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Grand Mosque seizure

Grand Mosque seizure

Saudi soldiers fighting their way into the Ka'aba Underground beneath the Grand Mosque of Mecca, 1979
Date 20 November – 4 December 1979
Location Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian victory


Saudi Arabia

Commanders and leaders
Khalid of Saudi Arabia
Prince Fahd
Prince Sultan
Prince Abdullah
Prince Nayef
Badr bin Abdul-Aziz
Turki bin Faisal
B-Gen. Faleh al Dhaheri
Lt. A. Qudheibi  (WIA)
Major M. Zuweid al Nefai
Major Pervez Musharraf
Lieutenant Paul Barril
Juhayman al-Otaybi
Abdullah al-Qahtani 
Mohammed Faisal 
Mohammed Elias 
  • Unknown number of Pakistani commandos
  • ~10,000 Saudi National Guard members
  • At least 3 GIGN commandos[2]
300–600 militants[4]
Casualties and losses
  • 127 killed[5]
  • 451 wounded
  • (Saudi Arabian)
  • 117 killed[6]
  • Unknown number wounded
  • 68 executed

The Grand Mosque seizure occurred during November and December 1979 when extremist insurgents calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud took over Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The insurgents declared that the Mahdi (the "redeemer of Islam") had arrived in the form of one of their leaders – Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani – and called on Muslims to obey him.

The seizure of Islam's holiest site, the taking of hostages from among the worshipers, and the deaths of hundreds of militants, security forces and hostages caught in crossfire in the ensuing battles for control of the site, all shocked the Islamic world. The siege ended two weeks after the takeover began and the mosque was cleared.[7] Following the attack, the Saudi state implemented a stricter enforcement of Islamic code.[8]


  • Background 1
    • Goals 1.1
    • Relations with ulama 1.2
    • Preparations 1.3
  • Seizure 2
  • Siege 3
  • Aftermath 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • Further reading 7


The seizure was led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, a member of an influential family in Najd. He declared his brother-in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi, or redeemer, who arrives on earth several years before Judgement Day. His followers embellished the fact that Al-Qahtani's name and his father's name are identical to Prophet Mohammed's name and that of his father, and developed a saying, "His and his father's names were the same as Mohammed's and his father's, and he had come to Makkah from the north," to justify their belief. The date of the attack, 20 November 1979, was the first day of the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar, which was stated by another hadith as the day that a Mujaddid would reveal himself.[9]

Al-Otaybi was from one of the foremost families of Najd. His grandfather had ridden with Ibn Saud in the early decades of the century.[10] He was a preacher, a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard, and a former student of Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Baaz who went on to become the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia.


Juhaiman had turned against al-Baaz, "and began advocating a return to the original ways of Islam, among other things; a repudiation of the West; an end of education of women; abolition of television and expulsion of non-Muslims."[11] He proclaimed that "the ruling Al-Saud dynasty had lost its legitimacy because it was corrupt, ostentatious and had destroyed Saudi culture by an aggressive policy of Westernization."[10]

Al-Otaybi and Qahtani had met while being imprisoned together for sedition, when al-Otaybi claimed to have a vision sent by God telling him that Qahtani was the Mahdi. Their declared goal was to institute a theocracy in preparation for the imminent apocalypse. They differed from the original Ikhwan and other earlier Wahhabi purists in that "they were millenarians, they rejected the monarchy and they condemned the Wahhabi ulama." [12]

Relations with ulama

Many of their followers were drawn from theology students at the Islamic University in Medina. Al-Otaibi joined the local chapter of the Salafi group Al-Jamaa Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasiba (The Salafi Group That Commands Right and Forbids Wrong) in Medina headed by the renowned Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, chairman of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas at the time.[13] The followers preached their "radical" message in different mosques in Saudi Arabia without being arrested.[14] The government was reluctant to confront "religious extremists." When Al-Otaybi, al-Qahtani and a number of the Ikhwan were locked up as "troublemakers" by the Ministry of Interior security police (Mabahith) in 1978,[15] members of the ulema (including bin Baz) cross-examined them for heresy but they were subsequently released as being traditionalists harkening back to the Ikhwan, like al-Otaybi's grandfather, and not a threat.[16]

