Specters of al-Qaida

'Wall Street Journal' reporter Yaroslav Trofimov says group had its beginnings in November 1979.

mecca book 88 224 (photo credit: )
mecca book 88 224
(photo credit: )
The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al Qaeda By Yaroslav Trofimov Doubleday 320 pages; $26 On November 20, 1979, at the first dawn of the 15th Muslim century, several hundred armed rebels laid siege to the holiest place in Islam, the Masjid al-Haram or Grand Mosque of Mecca. The Wahhabi revolutionaries, led by Juhayman al-Uteybi, a former Saudi national guardsman, chained shut each of the mosque's 51 gates before announcing their apocalyptic message to the nearly 100,000 pilgrims trapped inside. Proclaiming that the corruption, decadence and vice exhibited by the illegitimate Saudi kingdom - its rulers, pawns of the infidels - was a clear sign that the end of days was near, they declared that among their number was the messiah-like redeemer of Islam - the mahdi, or guided one, who will bring justice to Earth. For the next 13 days, the zealous, ascetic rebels - whose primarily Arab and Saudi Beduin ranks also included two African-American converts - waged fierce battle against inept, rivalrous Saudi forces within the mosque's vast compound. Their largely forgotten revolt, pointedly absent from Saudi history books, is the subject of Wall Street Journal correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov's nonfiction thriller, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al Qaeda. As his subtitle asserts, Trofimov has larger ambitions than to illuminate an important, neglected event. Even as he claims that Juhayman's uprising was merely "a precursor of al Qaeda" - multinational, Wahhabi, vehemently anti-Shi'ite, savvy in staging spectacular media events, harboring ambitions of unifying the Islamic world - he also hints that the siege was a necessary condition of al-Qaida's birth. "With the benefit of hindsight, it is painfully clear: The countdown to September 11, to the terrorist bombings in London and Madrid, and to the grisly Islamist violence ravaging Afghanistan and Iraq all began on that warm November morning." That Juhayman and Osama bin Laden's groups sprang from similar causes is beyond question. Both men were raised in a rapidly modernizing Saudi state whose leaders had abandoned in all but name the uncompromising Wahhabi ideology on which their forbears rode to power. Both figures attracted pupils of exiled Egyptian and Syrian clerics who taught that it is a religious duty to oppose rulers who do not uphold the tenets of Islam. And both decried the hypocrisy of a kingdom whose senior religious authority forbade the display of graven images, while royal portraits adorned official buildings and Saudi riyals. But does all this add up to a convincing case that Juhayman's group was a cause of al-Qaida's birth? Trofimov thinks so. Yet aside from noting the many al-Qaida leaders who have been influenced by Juhayman's writings (originally published, incidentally, by an Iraqi Ba'athist-affiliated publisher), the bulk of his argument consists of weaving together a series of varied and intricately connected repercussions of the Mecca uprising. The siege began just weeks after the storming of the US embassy in Teheran. It also coincided with a series of frightening protests among Saudi Arabia's 350,000-strong Shi'ite minority, many of them waving posters of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Amid widespread suspicion of Iranian involvement in the Mecca uprising, Khomeini deftly turned the accusations on their head, stating in a radio broadcast that "it is not far-fetched to assume" that the events in Mecca had "been perpetrated by the criminal American imperialism." In the days that followed, credulous Muslims set fire to American embassies from Libya to Bangladesh, prompting so much panic within the Carter administration that secretary of state Cyrus Vance withdrew American personnel from across the Middle East. Trofimov also contends that America's precipitous decline in influence, coupled with its unmistakable display of cowardice, emboldened future jihadists as well as the Soviet Union. Just one week after the Mecca crisis and the ensuing withdrawal of American personnel, with their self-confidence at new heights the Soviets decided to invade Afghanistan. That invasion, in turn, encouraged the Carter administration to make two decisions of great consequence to al-Qaida's growth: first, to increase the American military presence in the Middle East, thus, in Trofimov's view, propelling additional recruits to al-Qaida's ranks, and second, to decide, together with Saudi Arabia, to harness this newly discovered Islamist upsurge and use it against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Just how these events would have played out in the absence of a siege of Mecca is the unanswerable question that hovers over much of Trofimov's thesis. The central causal link he identifies between Juhayman and bin Laden is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but that event, as Trofimov notes, had at least as much to do with Soviet indignation at an unrelated deployment of a US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Still, the siege of Mecca was a fascinating, portentous event, and Trofimov succeeds in his primary task of engagingly telling the tale while revealing the fragility of a kingdom containing many subjects who are more sympathetic to militant Wahhabis than to the House of Saud.