Magazine article Reason

Al Qaeda's Forerunner

Magazine article Reason

Al Qaeda's Forerunner

Article excerpt


Not many people can tell you much about the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist militants in November 5979. The Saudi authorities kept a tight lid on information during that fateful two-week period when the regime's survival seemed to be in danger. They didn't grow much more transparent afterwards.

That is why Yaroslav Trofimov's just-published The Siege of Mecca (Doubleday) is so valuable, not only as a description of the murky events surrounding the takeover but as a backgrounder on the depth of fundamentalist tendencies in Saudi Arabia and the later emergence or Al Qaeda. Contributing Editor Michael Young spoke with Trofimov, an Asia-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, in September.

Q: What was the Grand Mosque siege?

A: The group that took over the mosque was led by Saudi preacher Juhayman Al-Utaybi, a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard, and consisted of several hundred gunmen from many countries. The group abhorred the Saudi state and other Arab regimes as infidel and bitterly objected to any Western presence in the Arabian Peninsula.

The battle for the Grand Mosque started on November 20, 1979--at the first dawn of Islam's year 1400--and lasted precisely two weeks. The total number of officially reported deaths, including the rebels, stands at about 330. But many believe that the true number of fatalities is significantly above 5,000.

Q: Though Juhayman and his co-conspirators were executed, their ideas paradoxically triumphed. Can you explain why?

A: As Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, the governor of Asir province and son of King Faisal, put it a few years ago, "We have eliminated the individuals who committed the Juhayman crime, but we have overlooked the ideology that was behind the crime. We let it spread in the country as if it did not exist."

He said this because in order to secure religious assent from the clergy, or ulama--assent without which many Saudi troops refused to fight in the holy shrine-the royal family had to promise the clerics that it would reverse the slow modernization that had been occurring in the kingdom up until then. …

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