Remembering the siege of Makkah

Remembering the siege of Makkah
The Hajj at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1973. Six years later, a sacrilegious storming of the mosque by armed fanatics shook Saudi Arabia and sent shockwaves through the Islamic world. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Updated 19 November 2019

Remembering the siege of Makkah

Remembering the siege of Makkah
  • Forty years ago, a group of armed fanatics led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi were primed for an assault that would cast a long, regressive shadow over Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH:  In November 1979, the Middle East was already on a knife edge. In Iran, a liberal monarchy that had ruled for almost four decades had just been overthrown by a fundamentalist theocracy preaching a return to medieval religious values that many feared would pollute and destabilize the entire region.

For the citizens of Saudi Arabia, however, the greatest shock was yet to come. The sacrilegious storming of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by armed fanatics that month sent shockwaves through the entire Islamic world.

Murder and mayhem erupted in the very heart of Islam, perpetrated by a reactionary sect determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one among their number was the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam whose appearance, according to the hadith, heralds the Day of Judgment. 

Ahead lay two weeks of bitter, bloody fighting as Saudi forces fought to reclaim the Holy Haram for the true faith, but that battle was merely the overture to a war for the very soul of Islam in the Kingdom.

Open, progressive and religiously tolerant, Saudi Arabia was about to travel back in time. Only now, as the Kingdom pushes forward into a new era of transparency and modernization, can the full story of the siege of Makkah and the regressive shadow it would cast over the country for the next 40 years finally be told.

As the citizens of Makkah and those pilgrims who had remained behind after Hajj saw out the final hours of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar, and prepared to greet the year 1400 in prayer within the precincts of the Grand Mosque, a few inconspicuous pickup trucks slipped unchallenged into it through an entrance used by construction workers under the Fatah Gate, on the north side of the mosque.

The trucks and the men who drove them were there at the bidding of Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a disaffected former corporal in the Saudi National Guard.

As a firebrand at the head of a small group of religious students based in a small village outside Madinah, Juhayman had been on the radar of the authorities for some time. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who in 1979 was the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, the group consisted of students from various religious seminaries who had put their faith in the eschatological figure of the Mahdi, the supposed redeemer of Islam. 

“Their aim, according to their beliefs, was to liberate the Grand Mosque from the apostate rulers of the Kingdom and to liberate all Muslims by the coming of the so-called Mahdi,” Prince Turki said in an interview with Arab News.

Juhayman and his group were set on a path that would lead to tragedy, reaching out to potential recruits both inside and outside the Kingdom. “Through their correspondence and preaching, they managed to recruit a few individuals,” Prince Turki said. 




Juhayman Al-Otaibi after his capture following the end of the seige. (AFP)

One temporary recruit was the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who in 2010 won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Throwing Sparks.” In an interview in 2017 with MBC television, he said that when he was 17 he was one of Juhayman’s men and had even helped to spread the group’s ideology by distributing leaflets.

“It’s true, I was going to be part of one of the groups that was going to enter the Haram,” he said and, were it not for the intervention of his elder sister, he might have found himself among those who were to seize the Grand Mosque. 

“I was supposed to move out to (a mosque) where our group was gathering. We were supposed to be in seclusion at the mosque for three days, and we were supposed to leave with Juhayman on the fourth day.”

But his sister stopped him going to the rendezvous point, on the ground that he was too young to be sleeping away from home for three nights. Almost certainly, she saved his life. “And then, on the fourth day, the horrendous incident happened.” 

Writer Mansour Alnogaidan was only 11 years old when the siege happened, but like many Saudis of his generation, he felt the tug of various Salafi groups in his youth.

Now general manager of Harf and Fasela Media, which operates counter-terrorism websites, he has done extensive research on the Makkah siege.

Alnogaidan says there were a number of possible reasons behind the 1979 incident, including an existing idea in the mind of Juhayman and his group that they were the successors of a Bedouin movement by the name of “Ikhwan-men-taa-Allah.”

“Some believed they had a vendetta against the Saudi government,” he said in an interview with Arab News. “Another issue was essentially the personal desires of certain people (such as Juhayman) who sought power and control. He wanted to satisfy something inside him.”

Alnogaidan added: “Also, we must not forget that this incident came after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which had an influence even though not a direct one.”

Juhayman and his group were on the radar of the security services. Over time, recalled Prince Turki, “there were many attempts by authorized religious scholars in the Kingdom to rectify the group’s beliefs by discussion, argument and persuasion.” 