Even after the seizure of the masjid, a certain level of forbearance by ulama for the rebels remained. When the government asked for a fatwa allowing armed force in the masjid, the language of bin Baz and other senior ulama "was curiously restrained." The scholars did not declare al-Otaibi and his followers non-Muslims, despite their violation of the sanctity of the Masjid, but only termed them "al-jamaah al-musallahah" (the armed group). The senior scholars also insisted that before security forces attack them, the authorities must offer them the option to surrender.[15]


Because of donations from wealthy followers, the group was well-armed and trained. Some members, like al-Otaybi, were former military officials of the National Guard.[17] Some National Guard troops sympathetic to the insurgents smuggled weapons, ammunition, gas masks, and provisions into the mosque compound over a period of weeks before the new year.[18] Automatic weapons were smuggled from National Guard armories, and the supplies were hidden in the hundreds of tiny underground rooms under the mosque that were used as hermitages.[19]


In the early morning of 20 November 1979, the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, was preparing to lead prayers for the fifty thousand worshipers who had gathered for prayer. At around 5:00 am, he was interrupted by insurgents who produced weapons from under their robes, chained the gates shut and killed two policemen who were armed with only wooden clubs for disciplining unruly pilgrims.[20] The number of insurgents has been given as "at least 500"[10] or "four to five hundred", and included several women and children who had joined al-Otaybi's movement.[19]

At the time, the Grand Mosque was being renovated by the Saudi Binladin Group.[21] An employee of the organization was able to report the seizure to the outside world before the insurgents cut the telephone lines.

The insurgents released most of the hostages and locked the remainder in the sanctuary. They took defensive positions in the upper levels of the mosque, and sniper positions in the minarets, from which they commanded the grounds. No one outside the mosque knew how many hostages remained, how many militants were in the mosque and what sort of preparations they had made.

At the time of the event, Crown Prince Fahd was in Tunisia for a meeting of the Arab Summit. The commander of the National Guard, Prince Abdullah, was also abroad for an official visit to Morocco. Therefore, King Khalid assigned the responsibility to Prince Sultan, then Minister of Defense, and Prince Nayef, then Minister of Interior, to deal with the incident.[22]


Smoke rising from the Grand Mosque during the assault on the Marwa-Safa gallery, 1979.

Soon after the rebel seizure, about a hundred security officers of the Ministry of Interior attempted to retake the mosque, but were turned back with heavy casualties. The survivors were quickly joined by units of the Saudi Arabian Army and Saudi Arabian National Guard.

By the evening, the entire city of Mecca had been evacuated. Prince Sultan appointed Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, head of the Al Mukhabaraat Al 'Aammah (Saudi Intelligence), to take over the forward command post several hundred metres from the mosque, where Prince Turki would remain for the next several weeks. However, the first order of business was to seek the approval of the ulema, which was led by Abdul Aziz bin Baz. Islam forbids any violence within the Grand Mosque, to the extent that plants cannot be uprooted without explicit religious sanction. Ibn Baz found himself in a delicate situation, especially as he had previously taught al-Otaybi in Medina. Regardless, the ulema issued a fatwa allowing deadly force to be used in retaking the mosque.[23]

With religious approval granted, Saudi forces launched frontal assaults on three of the main gates. Again the assaulting force was repulsed as they were unable to break through the insurgents' defenses. Snipers continued to pick off soldiers who revealed themselves. The insurgents aired their demands from the mosque's loudspeakers throughout the streets of Mecca, calling for the cutoff of oil exports to the United States and the expulsion of all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arab Socialist Action Party – Arabian Peninsula) issued a statement on 25 November, alleging to clarify the demands of the insurgents. The party, however, denied any involvement of its own in the seizure.[25]

Officially, the Saudi government took the position of not aggressively taking the mosque, but rather to starve the militants. Nevertheless, several unsuccessful assaults were undertaken, at least one of them through the underground tunnels in and around the mosque.[26]

According to Lawrence Wright in the book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,

A team of three French commandos from the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) arrived in Mecca. Because of the prohibition against non-Muslims entering the holy city, they converted to Islam in a brief, formal ceremony. The commandos pumped gas into the underground chambers, but perhaps because the rooms were so bafflingly interconnected, the gas failed and the resistance continued. With casualties climbing, Saudi forces drilled holes into the courtyard and dropped grenades into the rooms below, indiscriminately killing many hostages but driving the remaining rebels into more open areas where they could be picked off by sharpshooters. More than two weeks after the assault began, the surviving rebels finally surrendered.[27][28]

