November 24, 2007


The event that inspired Al Qaeda (Nikhil Lakshman, November 22, 2007, Rediff)

In a startling new book, The Siege of Mecca, The Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov has penetrated the veil of secrecy the Saudi authorities has cast over the horrifying episode all these years and revealed how that militant operation came to inspire Al Qaeda and bin Laden, who founded his International Islamic Front, as a reaction to the Saudi monarchy's decision to invite the American military into the kingdom before the first Gulf War.

Trofimov, who now covers Asia for the Journal and most recently wrote about India's Dalit Christians and Wipro Chairman Azim Premji for the newspaper, has also written the award-winning Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu. In this e-mail interview with Nikhil Lakshman, he discussed The Siege of Mecca and its impact on contemporary, militant Islam. [...]

Why do you believe there is a co-relation between the events of 1979 and the genesis of Al Qaeda?

The Mecca uprising of 1979 was the very first operation of global jihad in modern times, uniting radicals from all over the world -- Saudis, Egyptians, Pakistanis, even American converts to Islam. This organisation served as a model to Al Qaeda in the future, and some of the surviving rebels actually went to Afghanistan and later joined Al Qaeda.

But this is not the only connection. In order to storm the Grand Mosque in 1979, the Saudi government needed a fatwa from the leading Islamic clerics, the Wahhabi ulema. The clerics obliged -- on the condition that the kingdom become much more rigid in enforcing the Wahhabi brand of Islam.

As part of this grand bargain, millions of dollars in Saudi petrodollars started to flow all over the world to fund the clerics' effort to spread Wahhabi Islam -- creating the Islamic madrassas, charities and welfare groups that would breed the new generation of Al Qaeda recruits.

Was Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia when the siege occurred? Have you located any information about what his role was during that period? Was he a bystander? Was he a participant? Would you know if the siege provoked anger in him that led him to travel to Afghanistan a few months later?

The Bin Laden family was deeply involved in this affair. Much of the Grand Mosque itself has been built by the Bin Laden construction company -- and the rebels smuggled their weapons into the mosque's underground via an access drive used by the Bin Laden company, with the connivance of Bin Laden employees.

Young Osama was shocked by the government's use of massive military force against the rebels, and by the subsequent damage to the shrine -- he later complained that Prince Fahd, then Saudi Arabia's day-to-day ruler, had "defiled" Islam's holy of holies.

In a way, the Mecca events marked the moment when Osama Bin Laden's allegiance to the House of Saud started to fracture.


Do the soldiers of Al Qaeda take inspiration from the siege of Mecca? Have you come across any material related to the siege in any Al Qaeda manuals? If so, what do those accounts say?

The Mecca events feature prominently in Al Qaeda's literature, especially in a book called The Infidel Nature of the Saudi State, a piece of required reading for many jihadis. The book was written by a Palestinian radical named Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi -- who was personally acquainted with many of Mecca's rebels. Maqdisi, of course, is better known as the former cellmate and tutor of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Did the Saudi monarchy learn any lessons from the siege of Mecca? Or did life go on as usual for the royals after the siege ended? Does it still give the monarchy nightmares?

The main lesson the Saudi royal family drew from this crisis was that it had to appease the radical Islamist clergy. It seemed like a wise policy for years -- except that it ended up boomeranging with the September 11 attacks and the subsequent rise of Islamist terrorism within the kingdom.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2007 6:10 AM
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