Occasionally individuals were taken in for questioning by the authorities “because they were considered to be potentially disruptive to society. Once they were taken in, however, they always gave affidavits and signed assurances that they would not continue with the preaching and so on.”

But “once they were released, of course, they returned to their previous ways.”

At some point in the closing months of the 13th Islamic century, Juhayman’s group identified one of their number, Juhayman’s brother-in-law Mohammed Al-Qahtani, as the Mahdi.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1979, as the inhabitants of Makkah and the pilgrims who had lingered after Hajj gravitated toward the Grand Mosque for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the dawning of a new century in Islam’s holiest place, the stage was set for the most unholy of outrages.

Carrying firearms within the Grand Mosque was strictly forbidden; even the guards were armed only with sticks. An armed assault on the precincts of the mosque — on the sacred values it enshrined for the world’s two billion Muslims — was unthinkable.

But on the first day of the Islamic new year of 1400, the unthinkable happened.

 

Juhayman: 40 years on
On the anniversary of the 1979 attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque, Arab News tells the full story of an unthinkable event that shocked the Islamic world and cast a shadow over Saudi society for decades

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Saudi Arabia keen to protect human rights, HRC chief says

Saudi Arabia keen to protect human rights, HRC chief says
Updated 30 July 2021

Saudi Arabia keen to protect human rights, HRC chief says

Saudi Arabia keen to protect human rights, HRC chief says
  • In observance of Friday’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, Al-Awwad said the Kingdom is making significant and constant efforts
  • Al-Awwad wants to criminalize and combat human trafficking through a set of actions and measures that ensure human dignity

RIYADH: Awwad bin Saleh Al-Awwad, president of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and chairman of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, said Saudi Arabia is keen to protect and promote human rights.

Al-Awwad also wants to criminalize and combat human trafficking through a set of actions and measures that ensure human dignity and protect it from all forms of abuse and exploitation.

In observance of Friday’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, Al-Awwad said the Kingdom is making significant and constant efforts to combat human trafficking through the establishment of the Saudi National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking.

The committee enacts regulations and legislation that ensure protecting victims and safeguarding their rights on a local and global level.

Not only did the Kingdom issue regulations and legislation to combat human trafficking, but it was also keen to make the necessary efforts to enforce them, Al-Awwad said.


Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province conducts 1,524 COVID-19 health tours

Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province conducts 1,524 COVID-19 health tours
Updated 30 July 2021

Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province conducts 1,524 COVID-19 health tours

Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province conducts 1,524 COVID-19 health tours

DAMMAM: Municipalities throughout Saudi Arabia have ramped up efforts to monitor compliance with health and safety measures introduced to help stop the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

The Eastern Province municipality recently carried out 1,524 inspection tours in one day at shopping malls, commercial centers, and stores.

Checks resulted in nine commercial outlets being shut down, while 77 violators were issued with penalties for ignoring health regulations, which included breaches of overcrowding rules and failure to use the Tawakkalna app.

Officials have urged members of the public to report any suspected health breaches by phoning the 940 call-center number or contacting authorities via the Balady app.


Seven Saudi mosques reopen after sanitization

Seven Saudi mosques reopen after sanitization
Updated 30 July 2021

Seven Saudi mosques reopen after sanitization

Seven Saudi mosques reopen after sanitization

RIYADH: The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance has reopened seven mosques in four regions that were temporarily closed for cleaning after coronavirus disease infections were confirmed among worshippers.

The ministry said on Thursday that two mosques were reopened in Riyadh, two in Qassim, two in Hail, and one in the Eastern Province.

Coronavirus infections have led to the closure of 1,909 mosques in the Kingdom in the past 173 days. The mosques were reopened after cleaning measures were completed.

The ministry urged worshippers and employees to follow precautionary measures, including wearing face masks, using their own prayer mats and maintaining social distancing.


21 members of Saudi-backed team killed clearing Houthi mines in Yemen

21 members of Saudi-backed team killed clearing Houthi mines in Yemen
Updated 30 July 2021

21 members of Saudi-backed team killed clearing Houthi mines in Yemen

21 members of Saudi-backed team killed clearing Houthi mines in Yemen

JEDDAH: Twenty-one members of a Yemen-based team of Saudi and foreign mine clearance experts have lost their lives over three years operating in what has become known as the world’s largest minefield.