However, this is contradicted by at least two other accounts,[29] including that of then GIGN commanding officer Christian Prouteau:[30] the three GIGN commandos trained and equipped the Saudi forces and devised their attack plan (which consisted in drilling holes in the floor of the Mosque and firing through the perforations gas canisters wired with explosives), but did not take part in the action and did not set foot in the Mosque. He claims that Pakistani SSG commandos carried out the operation instead.

The Saudi National Guard and the Saudi Army suffered heavy casualties. Tear gas was used to force out the remaining militants.[31] According to a US embassy cable of 1 December, several of the militant leaders escaped the siege[32] and days later sporadic fighting erupted in other parts of the city.

The battle had lasted for more than two weeks, and had officially left "255 pilgrims, troops and fanatics" killed and "another 560 injured ... although diplomats suggested the toll was higher."[33] Military casualties were 127 dead and 451 injured.[5]


The surviving insurgents under custody of Saudi authorities (c. 1979).
The surviving insurgents under custody of Saudi authorities (c. 1979).

Shortly after news of the takeover was released, the new Islamic revolutionary leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini told radio listeners, "It is not beyond guessing that this is the work of criminal American imperialism and international Zionism."[34][35] Anger fueled by these rumours spread anti-American demonstrations throughout the Muslim world—in the Philippines, Turkey, Bangladesh, eastern Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.[36] In Islamabad, Pakistan, the U.S. embassy in that city was overrun by a mob on the day following the takeover, who burned the embassy to the ground. A week later, in Tripoli, Libya, another mob attacked and burned the U.S. embassy.[37]

Al-Qahtani was killed in the recapture of the mosque but Juhayman, and 67 of his fellow rebels survived the assault and were captured. "All the surviving males" were tried secretly.[10][38] They were not shown leniency.[39] The king secured a fatwa (edict) from the Council of Senior Scholars[10][38] which found the defendants guilty of seven crimes:

  • violating the Masjid al-Haram's (the Grand Mosque's) sanctity;
  • violating the sanctity of the month of Muharram;
  • killing fellow Muslims;
  • disobeying legitimate authorities;
  • suspending prayer at Masjid al-Haram;
  • erring in identifying the Mahdi;
  • exploiting the innocent for criminal acts.[40][41]

On 9 January 1980, 63 rebels were publicly beheaded in the squares of eight Saudi cities[38] (Buraidah, Dammam, Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, Abha, Ha'il and Tabuk). According to Sandra Mackey, the locations "were carefully chosen not only to give maximum exposure but, one suspects, to reach other potential nests of discontent."[39]

Saudi King Khaled however, did not react to the upheaval by cracking down on religious puritans in general, but by giving the ulama and religious conservatives more power over the next decade. He is thought to have believed that "the solution to the religious upheaval was simple -- more religion."[42] First photographs of women in newspapers were banned, then women on television. Cinemas and music shops were shut down. School curriculum was changed to provide many more hours of religious studies, eliminating classes on subjects like non-Islamic history. Gender segregation was extended "to the humblest coffee shop". The religious police became more assertive.[43]

