Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov (Book Review #51 of 2016)


The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine

I recently reviewed several books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history, modern critiques of Islam and views to reform, and books about human rights in Islamic countries written predominantly by women (full list at bottom of this post). I did that to set a foundation for trying to understand the development of ISIS and other radical groups, for which I read several other books on modern militant Islam (list also at bottom). This list will grow as new books become available and I find time to read older books as well. But this book should be read in the context of having read the others.

The Siege of Mecca is a must-read for understanding the roots of Al Qaeda, the history of US and European interaction with Islamic extremism, and for putting much of today's struggles into context and the beliefs of jihadis such as ISIS who eagerly await the Mahdi. I had read other books on the US' relationship with Saudi Arabia before (ex: House of Bush, House of Saud), but all seem to ignore the events of 1979. In 2016, the tragedy of Benghazi comes to mind quite a bit, but in 1979 there were attacks on US embassies around the world due to the seizing of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a radical Islamic group wrongly attributed to the US (and Israel); it is a wonder how an Ambassador or other staff were not killed then. Most of the world has forgotten November 20th, 1979 because it was lost in the Iranian hostage crisis, the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, and other events. Trofimov has done an outstanding job researching this book and bringing events to light. Since reading this book, several others have mentioned this book, including one by Bin Laden's family. The events in the aftermath of 1979 help explain both the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of the religious police and more overt Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and its export abroad in the 1980s to today, and the US policy of establishing bases in the Middle East to show strength.  

The author begins with a history of the community of brothers in the Wahabbi sect in Saudi Arabia. There is much in the history of Wahhabism that the books on the history of Islam and the Middle East on the list below were quite helpful in understanding. The House of Saud made a Faustian bargain with cleric Muhammad ibn Wahhab in which the Sauds would be the ruling family while the Wahhabs would be the dominant religious sect.

At the time of the Siege, Saudi Arabia was ruled by Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who was King of Saudi Arabia from 1975 to 1982. His father had been King Faisal, who had abolished slavery in 1962 and been committed to other reforms and closer ties with the West before being assassinated by a rebellious nephew in 1975. These kings were seeing a growth in oil revenue and and survived on the deals made with religious clerics long ago. Bedouins began to move into the growing cities, bringing their more conservative backgrounds with them. Among influential clerics of the day was Abd al-Aziz Ibn Baz, who would later become the Grand Mufti. Ibn Baz was a prominent Salafi who was part of a wider conservative network that Trofimov documents brainwashed members. It was during this time that the doctrine of the Mahdi, which many incorrectly associate mostly with Shi'ia Islam, was revived.

In the 1970s, members of the Black Panthers and other foreign dissident groups were learning in Saudi mosques and schools. There was a growing sense of insecurity as Saudi Arabia relied upon the West for military aid and technological know-how in building projects while being completely reliant on oil exports to support the entire economy and social state. There was greater uncertainty as Saudi Arabia's chief rival, Iran, threw off the yoke of its US-backed dictator in favor of a religious state. The CIA had been weakened by Congressional investigations, its failure to see what was happening in Iran, and the Jimmy Carter administration more interested in peace than espionage. To the Wahhabists, Westerners on sacred Saudi soil were akin to Christian invaders in the Crusades.

Juhayman ibn Muhammad ibn Sayf al-Otaybi was one member of the group which seized the Grand Mosque. He studied the Hadiths even though establishment clerics discouraged the process due to how complicated the Hadiths are. Juhayman was a devoted disciple of Ibn Baz and became opposed to the Saudi royal family's policies and lifestyles which were clearly out of conformity with strict Islamic principles. Juhayman's father had made the same charge against King ibn Saud in the 1920s. Juhayman's intensely conservative beliefs caused him to break with Ibn Baz and demand change.

Juhayman's Sunni eschatology includes the Dajjal returning to earth as a false messiah (same as the Christian antichrist), and Isa (Jesus) returning to destroy first the Dajjal, then the Jews. (Shi'ia apparently believe it is the Mahdi who will do this.) In Sunni strains, the Mahdi appears to be similar to the Isa figure, he is a mortal man who will establish a right and peaceful Muslim rule some time before the Judgement Day in which Isa returns. Juhayman's brother-in-law, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, apparently fit the bill. His first name is Mohammed, as it is believed the Mahdi will be, and his family hails from the North. Members of their band of several dozen radicals apparently have dreams and visions that compel them to believe that al-Qahtani is the Mahdi, and the fervor seems capture al-Qahtani's mind as well. Many were formerly in the military, and the group apparently had enough connections and funding to be heavily armed, disciplined, and well-trained. The assault on the Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca is set for November 20th, the first day of the Islamic lunar calendar, which also is the date the Mahdi will supposedly reveal himself.

