The dramatic and immensely consequential story of the violent takeover of Islam's holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, by Muslim fundamentalists in 1979. With nearly 100,000 worshipers trapped inside the holy compound, Meccas bloody siege lasted two weeks, inflaming Muslim rage against the United States with repercussions we still feel today.
On November 20, 1979, worldwide attention was focused on Tehran, where the Iranian hostage crisis was entering its third week. The same morningthe first of a new Muslim centuryhundreds of gunmen stunned the world by seizing Islams holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Armed with rifles that they had smuggled inside coffins, these men came from more than a dozen countries, launching the first operation of global jihad in modern times. Led by a Saudi preacher named Juhayman al Uteybi, they believed that the Saudi royal family had become a craven servant of American infidels, and sought a return to the glory of uncompromising Islam. With nearly 100,000 worshippers trapped inside the holy compound, Meccas bloody siege lasted two weeks, inflaming Muslim rage against the United States and causing hundreds of deaths.
Despite U.S. assistance, the Saudi royal family proved haplessly incapable of dislodging the occupier, whose ranks included American converts to Islam. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini blamed the Great Satanthe United States for defiling the shrine, prompting mobs to storm and torch American embassies in Pakistan and Libya. The desperate Saudis finally enlisted the help of French commandos led by tough-as-nails Captain Paul Barril, who prepared the final assault and supplied poison gas that knocked out the insurgents. Though most captured gunmen were quickly beheaded, the Saudi royal family responded to this unprecedented challenge by compromising with the rebels supporters among the kingdoms most senior clerics, helping them nurture and export Juhaymans violent brand of Islam around the world.
This dramatic and immensely consequential story was barely covered in the press in the pre-CNN, preAl Jazeera days, as Saudi Arabia imposed an information blackout and kept foreign correspondents away. Yaroslav Trofimov now penetrates this veil of silence, interviewing for the first time scores of direct participants in the siege, including former terrorists, and drawing on hundreds of documents that had been declassified on his request. Written with the pacing, detail, and suspense of a real-life thriller, The Siege of Mecca reveals how Saudi reaction to the uprising in Mecca set free the forces that produced the attacks of 9/11, and the harrowing circumstances that surround us today.
The holy city of Mecca looked deceptively calm as the first dawn of the new century started to break behind craggy mountains.
Splashing his face with cold water, the Grand Mosques bearded imam fastened a beige-hued cloak over his shoulders and muttered praises to the Lord. The time to lead the mornings first prayer was minutes away.
Under his window, the mosques floodlit courtyard was filling up quickly. The hajj pilgrimage season, when this stadium-size enclosure was traversed by more than a million worshippers, had already ended. Yet Mecca remained jam-packed with the faithful. Many of them had spent the night inside Islams holiest shrine, curling up on wool carpets in the Grand Mosques multistory labyrinth of nearly a thousand rooms.
As usual, these worshippers camped along with their bundles, mattresses, and suitcases that nobody had bothered to check. Following custom, many hauled in wooden coffins, hoping that the imam would ...
It is a thrilling historical narrative of the events that took place in Mecca over two weeks at the dawn of the Islamic 15th century, offering hitherto undisclosed details that provide an instructive introduction to Muslim fundamentalist terrorism while clearly connecting the dots between then and now.
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A Short History of Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia covers an area about the third of the size of the USA, and occupies most of the Arabian peninsula (map), most of which is desert. Its population is about 27 million, of which 5 million are foreigners (technicians, merchants, diplomats and soldiers). 90% of citizens are Arabs and all are Muslims (citizenship is only open to Muslims). Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina - the former being where most of the Koran was revealed to Muhammad, the latter being his administrative capital and the capital of the early caliphs.
The region has been home to various groups of Semitic* people through most of recorded history. Before...
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