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When Militants Took Mecca: A Short Siege With An Immense Legacy


Let's take a trip back in the history of extremism. We'll go back to a moment before ISIS existed, before Sept. 11, before many people had ever heard of Osama bin Laden. Forty years ago, extremist militants attacked the holiest shrine of Islam. It's in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. And this story will show that that attack four decades ago set the stage for many of the events that followed.

NPR's history podcast Throughline has examined this attack in a recent episode, and we're joined now by one of the show's hosts, Ramtin Arablouei. Good morning.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So how did this all begin?

ARABLOUEI: Well, in the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia was going through a transformation thanks to the discovery of oil, which brought in revenues that led to modernization.

INSKEEP: Oh, conservative society suddenly opened up to the world and able to afford it.

ARABLOUEI: That's right. Along with improved education, health care and infrastructure, there were social changes. Women were able to go to the beach in bathing suits, not having to cover up. They were on TV. People could go to movie theaters. And these things may not seem like a big deal, but they marked the growing influence of secular Western culture in the country.

INSKEEP: Who in Saudi Arabia was bothered by this?

ARABLOUEI: Many conservatives in Saudi Arabia, including this one guy named Juhayman al-Otaibi. He had served in Saudi Arabia's army for many years. And he became more and more interested in Islam and more and more interested in conservative thought. He felt that these changes were taking Saudi Arabia away from Islam and were changing the kind of view of the country that he had had up to that point.

So he and his followers decided they were going to do something about it, that they had to remove the Saudi government. And they had a radical plan to do that. My co-host, Rund Abdelfatah, and I tell the story.


ARABLOUEI: The morning of November 20, 1979, would have seemed like any other in Mecca.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Praying in non-english language)

RUND ABDELFATAH: Roughly 100,000 pilgrims from around the world gathered in Islam's holiest site.


ABDELFATAH: Just as the prayer ended, shots rang out.


ABDELFATAH: This wasn't a sound any pilgrim expected to hear. Violence is strictly forbidden in Mecca.

ARABLOUEI: Juhayman al-Otaiba, the leader of the mission, charged the pulpit and snatched the mic away from the mosque's imam. In a thick Bedouin accent, he instructed his men.


JUHAYMAN AL-OTAIBA: (Non-English language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: "If you see a government soldier who wants to raise his hand against you, have no pity and shoot him because he wants to kill you."

ARABLOUEI: Juhayman and his followers had seized the Grand Mosque, taking nearly 100,000 scared, panicking hostages.

ABDELFATAH: The siege of Mecca had begun.

ARABLOUEI: As word of the siege began seeping out of Mecca, the Saudis realized they needed to end it quick. And to do that, they had to stage an actual full-scale military assault. But remember, it's forbidden in Islam to commit acts of violence in Mecca.

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV: So they needed a fatwa from the religious authorities that would authorize the operation.

ABDELFATAH: This is Yaroslav Trofimov.

TROFIMOV: I've been covering the Muslim world for nearly two decades for The Wall Street Journal.

ABDELFATAH: After days of frustration, the Saudi king summoned the leading members of the clergy, the ulema, to negotiate.

ARABLOUEI: What were the specific demands?

TROFIMOV: The demands were, for example, more restrictions of women's rights. But most importantly, what they wanted is spreading their view of Islam to the rest of the, you know, misguided Muslim nations. And they needed the backing of the Saudi state for that.

ARABLOUEI: We have to stop for a second here and emphasize the importance of this moment. Up until 1979...

JOE KECHICHIAN: The Al Saud had made a very specific arrangement, deal with the religious establishment. There is no interference in each other's business.

ABDELFATAH: This is Joe Kechichian.

KECHICHIAN: I'm a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

ARABLOUEI: The Saudis feared that this arrangement could be in jeopardy if the ulema were able to extract these new demands. But Joe says, even knowing the risks, there really weren't many options for King Khalid and the royal family.

KECHICHIAN: He had no choice but to acquiesce to the demands.

TROFIMOV: They said, OK. We will support you in this critical moment. We will authorize the military operation in the holiest of holies. But in exchange, you know, you will allow us to use the resources of the Saudi state to further our cause throughout the Muslim ummah, the Muslim nation.

ARABLOUEI: It took three long days for the clerics to pen the fatwa allowing for Saudi authorities to use violence to take back the Grand Mosque.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: This is audio of a message Saudi authorities blasted into the mosque over loudspeakers, pleading with the militants to end the takeover.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This call was answered with fire and murderous threats on the Muslims by these renegade.

ARABLOUEI: Juhayman didn't end it. So within hours of the fatwa being issued, the Saudi forces began their assault to take back the Grand Mosque.


KECHICHIAN: It was very chaotic. It was an environment where everybody was panicking.

ABDELFATAH: By the end of the day, many of the militants were dead and dozens were arrested, including Juhayman himself. The siege had failed. More than 60 people were arrested.

KECHICHIAN: Including Juhayman al-Otaiba. They were all tried.

TROFIMOV: And then they were all beheaded.

ABDELFATAH: What are the ramifications of this event on Saudi Arabia and the world?

TROFIMOV: It stopped the modernization of Saudi Arabia's society for a very long time.

KECHICHIAN: Saudi Arabia became a very conservative country after 1979. For example, movie theaters were banned. The condition of women became much more difficult. So a dark chapter really started in the country.

TROFIMOV: And at the same time, it empowered the conservative clerics of Saudi Arabia to not just control the social developments in the kingdom but to export their very austere conservative vision of Islam around the world, where it was really very marginal up until then - and something that truly fostered the development of jihadi groups and extremist groups from Nigeria to Indonesia.

INSKEEP: Ramtin, I think I'm beginning to understand how that attack would be the backdrop of so many things we've seen in more recent years.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. And even though Juhayman's mission ultimately failed, that 15-day hostage-taking had a lasting effect on other extremists. And we're still seeing the consequences of that play out today.

INSKEEP: A story from 1979 from Ramtin Arablouei of NPR's Throughline podcast. Thanks for coming by.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.