When extremism began: 40 years since the Grand Mosque in Makkah was seized

Smoke rises during fighting on Nov. 20, 1979, after a group seized the Holy Mosque. Right: The mastermind of the attack, Juhayman Al-Otaibi. (AFP)
Updated 14 September 2018
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When extremism began: 40 years since the Grand Mosque in Makkah was seized

  • The rise of extremism in Saudi Arabia began on Nov. 20, 1979 when a deviant group stormed the Holy Mosque of Makkah.
  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that extremism started after 1979. He has pledged a return to a moderate past.

It has been 40 years since Saudi Arabia first experienced a terror attack, which shocked all Muslims worldwide. It took place at their most sacred place where the Kaaba has been located for centuries. The rise of extremism in the Kingdom  began on Muharram 1, 1400 — corresponding to Nov. 20, 1979 — when a deviant group stormed the Holy Mosque of Makkah. The incident, which lasted two weeks, claimed the lives of more than 100 people.

It was the 1st of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Hundreds of worshippers were circling the Holy Kaaba, in spirituality and peace, performing the dawn prayer. It was nearly 5:25 a.m. All of a sudden, the attendants started to hear sounds of bullets that turned the most peaceful place into a stage for killers, who targeted ordinary, innocent people and rescuers.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that extremism started after 1979. He has pledged a return to a moderate past.

“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” he told the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last year.

“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” he added.

The Saudi authorities had to either immediately crush the aggressors or call on them to lay down their arms. The government sent the attackers a warning through a megaphone stressing that what the deviant group inside the Holy Mosque was doing was  in complete  contradiction to the teachings of Islam. The warning, in the name of government of the late King Khaled, also included the following Qur’anic verse to remind the attackers of their heinous acts: “Whoever intends a deviant deed at the Holy Mosque, in religion, or wrongdoing, We will make him taste a painful punishment,” and “Do they not then see that We have made a sanctuary secure, and that men are being snatched away from all around them? Then, do they believe in that which is vain, and reject the Grace of Allah?”

117 members of the deviant group led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi were killed in the encounter, 69 others were executed less than a month later, and 19 received jail sentences. 

However, all calls on the attackers to surrender were fruitless. From the high minarets of the sacred mosque, snipers  started gunning down innocent people outside the Grand Mosque.

King Khaled gathered the country’s senior ulema (scholars) to discuss the matter with them. They all agreed that the aggressors were, from an Islamic point of view, considered apostates, as a Muslim never kills innocent people. Doing that inside the holy mosque was even more atrocious. The ulema issued a fatwa (religious edict) to kill them in accordance with the instructions of the Islamic Shariah. The king ordered an assault. However, he said the lives of the innocent people seized by the attackers should be preserved. He also demanded that the Holy Kaaba and the soldiers be unharmed. And he directed the forces to arrest the offenders alive if possible.

Filled with enthusiasm to liberate their sacred mosque, the Saudi soldiers received the orders to free it from the criminals’ control. The attack to free the mosque began with the Saudi soldiers showing skills in hunting the offenders according to a well-studied plan until they succeeded in taking control of the whole mosque.

When captured, the members of the group were treated mercifully and gently. In this regard, the former head of the Special Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al-Nufaie, told a satellite TV channel that when the mastermind of the attack, Juhayman Al-Otaibi, was caught, a security member grabbed him by his beard. “When a royal saw that, he angrily ordered the soldier to remove his hand from the man’s beard,” Al-Nufaie remembered.

Al-Nufaie said Prince Saud Al-Faisal approached Juhayman and asked him why he had committed these acts. “Juhayman replied: ‘It was Satan.’ The prince also humanely asked him if he was complaining about anything or if he wanted anything. Juhayman pointed to a little wound on his leg and asked for water,” the retired major-general, who was present, said.

Al-Nufaie added that they were all very happy with the liberation of the Grand Mosque: “It was a true rejoicing after a two-week period of professional work. We were thrilled to bring the atmosphere of the mosque back to its normal serenity and tranquility.”

A witness, Hizam Al-Mastouri, 75, told Arab News that he was a soldier who participated in the operation against the attackers.

“We entered the Grand Mosque in a military vehicle to transport our colleagues inside the Masa’a area, near the Mount Al-Marwa. The shooting was extensive, coming from everywhere toward us,” he said.

He added that the companions of Juhayman were hiding in the many corners of the Masa’a. “They could see us, while we were not able to see them. With time, the security leadership made changes in their plans in a way that suited the situation,” Al-Mastouri said.     

The former Editor in Chief of Arab News, Khaled Almaeena, pointed out that it was a cool morning and he had gone to Makkah to visit a cousin when he was told there was a disturbance around the Grand Mosque. “I did not pay any attention at that time because what I came to know later was unimaginable,” he said. 

Crowds of people had gathered and there was a lot of commotion. “Rumors were flying of the Holy Kaaba being seized by ‘foreigners’. Some were telling different stories. I came back to Jeddah and watched the Saudi Television channel, the only one we could see in those days,” he said.

