Yaroslav Trofimov Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Yaroslav Trofimov
Photo © Courtesy of Author

Yaroslav Trofimov

How to pronounce Yaroslav Trofimov: jaro-slav trophy-mov

An interview with Yaroslav Trofimov

Yaroslav Trofimov describes his extensive research for The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda, and describes his efforts to pierce the veil of secrecy which continues to cover the events that unfolded in Mecca during 1979.

The idea behind the book was simple: many people with interest in the Middle East know that something important happened in Mecca back in 1979, but virtually nobody knows precisely what. The more passing references to the Mecca uprising I heard while traveling in the region, the more I was intrigued.

In late 2005, I started to delve into the scarce material that’s in the public domain. It hit me: the events of these two turbulent weeks in late 1979 were a true turning point in modern history. The story of the siege of Mecca really is a prequel to everything we know about Al Qaeda, a prequel that allows us to understand today’s events in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

My reporting started with tracking down Paul Barril, the head of the French commando mission that participated in the siege. I found him in the Dubai Intercontinental, and spent many hours with him, hearing his first-hand account. Through leads supplied by him, I located and interviewed the other French participants in the Mecca affair. At the same time, in early 2006, I also trekked to the British Library – the only place in Europe that keeps Saudi newspapers from 1979 – and met with several London-based Saudi exiles with direct involvement in the Mecca events. I read through all the Saudi dissident tracts that were available on the uprising, and traveled twice to Egypt, to talk to Egyptian eyewitnesses.

My holy grail, however, was to get into Saudi Arabia itself – a kingdom that very reluctantly admits foreign writers. I had written unkind words about the Saudi government in the past, including in my previous book, and was concerned that they wouldn’t let me in – especially if they found out that I planned to write on such a shameful chapter in their country’s history.

Then, in March 2006, just as I was puzzling about how to obtain a Saudi visa, an email popped up in my inbox: the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce was holding an annual economic forum, and was ready to sponsor my entry visa should I choose to attend. Barely able to contain my joy, I applied – and was let in, albeit on a visa that allowed me to stay a mere 7 days in the kingdom.

Trying to maximize my time on the ground, I picked a flight that arrived in Saudi Arabia just after midnight, and booked myself to leave on a flight that departed just before midnight of my last day – gaining an extra 24 hours to report. The Saudi minders were too busy dealing with the influx of journalists at the conference, and I literally flew under their radar screen, eloping from Jeddah to Riyadh to research the book.

In Jeddah and Riyadh, relationships established over the years as a Wall Street Journal reporter paid off. I spent the first couple of days going out to see dozens of Saudis I knew from previous trips, asking all of them whether they could put me in touch with people who had participated in the Mecca siege. By the end of the week, I managed to see a few Saudi soldiers, and radicals who had participated in the 1979 rebel movement, but didn’t themselves go into the Grand Mosque for the siege. These former radicals had spent years in jail, and their phones were still monitored – which is why some only agreed to see me on street corners. It was all very conspiratorial, and some backed out of agreed interviews, citing pressure by secret police. I made sure to make my phone calls from an anonymous prepaid cellphone that I bought for cash in the hotel’s newsstand kiosk.

It’s only on my last day in Saudi Arabia that I finally obtained the phone number of a rare rebel survivor of the battle for the Grand Mosque itself. I decided not to call – there was not enough time for a meeting, and I didn’t want to give the secret police a chance to silence the man should I be able to return to the kingdom.

Back in Europe, I applied for a Saudi visa again – this time as a researcher of history rather than as a journalist, asking for sponsorship from the King Faisal Center, a liberal and enlightened think-tank in Riyadh that has been known to help foreign authors visit the country. As I waited month after month for the second visa to come through, I tried to tap into another vital source of information – classified contemporary reports in the archives of the U.S. and British governments.

These two countries have a Freedom of Information Act that allows book authors like me to demand a declassification of secret reports written by diplomats and spies. The process of declassification, however, is very lengthy and cumbersome, and I was warned by many colleagues that it may take a year or more to extract previously unclassified information – and even then crucial files may be omitted.

As it happened, I called the State Department to check on the process – and had the luck to happen upon a veteran diplomat working in the declassification section who was interested in the subject of my book, and who volunteered to help, obviously within the limits of the law. While the subjects and the contents of diplomatic cables are classified, the telegram numbers are not – and the diplomat took it upon himself to compile for me a lengthy list of cable numbers that would be of use in reporting the book. Such detailed information allowed my Freedom of Information Act request to fly into the front of the line, and I obtained a thick stack of documents just in time to write the book; thinner envelopes later arrived from the CIA and the British Foreign Office.

