in Morocco.

Meanwhile, the news of Juhayman and the Mehdi was spreading rapidly in Makkah and Jeddah. As pilgrims were trickling out, they brought with them the stories of the appearance of Al-Mahdi, and a copy of the Seven Letter (Saba Rasail) written by Juhayman. Within hours, the appearance of al-Mahdi was the talk of the town. The Saudi government realized that if the news spreads, it will cause a serious law and order situation within the country. Outside the country, it will show the Saudi government in extremely poor light. So as is the fashion among many governments in that part of the world, the Saudis immediately ordered a communications blackout. The Canadian phone company that managed international calls to and from Saudi Arabia was ordered to close all lines.

The American embassy in Jeddah noticed right away that the phones were down. They made some inquiries and heard that there was some sort of trouble in Makkah, but they could not get any more details. Diligent as they were, the embassy officials contacted every government person they knew to find out more information until they got a vague idea of what is happening in Makkah. The phones were down, but the embassy had a secured cable link to Washington, and they wasted no time in communicating the news to the White House. That same day, President Carter had ordered USS Kitty Hawk to the Gulf to put pressure on Iran and a State Department Spokesman was briefing reporters on that decision. In what was to become a very costly mistake, the spokesman made a casual comment. "There has apparently been some kind of a seizure of a mosque by a group in Makkah." Giving an interview to the media a couple months after the incident, Prince Abdullah remarked that given how quickly the Americans knew about the incident, one cannot be blamed for wondering if they had advance knowledge of it.

The local media in Saudi Arabia gave no hint of any trouble in Makkah. On top of that, Sheikh Ibn Rashid decided that if the Masjid in Makkah can be attacked, then the Masjid in Madina would be at risk too. He was right, to some degree, because Juhayman had announced that his people controlled both Masjids. Juhayman, however, was bluffing. Precautionary closing of Masjid An-Nabawi would cause rumours to intensify. Almost everyone believe it is the work of either the Iranians or the Americans, and Saudi Arabia was in no hurry to correct the misinformation. The Saudis were deeply offended by the leak from the American embassy. That was probably the reason it took the Saudi government five days to release a statement saying that no Americans are involved in siege of the Sacred Masjid.

Back in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi military faced another unique problem. Getting the Saudi army and the National Guard to Makkah was no problem at all. However, given the rumours of the Mahdi, the Saudi government faced another unique problem. The soldiers had their oath of allegiance to the King, but it also limited their obedience of the King only to the matters allowed by Allah. The rank and file of the Saudi military openly started to wonder. What if the person claiming to be the Mahdi really is al-Mahdi? What if the end of time is near? What would be their end if they were among those who fought against the forces of truth, the forces of al-Mahdi? And above all, what about the clear prohibition by the Prophet of bloodshed in Makkah? "The fighting in Makkah was not permitted for anyone before me, and will not be permitted for anyone after me." How could they raise their weapons and fire towards the Sacred Masjid? And even if the claim of Muhammad al-Qahtani was wrong, should the defense of the Sacred Masjid be left to Allah, like it was left to Allah by the grandfather of the Prophet against the Army of the Elephant?

Desperate, King Khalid called an immediate Shura meeting with 29 of the top scholars in the Kingdom, led by Sheikh Bin Baaz. However, where it took the Sheikh of Al-Azhar a few moments to give a fatwa permitting fighting against the militants, the Saudi scholars took much longer.

The morning of November 21, the Saudi government decided that it should tell its citizens about the situation. Trofimov provides the four line statement given by Prince Nayef at 5 AM on Saudi radio: "A handful of deviators infiltrated the Holy Mosque with arms and ammunition during the early morning prayer Tuesday, the first day of the first month of Hijra year 1400. They presented someone to the worshippers in the mosque to perform the morning prayers, pretending that he was the expected Madho, and urged them at gunpoint to recognize him as such. The authorities concerned took all necessary means to control the situation after procuring a fatwa from the ulema to protect the lives of Muslims inside the mosque. The Ministry of Information will issue a subsequent statement on developments in the situation."

The fatwa had not yet been procured. And the handful of militants actually numbered over 200. It appears that the Saudi government did not believe the number could be as high as 200 until many days later. Meanwhile, the American embassy in Pakistan was burnt down and Muslims around the world protested against the American/Zionist attack on Makkah.