“I was working in Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines) but in the evening would go to work part-time at the English station of Radio Jeddah. Even there, reports were sketchy. We had to use the transistor radio to get news from outside stations like the BBC, VOA and Monte Carlo.”

He added that he decided to see for himself and “on the fourth, fifth and sixth morning I would go in my car and off to Makkah. I parked my car at a distance and observed the Holy Mosque,” he said.

“It was a sad sight to see the holiest place in Islam empty. There were no visitors streaming toward the gates. In fact, there was firing from the minarets and I could see the puff of smoke from the different minarets. There was a smell of gunpowder and smoke.” 

Almaeena said that an occasional helicopter would hover high in the sky, keeping far away from the perimeter of the Grand Mosque. “The attack and seizure of the mosque took everyone by surprise. And it took time for all of us, including the security forces, to take stock of what was truly an alarming situation,” he said.

Days passed and no calls for prayers were heard, he continued. “However, after days this band of zealots was overpowered and their leader Juhayman Al-Otaibi was captured. Around the world, there was more satisfaction in the Muslim world,” he said. 

The veteran journalist said he had to report on the incident for the radio, which he did by recording on an old tape recorder and then broadcasting it from Jeddah.

“The capture of the zealots and their leaders was filmed and we had to broadcast it ‘live.’ The available technology did not help. Three people were entrusted with the task. The late Badr Kurayem, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading radio and television broadcasters; Dr. Hashem Abdo Hashem, who later became editor in chief of Okaz; and myself,” he said.

“So here was Dr. Abdo writing the script in his long, flowing handwriting, Badr Kurayem reading the Arabic script and me doing an impromptu live translation, struggling with some of the adjectives that Dr. Abdo was using.” He noted that it was not an easy task but they were able to do it. “Those were dark days but luckily the siege ended,” he added. 

Almaeena said that although there was no social media or instant reporting and journalism was a slow process in those days, the coverage by the Saudi press was professional.

Another prominent journalist, Mohammed Al-Nawsani, said that he was the first media personality to circle the Kaaba after the offenders were arrested.

“You can’t imagine how difficult those days were, as the Kaaba is Qibla of all Muslims. Much though I was shocked to know that the Grand Mosque was captured, I was even much more overjoyed and proud of our security men and their professionalism in dealing with the incident,” he said.  

Like father is not like son

Hathal bin Juhayman Al-Otaibi, the son of the extremist who seized the Holy Mosque in 1979, has overshadowed his father’s radical legacy and was recently promoted to the position of colonel in Saudi Arabia’s National Guards. Hathal was only one year old when his father attacked the Grand Mosque.

Many Saudis on social media described the news of the promotion as an example of “fairness” by Saudi Arabia. They lauded the fact that the son of someone who initiated extremism in the country has now become an integral part of the security apparatus.


Saudi Arabia ‘will remain strongest Mideast ally of US’, experts say at Dubai’s Arab Strategy Forum

Updated 13 December 2018
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Saudi Arabia ‘will remain strongest Mideast ally of US’, experts say at Dubai’s Arab Strategy Forum

  • Kingdom lies at the core of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, political and economic leaders told

Saudi Arabia will remain the strongest ally of the US in the Middle East and lies at the “heart and core” of President Trump’s foreign policy, some of the world’s leading politicians, economists and strategic analysts heard as they gathered to forecast the geopolitical state of the world in 2019.

At the 11th Arab Strategy Forum, an annual gathering to discuss worldwide political, economic, security and social scenarios and plan ways to help the region prepare for future challenges, speakers talked about a steadfast bond between the US and Saudi over the next 12 months. They said that Trump views the Kingdom as an unshakable ally with common regional interests including America’s fight against Iran, the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a turbulent and fluctuating oil market.

“The Trump administration has been fighting very hard to move beyond Jamal Khashoggi,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, who joined Ambassador Dennis Ross, former assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and Bernardino Leon, director general of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in a panel discussion titled the “State of the World Politics in 2019.” 

“They have made it very clear that they want to focus on other interests; the Israel-Palestine peace process, the question of Iran, the oil market … President Trump has made it very clear that Saudi Arabia really lies at the heart and the core of his foreign policy.”

He said that despite “tremendous pressures to take further steps” against the Kingdom, “the reality so far seems to be that the president will not listen to the critics.”

Dr. Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia. 

He said that although the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has come under strain, “as long as Donald Trump remains in power the relationships will continue to stay.”

In the panel discussion, moderated by CNN’s Becky Anderson, Leon also addressed Saudi and US relations.

“There are two dimensions; one is internal US politics, the other is in terms of foreign policy. Foreign policy has to be determined by the government and will continue to be determined by the government — this is the rule. So if you see these relations, in historical terms Saudi Arabia has always been the main ally in the region for the United States. 

“This is a region where another traditional very strong ally, Turkey, is now in a different position and even though we are at a time where this region is probably experiencing more difficulties than ever before, the United States will continue to act on that basis. I do not expect big changes. I am sure we there will be waves and I am sure the US Congress will call for more transparency and more information after what happened after Khashoggi, probably this is going to happen. But there will be no structural changes.”