See also


  1. ^ "Attack on Kaba Complete Video". YouTube. 23 July 2011. Retrieved 8 June 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Da Lage, Olivier (2006). Géopolitique de l'Arabie Saoudite (in French). Complexe. p. 34.  
  3. ^ Lacey 2009, p. 13.
  4. ^ "THE SIEGE AT MECCA". 2006. Retrieved 2015. 
  5. ^ a b "Pierre Tristam, "1979 Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca",". Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  6. ^ Riyadh (10 January 1980). "63 Zealots beheaded for seizing Mosque". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  7. ^ Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror (2002) p. 90
  8. ^ Wright, Sacred Rage, (2001), p. 155
  9. ^ Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror, (2002) p. 90
  10. ^ a b c d e Makkah – 1979 Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Otaibi, Global Security
  11. ^ Wright, Sacred Rage, (2001), p. 152
  12. ^ Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 63. It is important to emphasize, however, that the 1979 rebels were not literally a reincarnation of the Ikhwan and to underscore three distinct features of the former: They were millenarians, they rejected the monarchy and they condemned the wahhabi ulama. 
  13. ^ Lacey, Robert (2009-10-15). Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Penguin Group US. p. 9.  
  14. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p.88–9
  15. ^ a b Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. p. 31. 
  16. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 103 – softcover
  17. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 102 – softcover
  18. ^ Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror, (2002), p. 90
  19. ^ a b Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 104 – softcover
  20. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 101 – softcover
  21. ^ 1979 Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca: The Attack and the Siege That Inspired Osama bin Laden. Retrieved January 15, 2014.
  22. ^ Astal, Kamal M. (2002). "Three case studies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq" (PDF). Pakistan Journal of Applied Sciences 2 (3): 308–319. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  23. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), pp. 103–104 – softcover
  24. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p.92
  25. ^ Saudi Opposition Group Lists Insurgents' Demands in MERIP Reports, No. 85. (February 1980), pp. 16–17.
  26. ^ US embassy cable of 22 November
  27. ^ Tristam, Pierre. "1979 Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca The Attack and the Siege That Inspired Osama bin Laden". Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  28. ^ see also: Wright, Robin B., 1948| Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam| Simon & Schuster| c 2001, p. 148
  29. ^ see also Trofimov, Yaroslav (2007). The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine. Random House. 
  30. ^ see also Prouteau, Christian (1998). Mémoires d'Etat. Michel Lafon. p. 265 through 277 and 280. 
  31. ^ US embassy cable of 27 November
  32. ^ US embassy cable of 1 December.
  33. ^ Wright, Robin B., 1948| Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam| Simon & Schuster| c 2001, p. 148
  34. ^ On This Day, 21 November, BBC
  35. ^ "Khomeini Accuses U.S. and Israel of Attempt to Take Over Mosques", by John Kifner, New York Times, 25 November 1979
  36. ^ Wright, Robin B., 1948. Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam. Simon & Schuster, c 2001, p. 149
  37. ^ [On 2 December 1979.] EMBASSY OF THE U.S. IN LIBYA IS STORMED BY A CROWD OF 2,000; Fires Damage the Building but All Americans Escape – Attack Draws a Strong Protest Relations Have Been Cool Escaped without Harm 2,000 Libyan Demonstrators Storm the U.S. Embassy Stringent Security Measures Official Involvement Uncertain, New York Times, 3 December 1979
  38. ^ a b c "Saudis behead zealots". The Victoria Advocate. AP. 10 January 1980. Retrieved 7 August 2012. 
  39. ^ a b Mackey, Sandra. The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. Updated Edition. Norton Paperback. W.W. Norton and Company, New York. 2002 (first edition: 1987). ISBN 0-393-32417-6 pbk., p. 234.
  40. ^ Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 168. 
  41. ^ Salame, Ghassan (1987). "Islam and politics in Saudi Arabia". Arab Studies Quarterly ix (3): 321. 
  42. ^ Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. p. 48. `Those old men actually believed that the Mosque disaster was God's punishment to us because we were publishing women's photographs in the newspapers,` says a princess, one of Khaled's nieces. `The worrying thing is that the king [Khaled] probably believed that as well.` ... Khaled had come to agree with the sheikhs. Foreign influences and bida'a were the problem. The solution to the religious upheaval was simple—more religion. 
  43. ^ Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. pp. 49–52. 

Further reading

  • Aburish, Said K., The Rise, Corruption, and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, St. Martin's (1996)
  • Benjamin, Daniel, The Age of Sacred Terror by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, New York : Random House, (c2002)
  • Fair, C. Christine and Sumit Ganguly, "Treading on Hallowed Ground: Counterinsurgency Operations in Sacred Spaces," Oxford University Press (2008)
  • Hassner, Ron E., "War on Sacred Grounds," Cornell University Press (2009) ISBN 978-0-8014-4806-5
  • Kechichian, Joseph A., "The Role of the Ulama in the Politics of an Islamic State: The Case of Saudi Arabia", International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), 53–71.
  • Wright, Lawrence, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, New York : Knopf (2006) ISBN 978-0-375-41486-2 (Also softcover – New York : Vintage, ISBN 978-1-4000-3084-2)

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