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The Siege of Mecca

The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda

by Yaroslav Trofimov

The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov X
The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 336 pages

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Book Summary

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, Mecca’s 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 morning—the first of a new Muslim century—hundreds of gunmen stunned the world by seizing Islam’s 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, Mecca’s 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 Satan—the 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 kingdom’s most senior clerics, helping them nurture and export Juhayman’s violent brand of Islam around the world.

This dramatic and immensely consequential story was barely covered in the press in the pre-CNN, pre–Al 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.

INTRODUCTION

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 Mosque’s bearded imam fastened a beige-hued cloak over his shoulders and muttered praises to the Lord. The time to lead the morning’s first prayer was minutes away.

Under his window, the mosque’s 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 Islam’s holiest shrine, curling up on wool carpets in the Grand Mosque’s 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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...continued

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Media Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
Trofimov makes a good case that this little-known event, in which tens of thousands were held hostage and a thousand died, led to the birth of al-Qaeda. He combines political analysis and breathless narrative (''trigger fingers caressing the cold metal'') to describe the deadliest terrorist attack prior to 9/11. B+

Portfolio Magazine - Jen Itzenson
The occasional sensationalism doesn't detract from his argument that Osama bin Laden and his operatives are the ideological descendants of the Mecca radicals, but with far greater resources.

Kirkus Reviews
It has taken nearly 30 years to comprehend these events in their proper context, and Trofimov does excellent work in narrating them in that light.

Publishers Weekly
Casual readers will be well served by this introduction to Muslim fundamentalist terrorism.

Author Blurb Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone
Yaroslav Trofimov has written a spellbinding thriller. Packed with vivid, previously undisclosed details, it illuminates a little-known hostage crisis in the closed-off heart of the Muslim world that helped give rise to Al Qaeda. Once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down

Author Blurb Tom Bissell, author of God Lives in St. Petersburg and The Father of All Things
As Yaroslav Trofimov amply and skillfully demonstrates, the most radioactive particle in the world today is not North Korea, Iran, or, for that matter, the United States. It is, rather, the terrifying bundle of contradictions otherwise known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The most formative event in the modern history of this secretive and at times morally disgusting petrocracy is vivisected by Trofimov to unsettling effect, and he reminds us of why anything that has happened or will happen there is a matter of great concern to the world.

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Beyond the Book

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 Islam, the different tribes of ...

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