Ross said that US policy — which states that if the president vetoes a decision, Congress may override the veto by a two-thirds supermajority of both houses — means it would be “very difficult” for Congress to overturn any decision on sanctions against the Kingdom that Trump, who has been vocal in his continuing support and relations with Saudi Arabia. He added that “most of the pressure” from federal government would be more likely to be dominated by the ongoing Trump-Russia investigations.

Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, left, in conversation with Dr. Ian Bremmer. 

After being addressed by Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, who posed a question about US-Middle East relations and asked if the US would distance itself from the Arab world, Ross said that the US would continue to have a vested interest in Middle Eastern activities.

“Las Vegas rules do not apply to the Middle East, what takes place in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. That is ultimately why we have to stay involved in it.” 

Abbas began the first panel discussion of the day, “Discussing Megatrends in 2019,” by questioning speaker Dr. Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia, about oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s international and regional relations and his predictions for the year ahead. 

Bremmer addressed the recent announcement by Qatar that it was withdrawing from the oil exporters’ group OPEC, saying the move would have little impact or fallout.

“Qatar in OPEC is a marginal player so I do not think their leaving is significant.”

Bremmer said that Qatar attended the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) annual summit in Riyadh this week and that Qataris and Saudis “directly engaged” was a move to be looked at in a “positive” way.

At the forum, attended by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Bremmer began his address by saying that 2019 should not see any real turbulent crisis, and highlighted the “good news” of “robust” predictions laid out by the International Monetary Fund that state the global economy will grow 3.7 percent this year. 

However, he said that 2020 is likely to witness another recession and warned — unlike the shows of unity after the 2008/09 financial crisis — of a fractious and “dysfunctional” geopolitical landscape that will mean the world will be unlikely to be able to bounce back easily.

“The good news is the 2019 economy will not be horrible. The bad news; the next economic downturn will be much worse. My worry is that whenever the next downturn comes we have a problem. The thing about the last major recession … which was a big one, is the response from all the world’s major economies. They all worked together in saying we have a problem, we need to get out of this together.

“Whenever the next downturn happens — which economists say is 2020 — when it comes the political reaction it is not going to be like 2008/9.”

Instead, the world is likely to witness a “blame-game” with countries pointing the finger at one another. Bremmer warned: “This is the most fraught geopolitical period in my lifetime … and the dysfunction is only going to grow.”

The geopolitical landscape has been heightened by a series of world events, including the “disastrous”  negations over Brexit, France’s “yellow vest” protests, the looming end to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reign,  the state of US-China relations and the recent US sanctions on Iran.

Bremmer also raised concern over cybercrime and the shadow economy. He said that three of his biggest concerns from 2018 were North Korea-linked hackers stealing millions from ATMs across the world, Russian hackers using antivirus software to steal US cyber capabilities to attack Ukraine’s online network and the accounts of millions of Chinese web users being compromised in a series of hacks.

At the forum, speakers also discussed mega-trends and forecast the future of economics and government policies in the region.

The role of Iran as a leading state sponsor of terror and the impact of US sanctions was a factor among many of the key discussions. Ross said: “The interesting thing with Iran in 2019 is to see how they will tackle the internal pressure internally due to there economic decline,” while Bremmer said it was likely that Tehran would seek to wait out the Trump administration.

The growing role of China also dominated discussions. Leon said: “The US and China are two heavyweights that will keep their battle going on but it will not need to escalate much more, due to the nature of global economic markets,” while speakers highlighted the “winding down” of the war in Yemen as a positive trend in 2019.

In the “State of the Arab World Economy in 2019,” Dr. Nasser Saidi, former Lebanese minister of economy and trade, and Dr. Mahmoud Mohieldin, senior vice president of the World Bank Group, said that there was a general consensus that the economic recession would most likely start in 2019 and predicted an era of “turbulence” over the next 12 months, including a ripple effect across the GCC caused by oil price fluctuations. 

At the same panel discussion, H.E Nasser Judeh, former deputy prime minister of foreign affairs of Jordan, Dr. Ayad Allawi, former prime minister of Iraq and the leader of the National Accord, and H.E Nabil Fahmy, former foreign minister of Egypt, deliberated on the regional landscape over the next 12 months, with Allawi warning that the region is a “fertile ground” for terrorist groups should it not stabilize and not implement reforms that the Arab world is in “dire need of.” 

Fahmy addressed Qatar relations, saying that while a fragmented Arab world comes at the expense of every country, he was “not optimistic for radical change” in Qatar’s policies and said that the GCC could not back down to a country that refuses to “change its internal methodology.” 

“Qatar has to be a player — not an adversary.”

Ahead of the forum, Mohammed Al-Gergawi, minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, and chairman of the organizing committee, said the Arab Strategy Forum was launched as a platform for balanced analysis by decision-makers to offer a clearer understanding of the economic and political outlook for the Arab region and the world.