Grand Mosque Seizure

Grand Mosque Seizure

“On this day in 1979, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, Islamic dissidents led a brazen armed attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The siege lasted two weeks, took hundreds of lives, and shocked the Muslim world.

It was about 5 in the morning on the final day of Hajj when Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, the Grand Mosque’s imam, was preparing to lead 50,000 worshippers from around the world in morning prayers. They were gathered in the massive, 7-acre marbled mosque compound (the center of which is the Kaaba), known as the Grand Mosque. The compound had recently undergone a 20-year, US$18 billion renovation and could accommodate some 1 million worshippers at a time, crucial during Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. As the worshippers were preparing to start their prayers, a group of men bearing coffins on their shoulders entered the Grand Mosque. Mourners often brought their dead to the mosque to attain special blessings. The men made their way through the crowd. Suddenly, the men shoved aside the imam, reached inside their robes to brandish machine guns, fired into the air, then opened their coffins and produced an arsenal of weapons from within. They fired into the crowd, shouting, “”The messiah has appeared!””

In all, there were close to 500 militants led by two men, Juhayman al-Oteibi, a fundamentalist preacher and former member of the Saudi National Guard, and Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, who claimed to be the mahdi, or messiah. The men and their militant followers were launching a revolt against the Saudi monarchy, who they said had forsaken its Islamic principles and sold out to western countries. The men had prepared this assault for months and had stashed numerous weapons in a labyrinth of underground chambers beneath the mosque. The militants took hundreds of pilgrims hostage and retreated to the underground chambers, where a bloodbath ensued. Saudi authorities tried a number of tactics to fight the insurgents, including gassing the chambers, drilling holes through the courtyard and dropping grenades inside, and picking off militants with sniper fire. Finally, after more than two weeks of bloody resistance, with many of their comrades dead, the surviving militants surrendered. About 117 militants and 127 pilgrims and Saudi security were killed, with another 451 people wounded.

Spurred by rumours that America was behind the siege, anti-American riots erupted in Muslim countries across the world. Perhaps most interesting were theories that the bin Laden family was behind the siege. The wealthy family, to whom Osama bin Laden belonged, were contracted to carry out the Grand Mosque renovation. Although most experts agree it is unlikely the bin Ladens were involved in planning the attack, it is possible that Osama bin Laden, who was in his 20s at the time, was inspired by the militants.

Saudi courts secretly tried the surviving militants, then, on the orders of King Faisal, publicly executed 63 of the men in public squares across eight Saudi cities.”

Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Caption: Smoke rises during the Siege of the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, one of Islam’s holiest cities.