As the situation of the Ummah deteriorates, we have developed an alarming tendency to blame all our misfortunes on the Americans and the Zionists. We, many Muslims believe, can do no wrong. Everything is a conspiracy. And the response to every misfortune is rallies against America and Israel all over the Muslim world.

If our rulers are corrupt, it must be an American-Zionist plan.

If a military dictator takes over our country, it must be an American-Zionist plan.

If a politician or a dictator is killed, it must be an American-Zionist plan.

If Iraq attacks Kuwait, it must be an American-Zionist plan.

If planes fly into buildings, it must be an American-Zionist plan.

If a newspaper somewhere publishes offending cartoon, it must be an American-Zionist plan.

We get out of our homes to shout slogans, close down shops--striking against America, and hurt no one but our own economy. Something similar happened in November 1979. Protests were held in front of every American embassy in the Muslim world. Caucasians were beaten up by mobs in every Muslim country. And in Hyderabad, India, where the Muslim mobs could find no American embassy for protest and no Caucasians to beat up, they turned on Hindus and burnt down dozens of their shops.

Ever ready to blame the other, have we ever looked within ourselves? Have we ever thought that may be, just may be, the cause of all our misfortunes is us? The siege of Makkah by Muslim militants highlighted the need to look within for problems, but the Ummah, once again failed to learn its lesson. That lesson needs to be learnt, sooner rather than later. And that was my sole intention for writing this series.

The recovery of Ka'baa was an important issue and everyone wanted the credit for doing so. Prince Abdullah's National Guard, Prince Nayef's special security commandos, and Prince Saudi Army were combined to come up with an attack team of willing soldiers. The problem was, the three units had never trained together and didn't even have compatible radios. The first hodgepodge joint force to attack and recover the Sacred Masjid started its mission in the early hours of November 22. The joint force picked Bab Salam in the Safa-Marwa gallery to make their way into the Masjid.

Here they met another unexpected hurdle. They had expected to be fired upon from the minarets as they made their way to the gate, and made adequate arrangements to shield themselves from the militant snipers. They had also expected that the gate would be locked and would need to be opened somehow. They didn't expect that opening door would be as much trouble. As it turned out, the gates were very well built. And they were under orders, given the lack of fatwa, to make sure they do not damage the Masjid in any way. As the task force stood by the door, trying to find a way to open it, the militants opened the second floor windows, turned their machine guns to the ground, and killed the entire task force in a matter of seconds.

Near fajr time, a plan was devised to open the gate using TNT. Colonel Homaid, leading the troops this time, suggested to Prince Nayef that they should wait until the nightfall to attack again. Prince Nayef was infuriated, called Colonel Homaid a coward, and declared that the loss of life should be of no concern. This was, after all, a noble mission and any soldier killed would a martyr going straight to the promise paradise. The poor Colonel had no choice but to comply with a prince eager to send his men to paradise.

Bab Salam was chosen once again to be detonated. The sun was out by that time, and inside the Masjid, the Safa-Marwa gallery was in near darkness since the militants had cut all electricity. The Saudi military outside was in full view of the militants inside. Muhammad al-Qahtani himself, armed with two machine guns, had decided to greet the Saudi army. He was hiding in the Safa-Marwa gallery along with some fifty other militants. Once the Saudi army entered the building, the militants opened fire, killing every single one of them on the spot. Colonel Homaid, understanding the suicidal nature of this mission, had decided to lead from the front and was the first one to lose his life.

Outside, Saudi information minister went on Saudi radio and TV and announced that by the grace of Allah, the Masjid had been recovered and the "minor incident" was resolved. The Muslims rejoiced. Heads of States from all over the world sent congratulatory messages to King Khalid. And the newspapers all over the world had front page headlines praising the quick recovery of the Masjid. But Saudis weren't going to fool too many people for too long. Barely 24 hours later, Muslims around the Middle East turned on their TVs to see the Juma' Khutbah from the Sacred Masjid. There was none. The Saudi government had lied to the world, and not for the last time. During the next two weeks, various princes and ministers would claim victory another six times. Each, except the last of these, were white lies.

On that Friday, sermons in Masjids around the world condemned Juhayman and his band. Khateebs all over the world declared that Juhayman and his band deserve the wrath of God for what they have done. The 29 top scholars of Saudi Arabia, however, were still discussing their response.

