‘The air was heavy with fear:’ How the 1979 attack on Makkah’s Grand Mosque shook Saudi society

On Nov. 20, 1979, Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a former member of the National Guard, led an attack on Makkah’s Grand Mosque, in a siege that lasted two weeks. Right, smoke billows from the mosque. (AFP)
Updated 23 September 2019

‘The air was heavy with fear:’ How the 1979 attack on Makkah’s Grand Mosque shook Saudi society

  • Militant mastermind Juhayman Al-Otaibi’s terror strike on Nov. 20, 1979 left hundreds dead
  • Storming of the mosque ushered in Kingdom’s ‘darkest days’

JEDDAH: For decades, the infamous name Juhayman Al-Otaibi had been buried in the memories of Gen X Saudis. 

On Nov. 20, 1979, a well-organized group of terrorists stormed Makkah’s Grand Mosque, killing and wounding hundreds of worshippers and hostages in what came to be one of Saudi Arabia’s darkest days. Al-Otaibi was the mastermind behind the terrorist attack.

Fast forward four decades, and in his first American TV interview — with CBS’s “60 Minutes” — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to bring back the Kingdom’s pre-1979 moderation.

“We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries,” he said. “Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”

Al-Otaibi committed an atrocity in the name of religion, seizing the Grand Mosque for two weeks in a standoff with Saudi special forces. 

Photos taken from fighter jets above the mosque showed the floor surrounding the Kaaba empty of worshippers, an image never witnessed before.

In a video published by the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Subayil, the imam who performed fajr (early morning) prayers on the day of the siege, recalled what he described as “one of the most significant events” of his life.

He said he arrived at the mosque 30 minutes before prayers but did not sense anything untoward. 

“But after concluding fajr prayers … a number of militiamen with weapons stormed the area heading toward the Kaaba,” he added.

“I headed to one of the rooms, where I immediately called Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Rashed, the chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques at the time. I told him of the situation, and I had him listen to the bullets being fired. I found out a while later that they (the terrorists) were allowing pilgrims to leave the mosque’s grounds.”

Al-Subayil decided to leave after about four hours. He removed his mishlah (a traditional flowing outer cloak worn in the Gulf), went down to the basement, lowered his head and left with a group of Indonesian pilgrims just as two militants stood at the gates that lead outside the basement.

Soon after, the gates were chained shut, and snipers took positions in the high minarets and shot innocent worshippers. 

Arrested gunmen belonging to the group led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi that stormed Makkah’s Grand Mosque. (AFP)

Al-Otaibi’s followers, who had taken positions in the minarets, shot at bystanders and Saudi special forces if they came too close to the mosque’s grounds. An estimated 100,000 worshippers were in the mosque that morning.

The siege shocked Saudi society, which had been living a normal life, and whose country was transforming itself from a desert nation to a sophisticated state. 

Born and raised in Makkah, housewife Fajr Al-Mohandis recalled the day she heard the news, and the dreadful atmosphere in the city during “those awful two weeks.”

She told Arab News: “I was a student in middle school, and just like every other day, I went to school just like all the school children did. Everyone went to their jobs, including those who worked in the Grand Mosque.”

She said: “We heard gunshots during the day, and that would’ve been the first sign something was wrong. But we were still oblivious to the fact that a terrorist attack was taking place until our parents came to pick us up.” She added: “Makkah was a very small city at that time … and news spread fast.”

Al-Mohandis recalled how schools were shut for the next two weeks. “The air was heavy with fear, no one knew what was happening and we were shocked to the core,” she said. 

“This was the holy city. This was the Grand Mosque. How was this even possible? As I was young it was too much to process, but residents of the city who grew up here took the responsibility of keeping it safe, assuring young ones like me that it’ll be OK and Saudi special forces will free the mosque from the blasphemous group.”

A former member of the National Guard, Al-Otaibi was a member of the Salafist group Jama’a Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasibah. 

He was angered by Western influence in Saudi society, and had been recruiting followers from various nationalities for years under the guise of piety.

It was later discovered that his followers smuggled ammunition by hiding it in barrels disguised as construction equipment, and in the mosque’s basement and minarets, taking advantage of its expansion.

Saudi forces stormed the mosque, and the ensuing battle killed most of the terrorists, including Al-Qahtani. Sixty-seven of them were captured, including Al-Otaibi.

The siege ended on Dec. 4, 1979. On Jan. 9, 1980, well-known news presenter Hussain Najjar announced Al-Otaibi’s execution.

Saudi Arabia’s AlUla provides a perfect ‘Corner of the Earth’ for Jamiroquai to shine

Updated 25 January 2020

Saudi Arabia’s AlUla provides a perfect ‘Corner of the Earth’ for Jamiroquai to shine

ALULA: British band Jamiroquai thrilled a delighted audience at Maraya Concert Hall in Saudi Arabia on Friday night during a show packed with hits.

In a first for a venue more used to hosting opera and classical concerts, the British funk/acid jazz outfit had fans dancing along to the music.

The show, at the distinctive, mirror-covered concert hall in historic AlUla, was part of the second Winter at Tantora festival. It opened with “Shake It On,” followed by the hit singles “Little L,” “Alright,” and “Space Cowboy.” By this time the crowd was well and truly warmed up, and “Use the Force” got them on their feet.

“The song seemed to resonate with everyone” Jay Kay told Arab News in an exclusive interview after the show.

During the gig, Kay dedicated the 2002 song “Corner of the Earth” to AlUla, which he described as a “magical and wonderful place, which is absolutely stunning.” The opportunity to perform there was “an honor and privilege” he added. He also thanked “Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for his vision, and Prince Badr for making this happen and the great hospitality.”

After a further selection of singles and album tracks, the show ended on a high with a quartet of hits — “Cosmic Girl,” “Virtual Insanity,” “Canned Heat” and “Lovefoolosophy.”

Kay praised the Maraya Concert Hall as “a brilliant place to play.” He admitted that initially he was a little worried when he saw it because he was under the impression it would be an outdoor venue. However, any concerns he had were gone by the time the first sound check was done.

“I was transported into a completely different world; the acoustics were unbelievable, like being in a German concert hall,” he said. “It is obviously very well thought out and that’s what makes it so good. The sound was fabulous — I never looked at my sound guy once.”

Jamiroquai’s music videos often feature Kay in super cars, of which he owns many, and he revealed that he would love to shoot such a promo in AlUla.

“In reality, I’m desperate to get in one of the dune buggies, and would kill to have a (Ariel) Nomad and have a go in one in AlUla, where it’s supposed to be driven, for a day or five and dune bash, which is such a rare thing for us in England,” he said.

The singer also said he wants to bring his family to AlUla, which has become a hub for culture and creativity in Saudi Arabia.

“I would like to come out with my family and my youngest, who is called Talula, so hopefully we can have Talula come to AlUla, which would be wonderful,” said Kay.

He added that he was looking forward to exploring the area on Saturday, before leaving the country, but added: “I’m sure you can never have enough time to see everything there is to see.”