There is widespread confusion after the seizure of the Grand Mosque. Senior Saudi leadership is out of the country at the time. Some of the guards believe that Abdullah Mohammed al-Qahtani is indeed the Mahdi and that they are in an eschatologically important moment. The US Embassy begins shredding documents, fearing the worse and suspecting the Iranians have captured the mosque complex, enraging the Saudis by leaking such ideas to the media. The Ayatollah Khomenei broadcasts that the US and Israel have taken over the complex, un unquelled report that causes uprisings all over the world. The Saudis were reluctant to quash the rumors because they did not want to acknowledge the Mosque had been seized from under their watchful eye and they were mad at the Americans for leaking the disturbance. President Carter dispatches a carrier group to the Persian Gulf. Consulates and other sites were attacked from Turkey to Pakistan. Trofimov writes that the future would-be assassin of the Pope, Mehmet Ali Oğca, was motivated by attack on the Grand Mosque to escape from prison during this, and the belief of Western involvement may have contributed to his desire to murder the Pope on his visit to Turkey in 1981.

In Pakistan, the US Embassy was overrun by armed rioters. Embassy staff were rounded up into vaults while President Carter and the Ambassador to Pakistan tried uselessly to contact the Pakistani President. American airlines offices and other consulates around the country were attacked and burned, two American soldiers died. The Pakistani leadership played a political game and refused to refute the rumors. Pres. Carter later claimed that he had apologized and offered to pay reparations, but others dispute this and Trofimov writes that the US Marines cursed Carter for this incident for the rest of his short-lived presidency. Secretary of State Vance moves to evacuate the embassies all over the Muslim world.

Trofimov writes that there was American veteran in civil defense who worked in the complex, he had simply uttered the Shahada to work in the place. Two Americans disguised as pilgrims were able to sneak into the complex and take video crucial to intelligence for the counter-strike. An African-American was part of the rebel group that was attacking armored personnel carriers, and another was also involved. One of the two was later executed and their identities were never revealed. 

During fighting with Saudi defense forces, the would-be Mahdi is killed. Juhayman convinces the group to continue the fight, claiming there is no proof that al-Qahtani is actually dead. To make matters worse for the Saudis, a Shi'ia uprising takes place in Katif. The Saudi government censors all the news and tries to appease the Ayatollah in Tehran while bloodily suppressing the uprising.

The re-taking of the mosque was quite tricky due to the buildings being holy sites and the Saudis not having forces equipped or trained for such a task. But suddenly every Saudi prince wanted a piece of the glory for retaking Mecca and this made it even messier. While the Saudis finally publicly admitted there was a problem, calling in Americans or other infidels on the ground was out of the question, leaving the House of Saud with few options. Only the Jordanians and Pakistanis had special forces among the Muslim countries which might be up to the task, the Pakistanis sent a group of 50. The government needed fatwas to be issued giving the military cover for operations within the complex. The Saudis blasted away at minarets and other buildings, keeping the damage invisible to the outside world through media blackout. For the heavier fighting inside the basement of the Grand Mosque, the Saudis quietly reached out to the French who dispatched a group of their elite forces fresh off staging a coup in Central Africa. (The French hated President Carter's policies as well.) 11 men arrive with no identification and the task of training the Saudis properly. The task is complicated by not even being able to draw a schematic of the buildings without it being sacrilege. Three commandos have to show conversion to Islam in order to enter the complex and engage in operations. The fighting lasted until Juhayman and over 60 others were captured on December 4th.

In the end, Juhayman and his gang were executed. Juhayman was sort of a martyr for his cause of Islamic purity, some of his writings make it to Egypt where they are embraced by other radicals; one of whom assassinates Anwar Sadat in 1981. The US begins negotiations with Oman about building a naval base and the USSR counters US moves toward the Gulf by increasing its troop buildup on the border of Afghanistan-- the USSR would invade just a few weeks later. Jimmy Carter changed his policy to one of more aggressive stance, backing the CIA's operations with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. The House of Saud, quite shaken by the brazen assault on their rule, makes further deals with clerics like Ibn Baz to keep their rule safe and further fund Wahhabist schools and mosques and causes globally. One of those causes was taking on the USSR in Afghanistan. The Sauds must have realized that such a group could not engage in such a brazen attack without wider funding and resources. Most of the Saudis are in the same positions when the book was written in 2007 as they were in 1979.  The events of 1979 would further inspire Osama bin Laden to be active in Afghanistan, and later pick up where Juhayman left off-- cleansing the holy sites of foreign influence and decadence.

I give this book 5 stars out of 5. A must-read for anyone interested in foreign policy, history, Saudi Arabia, or how the West is now at war with an increasingly violent jihad. It is also an interesting book on the spread of subversive ideas among small, committed groups. Apologists like John Esposito seem to argue that 1979 was the violent end to an isolated fringe group, rather than the beginning of the growth of increasingly large armed groups of Wahhabis and Salafis bent on large-scale attacks like 9/11. Trofimov does a good job laying out the facts and their importance.

Books I read prior to or subsequent to the above:
A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

Islamic reform-style:
Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

Human and women's rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Reading Lolita in Tehran -  (read earlier)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)

Foreign policy/Americans traveling in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristen Mulvhill (4 stars)
Left of Boom - How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (3.5 stars)

Al Qaeda and ISIS books:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
The Rise of Isis  - Jay Sekulow (1 star)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)

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