They had decided to play hardball with the Saudi government. They shared many of Juhayman's grievances against the regime, though they did not approve of Juhayman's means. The ulema would only give the fatwa if, and only if, the government agreed to introduce certain "reforms" in the Kingdom. The government kept its side of the deal, and in the days after the siege many reforms did take place. Women were forbidden from working and appearing on TV. The newspapers were required to obliterate the face of women in any published pictures. Alcohol in Western compounds was outlawed. And most importantly, the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice was established. The 'Mutawwas' of this committee became infamous in the next two decades as loose cannons. As children growing up in Saudi Arabia, we never feared anything or anyone as much as a mutawwa in a GMC at the time of Adzaan.

The 29 ulema did come out with the fatwa later that Friday. They had decided fairly quickly that Muhammad al-Qahtani cannot be al-Mahdi since the hadith of al-Mahdi mentions an army of 70,000 Jews originating from Isfahan in Iran. The Iran after the revolution did not have any Jews, let alone 70,000 in Isfahan. They were also able to find verse 191 of the second Surah of the Qur'an in no time. The point of contention that delayed the fatwa for three days was the last part of the verse which states, "but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of the unbelievers." Could they declare Juhayman and his band unbelievers?

The fatwa that eventually came out, according to Arab News, roughly had the following wording.

The armed group should first be asked to surrender and lay down their arms. Should they agree, they must be imprisoned until their case in considered in accordance with the Islamic Shariah. But if they resist, all measure could be taken to arrest them, even if it led to a fight and killing of those who were not arrested and had not surrendered.

And then after quoting the above verse, the fatwa stated that although this verse has been revealed in connection with the unbelievers, its connotations include those who act like unbelievers and fighting them is therefore permissible.

Over the next few days, the Saudi army would try many more times to enter the Masjid. Each one of those tries was from Bab Salam. Each one of those tries ended similarly. Prince Nayef succeeded in sending many young men to paradise with his stubbornness. With the fatwa, however, they brought in King Abdelaziz Armored Brigade with artillery support.

The Saudis brought in APCs--Armoured Personnel Carriers--to take out the militants as soon as the fatwa from the scholars was obtained. The ensued is detailed in Trofimov's book. I would limit myself to pointing out only a couple interesting details.

The minarets were secured through anti-tank missiles that were used to take out the militant nests on top. The sturdy structures remained otherwise undamaged. Without the militants firing from the minarets, the Saudi army enter the Masjid from Bab Salam with a few soldiers hiding behind each APC. Shielded from the militant fire, the Saudi army was able to inflict what were perhaps the first few casualties on Juhayman's band. Among the militants were some African Americans who had joined Juhayman. They were mostly former Black Panthers with an above average knowledge of violence and makeshift weapons. It was on their suggestion that some of the militants went and emptied out gasoline from vehicles parked in the basement of the Masjid. (These were the vehicles used by Juhayman and his followers to smuggle in food supplies and some of the weapons.) They then filled water bottles taken from pilgrims with gasoline, stuffed the bottle-top with a piece of cloth, showed it fire and threw them at the advancing Saudis from across the Safa-Marwa gallery. The 'grenades' worked well enough, and Saudis started running away. The 'grenades' weren't enough, however, to deter the advancing APCs.

Someone suggested that to stop the APCs, the 'grenade' would have to be dropped in the APC from the cupola. The task was near impossible though with APCs and remaining Saudis firing at anything that moved. This was when something extraordinary happened--something that only worked to strengthen the belief of Juhayman's band in their mission.

Muhammad al-Qahtani, who was in the Safa-Marwa gallery, stood up and said he will do the impossible. He was the Mahdi after all, and the Mahdi cannot die in these initial stages. He has to live to fight dajjal alongside Isa AS. With that, Muhammad al-Qahtani took two bottles of gasoline in hand, and ran across the Safa-Marwa gallery. Zig-zagging while being fired upon by many machine guns, he reached the first APC safely, climbed on it, killed the soldiers hiding behind the APC, opened the cuploa, dropped in his grenade and ran to the next APC. The insides of both APCs exploded, with the occupants burning to their deaths. Muhammad al-Qahtani came back safely and other APCs started retreating, running over the poor soldiers that were hiding behind them. There was no room left for doubting the Mahdiship of Muhammad al-Qahtani among his followers.

The Saudis came back with vengeance and better planning the next day, though the carbonized APCs in the door way meant other APCs couldn't go in. Soon, Muhammad al-Qahtani and his few remaining companions were cornered, shielded by the rocks of Safa. After a while, the Saudis advanced further and decided on a different strategy.

