At dawn this date in 1980, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded over 60 Islamic extremists who had seized Mecca’s holy Al-Masjid al-Haram the preceding November — one of the formative and strangely forgotten events in the birth of radical Islam.
Saudi Arabia’s uneven but unmistakable modernization generated friction extending to the royal family itself.
For two embarrassing weeks, the Saudi government struggled to respond, bumbling a couple of military operations and delicately negotiating the ecclesiastical permission it would require to commit violence within the Grand Mosque. (Strict Moslim prohibitions against same had left the kingdom’s unarmed guards essentially defenseless against the initial takeover.)
In exchange for that fatwa, the House of Saud struck a Faustian bargain: agreeing to roll back secularization and impose strict Islamic law.
The balance of military materiel, of course, would prove to be no contest at all; Riyadh had troops, heavy armament, and now, permission to use them (and to damage the mosque … which they did). Most of the Mahdists were slain in the decisive assault; the survivors* (except for a few who were underage) were publicly beheaded in various cities around Saudi Arabia on this date, including the operation’s leader, Juhayman al-Otaibi.
But their deed — second-tier news at the time in a United States distracted by the Iranian Revolution — would have dramatic long-term repurcussions. Though intimations of deeper bin Laden family involvement** seem sketchy, it certainly appears to have inspired the 22-year-old Osama bin Laden; he soon made his way to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, a war that began in earnest just days after the end of the siege and to whose prosecution Saudi Arabia and the west would gratefully direct Islamist energies.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government’s pact with the clergy that gained it permission to assail the Grand Mosque saw it subsequently bankroll Wahhabi religious instruction in Saudi Arabia and beyond … arguably the hand that rocked the cradle of present-day Islamic radical movements like al-Qaeda.
Much of what is latterly recalled about this affair by Anglophones comes courtesy of journalist Yaroslav Trofimov’s recent book The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. (Review | Another | Book home page).
In this clip, the author discusses the legacy of the siege with Fareed Zakaria.
* The Saudi government put out the figure of 63 executions. Some sources now report 67.