Then, two months before the deadline for the book, my second Saudi visa was approved. The King Faisal Center, which graciously hosted me, also armed me with letters that provided me access to archives of Saudi newspapers that aren’t available abroad, and that persuaded a few reluctant former officials to share their memories of the battle for Mecca with me. Crucially, this time I also managed to interview the former terrorists who participated in the Mecca fighting themselves – the first time any of them has spoken to a writer. One of these men, too scared of the secret police to be seen with me in public areas such as the coffee bar or the lobby, spent the whole night in my Jeddah Marriott hotel room, recounting the horrors of battle as he emptied my (strictly non-alcoholic) minibar.

All in all, the book took a year and nearly a hundred thousand air miles of travel from start to finish – I jetted across the Atlantic on my final interview, to see the former Saudi intelligence chief, just a few days before the final deadline.

Yaroslav Trofimov answers questions about his book, The Siege of Mecca

If November 20, 1979 had never happened, do you think there would have been a September 11, 2001?
The uprising in Mecca was the first operation of global Jihad, and the way the Saudi regime repressed it made a lasting impact on the young Osama Bin Laden. It was one of the factors that caused him to see the House of Saud as apostates and enemies of Islam. On the other hand, the Saudi government reacted to that uprising by trying to buy off the radical clerics, and by financing their campaign to spread ultra-orthodox Islam around the world–a proselytizing effort that produced many of Al Qaeda recruits in subsequent decades.

The Mecca upheaval was the beginning of a process that led to the tragedy of September 11, and a turning point in the history of radical Islam.

Why has this story never been fully told?
At the time, Saudi Arabia imposed a near-total news blackout on the Mecca events. No independent observers were allowed in the city during the siege, and even visiting Jeddah or Riyadh was nearly impossible for foreign reporters. And, obviously, no one could tell the story of what happened among the insurgents because every suspected gunman found in the mosque was arrested. Most were promptly beheaded, and only a few have survived long prison sentences to tell their stories.

In following years, the uprising in Mecca became a taboo subject in Saudi Arabia. Even a book of official statements on the issue, published shortly after the siege, was outlawed and withdrawn from libraries.

It is only now that people in Saudi Arabia are somewhat less terrified of speaking about the crisis–a change that allowed me to interview former terrorists and military officials involved in the siege. Also, the passage of time made it easier to get the U.S. government to declassify its documents about the crisis.

What was the US's role in the Siege of Mecca?
There were American citizens on both sides of the barricades. The gunmen occupying the Mosque included a number of African-American converts to Islam. Retired American military personnel were employed flying Saudi helicopters above the Mosque in support of the mission in Mecca. And the CIA provided tear gas and advice on the ground. At the end, however, it was the role of the French commandos that proved decisive in the final assault on the shrine.

What does it teach us about our current conflict with Al Qaeda?
The gunmen in Mecca were deeply convinced that they are following God’s orders, and were extremely brave and dedicated during the battle. In part because of this zeal, they managed to stave off the entire Saudi military for two weeks. This zeal also managed to unite people of disparate nationalities. The lesson for today is that radical Islamic ideology is and extremely powerful motivator and that one shouldn’t underestimate our enemies.

How hard was it for you to get into Saudi Arabia to research this book, and how difficult was it to report within Saudi Arabia?
I received my first visa for researching this book by sheer coincidence–somehow I was invited to attend an economic conference in Jeddah. The visa was valid for seven days, and I managed to skip my minders on the first day, and spent all this time reporting to gain an extra day, I chose a flight that arrived shortly after midnight on the first day, and left on a flight just before midnight on the seventh.

Later in the year, I returned to Saudi Arabia for a follow-up on the invitation of a research think tank–without the knowledge of information ministry minders who deal with visiting journalists. It took almost six months to receive the second visa. I doubt I will be allowed back anytime soon.

A great many people were too scared to talk to me inside the Kingdom, but, thanks to contacts developed while covering Saudi Arabia for the Wall Street Journal, I managed to locate some who were willing to be interviewed. One former gunman who would only agree to be interviewed in my hotel room – he was too afraid of being seen with me in the lobby. He spent the entire night recounting the ordeal, and emptied my minibar of all soft drinks by dawn.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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