They threw in grenades towards the militants. Muhammad al-Qahtani, once again believing in his immortality, did what is considered impossible. A 25-year old youth in good physical shape, he jumped, picked up the grenade, and threw it back at the Saudis. He proceeded to do that at least a dozen times in the next few minutes. But his luck finally ran out. As he reached another grenade to throw it back at the Saudis, it exploded, and along with it, vanished, the legs and the right arm of Muhammad al-Qahtani. When the Saudis identified the body four days later, a pathologist report indicated that he had only died a day ago. Some claimed seeing the unfortunate man crawling with the help of his remaining elbow and screaming for help.

It was reported in the local newspapers at the time that the mother of Muhammad al-Qahtani was arrested and brought to King Khalid in the early days of the siege. The monarch asked her if there was any way that Muhammad al-Qahtani can be stopped from what he is doing. The old lady clamly replied, if he is al-Mahdi, he will kill you no matter what you do to stop him. And if he is not al-Mahdi, you will kill him and for that you don't need me.

Seeing the Mahdi blowing up like that shook the belief of a few followers who saw what happened. However, they did not have any options left. The fatwa clearly said that anyone who surrenders will be spared and it was announced by the Saudis before the assault began. But a few who tried to surrender in the darkness of Safa-Marwa valley, where both sides let their machine guns loose on anything that moved, were killed within seconds of getting out of their hiding spots.

Only one militant was able to escape from that hiding spot in the Safa-Marwa gallery. Faisal Muhammad Faisal was always a hesitant follower, and now he had no doubt left that this mission was wrong. He found a way to Juhayman, who was busy securing the Qaboo--the basement area of the Sacred Masjid. Faisal Muhammad Faisal went straight Juhayman and informed him of the Mahdi's death. Juhayman knew that his game was over, that he was wrong in doing everything he had done. But he couldn't give up after coming this far. So he hid the news of al-Qahtani's death, and ordered a retreat to the basement, where hundreds of pilgrims were kept hostage. Faisal Muhammad Faisal turned in his gun and went in one of rooms where the pilgrims were kept hostage. He spent his remaning days crying over what he had done, asking for Allah's forgiveness. It was he who disclosed to the world many of the details of Juhayman's plan and the battle in the Safa-Marwa gallery. Faisal Muhammad Faisal was beheaded for his role in the affair--may Allah accept his repentance.

With the top floor of the Masjid secure, the Saudis started assessing the damage. The Safa-Marwa gallery was full of blood and body parts. The wall between the gallery and the Masjid was no longer there. Beyond that, there were pockets of resistance that were easily dealt with. The longest battle was put up by two young Egyptians who had hid behind the Hateem. They survived from as long as they did because of the Saudi's reluctance in shooting towards the Ka'baa.

The Saudis announced victory, though there were over a hundred and fifty militants still hiding in the basement, with King Khaled posing next to Hijr al-Aswad in a picture distributed to the media. With the militants coming out of the basement every so often to fire on the Saudi army before retreating back, the Masjid was not safe for the worshippers. With the massive damage and evidence of hundreds of deaths, the Masjid was not suitable for the media yet. After all, the Saudis still maintained that the incident was minor. The battle was to go on for many more days and the Saudis struggled to find a way into the vast Qaboo.

The main floor of the Masjid was secured, but most of the militants were still alive and armed in the basement, along with Juhayman and thousands of hostages. The food brought in by the militants was quickly running out and Juhayman limited the ration to a couple dates a day and zam-zam water. The blessed water of zam-zam was also applied as the cure-all medicine for any wounds or ailments.

Saudis were near the end of their wits in trying to get to the basement. They did not even have the blueprint to the Masjid's floor plans and the Bin Laden Company was moving its offices and took its time unpacking. Once the floor plans were obtained, it was decided to use some of the openings to the basement to drop in high concentrations of tear gas--toxic enough to do serious damage to the victims. Famously, Saudi Arabia sent a telegram to the White House, asking for enough tear gas that the U.S. ended up sending every last bit of it to Makkah.

Armed with tear gas, the Saudis sent in a team wearing gas masks to get the militants out of the basement. The logistics of this, however, were not fully thought out.

The militants had a few advantages. They were in the basement and the gas tends to move upwards--such that lying down on the floor would have been sufficient to not get affected. The basement also had relatively few openings. The militants quickly covered them with zam-zam powered wet towels and wrapped their own head covers on their faces.

