Mecca Deal

If you’re one of those people who believe that history is basically a comedy of errors, you’ll love Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda. It describes a savage, bloody, and remarkably consequential event that was staged by a bunch of deluded radicals, kept secret for days by one of the world’s most tyrannical governments, and then completely and fatefully misunderstood by the outside world. For the nearly three decades since it occurred, it’s been fitfully concealed and virtually forgotten. Yet the world would be a completely different place if it had never happened.

Trofimov’s story focuses on the 1979 hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. As the traditional rituals were winding down that November, a group of young Islamist fanatics broke open caches of hidden weapons and took over the Grand Mosque, seizing several dozen hapless pilgrims from around the world in the process. The leader of the attackers, a wild-eyed Saudi Bedouin from a part of the kingdom that had long nursed a grudge against the royal family, announced to his bewildered “guests” that they were about to have the privilege of personally greeting the Mahdi, Islam’s version of the messiah, whose appearance would usher in the end of history and, as a beneficial side effect, prompt the collapse of the Saudi regime. That latter point might have seemed trivial alongside the impending apocalypse, but of course it wasn’t. The Saudi royal family had spent the 1970s wallowing in its burgeoning oil wealth, and the result was a contradictory culture of ostentatious corruption, high living, and some distinctly un-Islamic practices. The government’s cautious sallies into modernizationsuch as allowing female news readers on TVhad infuriated more conservative elements, and particularly the clergy, who feared the erosion of their sere Wahabi version of the faith as well as the associated diminishment of their power.

On the surface of things, the occupiers of the mosque shocked the Saudi establishment and the global umma, or Muslim community, by their sacrilegious wielding of weapons in the holiest sanctuary of Islam. Yet at the same time they were also tapping into an undercurrent of anger against the perceived hypocrisy of the Saudi dynasty that would later inspire young Osama bin Laden and a generation of radicals who vowed to topple their own “un-Islamic” governments. (As it happened, Osama’s billionaire dad had finished a costly refurbishing of the Grand Mosque just before the terrorist takeover, and would give crucial help to the Saudi government forces charged with retaking the holiest of holies by supplying them with blueprints.) For the record, I’m not entirely convinced we’re dealing with the “birth” of al-Qaeda here. The charismatic but loopy rebel leader, Juhayman, seems less like the midwife of a movement than a random extra who has wandered onto the wrong movie set. But, of course, there’s certainly a grain of truth to the notion that bin Laden and others ultimately took heart from this example of how far you could get by challenging the House of Saud on its own terrain.

I hope Yaroslav Trofimov (who, I must confess, is a friend of mine) gets some of the recognition he so richly deserves for this book. (It’s worth noting that he has also supplied us with much great reporting on the Islamic world from his day job as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.) The Siege of Mecca reminds me a bit of those heroic journalists and academics who managed to shed light on the most inaccessible corners of the old Soviet Union at its most hermetic. Trofimov, who includes Arabic among his half-dozen or so languages, has defied the strictures of one of the world’s most secretive regimes in order to bring us this story, tapping a range of impressively obscure written sources (including previously classified U.S. government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests) as well as tracking down a remarkable assortment of people involved in the incident. The brief afterword that describes his adventures during his reporting is alone worth the price of the book. One of his sources is an ex-rebel who, after repenting for his misdeeds, has gone on to life as a Saudi government employee with a PhD in Islamic studies. The subject at first thinks that Trofimov wants to interview him about his own writings on Islamic history:

This man, of course, was one of the lucky ones. His comrades either died during the fighting or were beheaded after being taken prisoner and subjected to weeks of merciless interrogation. Not that he’s the only one who still has something to hide. The House of Saud has yet to allow the full story of those two weeks in 1979 to be told inside the country, and for good reason. For days after the rebels took over the mosque, the Saudi government’s sole response was a four-sentence press communiqu that vaguely named the attackers “deviators” while falsely implying that the authorities had regained control of the mosque. In reality the rebels were bloodily repelling wave after wave of government soldiers. Many of Juhayman’s men had served in the Saudi National Guard, training that they put to good use during the battle for control of the mosque. Trofimov estimates that the two weeks of fighting took more than a thousand lives, but the real figure may never be known.

Once the loyalist forces finally achieved their objective, the ultraconservative clergy (some of whom had provided the rebels with intellectual inspiration) deftly turned the whole mess to their own advantage. In return for a religious ruling condemning the occupiers the Saudi Islamic establishment demanded, and received, assurances that the government would cease its modernizing “innovations” and resume pouring cash into propping up Wahabi doctrine at home and abroad. As Trofimov points out, the takeover literally put the fear of God into the royal family, which would soon discover the benefits of exporting radical discontent to places like Afghanistan while shoveling concessions to the most reactionary elements inside the kingdom. Needless to say, we are still living with the aftereffects of that policy.

The Saudi government’s failure to name the culprits would literally prove lethal. The Carter administration, still clumsily trying to deal with the hostage crisis in Iran, immediately declared the occupiers of the mosque to be Iranians. Ayatollah Khomeini retaliated by putting the blame on the Americans. Which version did the faithful believe? You get three guesses. Mobs stormed the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing a U.S. Marine guard and supplying the Muslim world with yet another of its great anti-American conspiracy theories. It’s a crucial incident that has long been relegated to some dusty attic of American collective memory. Trofimov, however, is not the only one to have brought it back to mind; it has also been reconstructed (in somewhat greater detail) by Steve Coll in his book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. It’s funny, isn’t it, how so much of the relatively recent history of our own interaction with the world has turned out to require urgent excavation at the hands of people like Coll and Trofimov? I don’t know where we’d be without them.