The tragic death toll was revealed in figures showing the scale of the project being carried out in the war-torn country in cooperation with local Yemeni teams under the umbrella of the Saudi Project for Landmine Clearance (Masam).

Launched by the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief) on June 25, 2018, the initiative has so far cost $133 million, Masam’s director, Osama Al-Gosaibi, told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

He said the project’s field teams had dismantled 263,797 landmines, unexploded ordnance, and other deadly explosive devices. Since the start of the program up until July 23 this year, bomb squads dealt with 169,792 unexploded ordnances, 83,943 anti-tank mines, and 3,984 anti-personnel mines covering 25 million square meters of Yemeni territories.

The Yemen government said that the Iran-backed Houthis had planted more than 1 million landmines in the country since the start of the conflict in 2015, turning it into the most-mined nation since World War II.

KSrelief recently extended the Masam contract for another year, at a cost of $33.6 million. The project is carried out by Saudi and international experts through Yemeni teams that have been trained to remove all kinds of mines planted randomly by Houthi militias.

Al-Gosaibi pointed out that one of the main challenges faced by the teams was having to work without maps indicating the location of mines. In many cases they had to rely on local residents identifying suspected mined areas, which significantly slowed the clearance process, he added.

KSrelief’s general supervisor, Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, said that the renewal of the Masam contract with the executive partner was, “out of the center’s sense of humanitarian responsibility toward the Yemeni brothers.”

He added: “It is extremely important to clear the Yemeni territories of the mines that Houthi militias manufactured and planted in a random, unpredicted, and camouflaged manner and that have caused permanent disabilities and injuries and human losses, including women, children, and seniors.”

According to statistics published by the Yemeni Observatory on Landmines in March, devices planted by Houthis in Taiz alone had killed and injured 3,263 civilians since 2015.

Data from the Yemeni Coalition to Monitor Human Rights Violations, also known as the Rasd Coalition, showed 1,929 civilians, including 357 children and 146 women, have been killed in the past six years, and 2,242 civilians, including 519 children and 167 women, were disabled due to landmines.

During that same period, the coalition documented the destruction and damage of more than 2,872 public and private facilities in several Yemeni governorates, all due to anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines.


Saudi MOH: More than 26mn people now vaccinated against coronavirus

Saudi MOH: More than 26mn people now vaccinated against coronavirus
Updated 30 July 2021

Saudi MOH: More than 26mn people now vaccinated against coronavirus

Saudi MOH: More than 26mn people now vaccinated against coronavirus
  • Authorities report 1,289 new coronavirus cases, 1,299 recoveries, 12 deaths

JEDDAH: More than 26 million people in Saudi Arabia have now received a coronavirus vaccine, including almost 1.5 million elderly people, the Saudi Ministry of Health announced on Thursday.

However, the ministry repeated its message that a second vaccine dose is necessary to achieve the highest levels of immunity, especially amid the emergence of the delta variant.

First dose ppointments are now available for those aged between 12 and 18 in all regions of the Kingdom, the ministry said.

People who have recovered from a coronavirus infection are now also able to complete two doses of the vaccine, with the possibility of receiving the first dose 10 days after the end of an infection.

The change was introduced following the release of medical studies that demonstrated the safety of the procedure.

The ministry said that the Kingdom’s nationwide vaccine rollout is moving forward as planned, and urged people to register to receive vaccines through the Sehhaty app.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia on Thursday reported 12 more coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the Kingdom’s death toll to 8,212.

There were 1,289 new cases, meaning that 523,397 people in the country have now contracted the disease. A total of 11,358 cases remain active, of which 1,395 are in critical condition.

Of the newly recorded cases, 260 were in the Makkah region, 253 in the Riyadh region, 220 in the Eastern Province and 63 in the Madinah region.

In addition, the ministry said that 1,299 patients recovered from the disease, increasing the total number of recoveries in the Kingdom to 503,827.

Saudi Arabia has so far conducted 24,800,706 PCR tests, with 117,620 carried out in the past 24 hours.

Testing hubs and treatment centers set up throughout the country have dealt with hundreds of thousands of people since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Taakad (make sure) centers provide coronavirus testing for those who show no or only mild symptoms or believe they have come into contact with an infected individual, while Tetamman (rest assured) clinics offer treatment and advice to people with virus symptoms such as fever, loss of taste and smell, and breathing difficulties.

Appointments for either service can be made via the ministry’s Sehhaty app.