The Saudi army had a huge disadvantage. They all had big beards. The tear gas couldn't penetrate the basement and quickly rose up to the main floor and seeped through their beards into their gas masks. As the victims tore of their gas masks to vomit, the full force of the tear gas knocked them out. It is said that none of the men who went into the Masjid to throw in tear gas came back on their own. The wind resulted in the gas moving quickly to the neighbouring hotels where many pilgrims were still living. When all was done, the tear gas was responsible for sending close to 200 pilgrims to the hospital, while none of the militants are believe to the affected by it at all.

Saudis were quickly losing hope in their own ability to bring this conflict to an end. The public uprising of Shi'as in Qatif and the Eastern province in general was also diverting their attention and limited resources. (The Dative uprising left over 400 Shi'as dead--another topic in Saudi history that is rarely discussed.) The Saudis knew they needed help but didn't know where to turn to.

Jordan was the first to offer help. King Khalid, however, refused. The house of Saud had taken away Hijaz from the grandfather of King Hussein of Jordan and turning to them for help now would have undermined their moral claim to the two holy sites. There were also pressures on the house of Saud to give up the custodianship of the two sacred mosques and to put them under a trust overseen by a body representing all Muslim countries--pressures that intensified during this conflict. Bringing in help from another Muslim country would have only given strength to the opponents of the house of Saud. As such, both Morocco and Pakistan were turned down when they offered help. Instead, the Saudis went to the French and requested the help of their elite unit-- Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale.

The mandate of the French was not to go in and rescue the Masjid. That was to be left as the course of last resort. Their mandate was to train the Saudi army to go in and do the job themselves. The French sent three members of the elite unit under the command of Captain Paul Barril. Though the French were not supposed to enter Makkah and were told to operate out of Taif, Captain Paul Barril later claimed that he personally entered the Masjid after a "summary conversion" to Islam, a claim that the Saudis deny. Captain Paul Barril also provided insights into the Saudi army's incompetence and complete lack of tactics.

With the training of the French GIGNs, the Saudi army planned a massive operation, attacking the basement from every possible entrance. Tear gas was used once again, but much more carefully this time, and hence much more effectively. The militants lasted a mere few hours under this well planned attack and about 120 of them surrendered, including Juhayman.

Many parts of the Masjid were completely destroyed by the end of the siege. The militants were paraded in front of the TV cameras and reporters were invited to the Sacred Masjid to show the world that, at last, the Masjid was free. Though the official death tolls were much lower, eye witnesses and other unofficial sources claim that nearly a thousand lost their lives, many of them innocent pilgrims. Of those who were captured alive, 67 men were put to death by beheading, including Juhayman. Those condemned to death were sent to all major cities of the Kingdom to send a message to the citizens that such insurgency will not be tolerated. The heads of the dead were displayed outside the Masajid in every major city for days to come. Others, those under 16, were imprisoned for ten to twenty years. One, Mahrous bin Laden, was spared his life and is a member of the board of directors of the Bin Laden family business today. Another, an African American Muslim, was quietly sent back to the U.S. in a shroud of secrecy because the U.S. was worried about the perception of U.S. involvement in the affair. (Imam Siraj Wahaj, a student in Makkah at the time and one of those present in the Masjid at the time of the siege, has been occasionally mentioned as the person in question, though these are nothing more than rumors and the Imam recently denied any involvement in an interview with Trofimov.)

Juhayman remained unrepentant of what he had done till the very end, though in talking to one of the scholars of Makkah, he did say that he wouldn't have done what he did had he known it would end the way it ended. He did claim a moral victory, for much of what he demanded was done soon after his death. The scholars had asked for many reforms in return for the fatwa and the government hastily put them in place. A nationwide ban was put on employing women in private offices (with the exception of health care and primary education), a ban that remained for the next two decades. Post-secondary education became more difficult for women. Women were specifically prohibited from driving. Saudi women were removed from TV (though curiously, Egyptian and Syrian women were left). Every newspaper and magazine was required to be censored to hide hair, legs or arm of women in any pictures. Most importantly, the infamous Mutawwas were introduced to the streets of Saudi Arabia to promote virtue and forbid vice.

I will not go into whether these reforms were good or bad since that is not my call to make. However, it is interesting to note that many of these reforms were slowly phased out over the next 25 years and others are being phased out now. It is perhaps no surprise then that the grievances of Bin Laden against the Saudi government, much before Bin Laden became a household name in the West, were not different from what Juhayman gave his life for. Osama bin Laden was then 20-years old and his future interviews indicate he was deeply influenced by Juhayman's sacrifice and his cause. He was also greatly disturbed by how the Saudi government handled the whole affair. Zawahiri too was greatly influenced by Juhayman. A student himself, he had personally distributed many copies of Juhayman's Seven Letters and was enraged at the worldwide condemnation of Juhayman's cause. Two decades later, Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri would come together to form a partnership that we are all too familiar with today.

The timing of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan couldn't have helped the Saudis more. Coming at time when Juhayman had widespread sympathy in the kingdom, many of his followers left Saudi Arabia to fight the godless communists instead. The root cause, the hard line understanding of Islam, was not tackled and continued to spread unchecked. And while the Muslim Ummah could have learnt many lessons from the debacle, it largely failed to do so. A bit of introspection would have helped us greatly, but Saudi played the incident down as a minor domestic incident and the rest of the Ummah accepted that all is well and moved on to more immediate problems. Prince Turki Al-Faisal and others from the royal family openly wondered after 9/11 if the government was too kind to the scholars at the time and is indirectly responsible for the spread of extreme ideas.

The Result

Muslims are still blaming Israel and the U.S. for all their problems.

Muslims are still unable to accept that something within us might need changing.

Muslims are still prone to finding themselves between extremism and laxity.

With a serious lack of qualified scholarship in the Ummah, the stage has been left wide open for orators to pose as scholars and sway the minds of the Muslim youth. The youth are looking for quick fixes and have forgotten that Islam is the balance between extremism and laxity, as said by Hasan Al-Basri. Many have picked up one aspect of Islam and try to run with it, leading to extremism, even when Allah has commanded that we enter into Islam completely. Many do not seem to realize that the wholesome approach to Islam means simultaneous pursuit of many things, a coordinated effort to advance at many fronts. Very few today realize that Islam includes da'wah, pursuit of knowledge, call towards the Sunnah, purification of the self, political activism, physical training, promotion of art and culture, promotion of commerce and establishment of social welfare initiatives. This comprehensive Islam is what we find in the life of Muhammad SAW, not the piecemeal approach that many have taken up today.

To enter into Islam completely is to not ignore any of the aspects of Islam as a community. To enter into Islam completely is to strike a balance between all these aspects and to prioritize them based on our circumstances. And to strike that balance, we need people who understand the objectives of Shariah and the Quran and Sunnah in its whole as scholars of the Ummah. Because following the sources literally without understanding the objectives leads to extremism. And following the objectives without a wholesome understanding of the sources leads to laxity. And both are not from Islam.

May Allah SWT lead us to the way that He is pleased with, and save us from the way of those, He punished. May Allah SWT make us from the people of the right hand side, and make us of those who will be under His Shade on the Day when there will be no shade but His. Aameen!

I have tried my best to relate the events as I know them; however, mistakes were undoubtedly made for which I seek your pardon. And verily, Allah is best of those who know.
The article is written by my friend Junaid Mirza. This article is being sourced by researched material in the form of some evidences like videos of the inside of The Mosque on Nov 79, pictures of the incident, and some unclassified official documents and letters exchanged secretly between High officials of SAUDI ARABIA and High level Consuls of the concerned countries involved in the Retake operation especially US, France.


Anonymous said...


This article is way too long and confusing. I think the one who wrote it dosent have an objective in mind and was just playing with words and trying to relate one event to the other. So no comments on it.

Anonymous said...

Assalamu alaikum,

Br. Appreciated your efforts to write this info. There is a Canadian scholar (now lives in South Africa)Dr.Abdulla Hakim quick who was a student in Medina university at that time gave very good information about this incident and also how we could avoid in the future based on Islamic teachings.

Please refer an audio lecture called "The HearAfter" for further detailed info about the so called Mahdis and the real one (may Allah have mercy on him).

Anonymous said...

@ "way too long and confusing"

this is the reason this was written an a multi-part series and not a single article. The objective was to simply narrate history.

Sohaib said...

I just came across this post while doing some research on the issue myself, and must say that it is absolutely brilliantly written - very well researched, very insightful and clear, and definitely a shocking read.

Thank you so much for compiling this! It is a great service to seekers of knowledge around the world.