Grand Mosque Seizure

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Grand Mosque seizure
Date 20 November – 4 December 1979
Location Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Result Saudi Arabian victory
  • Saudi military regain control of the Grand Mosque from insurgents after two weeks
  • Execution of Juhayman al-Otaybi and his followers
  • Wahhabization of Saudi society, a much stricter enforcement of Islamic code
Juhayman militants
Commanders and leaders
  • ~10,000 Saudi National Guard members
  • At least 3 GIGN commandos[2]
400–500 militants
Casualties and losses
  • 127 killed
  • 451 wounded
  • (Saudi Arabian)
  • 117[3] killed
  • Unknown number wounded
  • 68 executed

The Grand Mosque seizure occurred during November and December 1979 when Islamist insurgents took over Islam's holiest site, the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, principally as a protest against the rule of the House of Saud. The insurgents declared that the Mahdi (the "redeemer of Islam") had arrived in the form of one of their leaders – Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani – and called on Muslims to obey him.

The seizure shocked the Islamic world as hundreds of pilgrims present for the annual hajj were taken hostage, and hundreds of militants, security forces and hostages caught in crossfire were killed in the ensuing battles for control of the site. The siege ended two weeks after the takeover began with militants and the mosque was cleared.[4] Following the attack, the Saudi state implemented a stricter enforcement of Islamic code.[5]


The seizure was led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, who belonged to a powerful family of Najd. He declared his brother-in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi, or redeemer who arrives on earth several years before the Day of Judgment. His followers took that the fact that Al-Qahtani's name and his father's name are identical to Muhammad's name and that of his father, and the saying ("His and his father's names were the same as Muhammad's and his father's, and he had come to Mecca from the north") to justify their belief. Furthermore, the date of the attack, 20 November 1979, was the first day of the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar, which was stated by another hadith as the day that the Mahdi would reveal himself.[6]

Juhayman al-Otaybi was from "one of the foremost families of Najd. His grandfather had ridden with Ibn Saud in the early decades of the century."[7] He was a preacher, a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard, and a former student of Sheikh Abdel Aziz al Baaz, who went on to become the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. When al-Qahtani and a number of the Ikhwan were locked up as "troublemakers" by the Ministry of Interior security police (Mabahith) they were released "at the request of Sheikh Bin Baz." [8]

Juhaiman had turned against al Baaz, "and began advocating a return to the original ways of Islam, among other things; a repudiation of the West; an end of education of women; abolition of television and expulsion of non-Muslims."[9] He proclaimed that "the ruling Al Saud dynasty had lost its legitimacy because it was corrupt, ostentatious and had destroyed Saudi culture by an aggressive policy of Westernization."[7]

Juhayman ibn Muhammad ibn Sayf al Otaibi

al-Otaybi and Qahtani had met while being imprisoned together for sedition, when al-Otaybi claimed to have a vision sent by God telling him that Qahtani was the Mahdi. Their declared goal was to institute a theocracy in preparation for the imminent apocalypse. Many of their followers were drawn from theology students at the Islamic University in Medina. Other followers came from Egypt, Yemen, Kuwait, and Iraq, and also included some Sudanese black African Muslims. The followers preached their "radical" message in different mosques in Saudi Arabia without being arrested.[10] The government was reluctant to confront "religious extremists." Members of the ulema cross-examined Otaibi and Qahtani for heresy, but they were subsequently released as being traditionalists harkening back to the Ikhwan, like al-Otaybi's grandfather, and not a threat.[11]

Because of donations from wealthy followers, the group was well-armed and trained. Some members, like al-Otaybi, were former military officials of the National Guard.[12] Some National Guard troops sympathetic to the insurgents smuggled weapons, ammunition, gas masks, and provisions into the mosque compound over a period of weeks before the new year.[13] Automatic weapons were smuggled from National Guard armories, and the supplies were hidden in the hundreds of tiny underground rooms under the mosque that were used as hermitages.[14]

Even after the seizure of the masjid, a certain level of forbearance by ulama for the rebels remained. When the government asked for a fatwa allowing armed force in the masjid, the language of bin Baz and other senior ulama "was curiously restrained." The scholars did not declared al-Otaibi and his followers non-Muslims, despite their violation of the sanctity of the Masjid, but only called "al-jamaah al-musallahah" (the armed group). The senior scholars also insisted that before security forces attack them, the authorities must offer the option `to surrender and lay down their arms.`[8]


In the early morning of 20 November 1979, the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, was preparing to lead the prayers for the fifty thousand worshipers who had gathered for prayer. At around 5:00 am, he was interrupted by insurgents who procured weapons from under their robes, chained the gates shut and killed two policemen who were armed with only wooden clubs for disciplining unruly pilgrims.[15] The number of insurgents has been given as "at least 500"[7] and "four to five hundred", which included several women and children who had joined al-Otaybi's movement.[14]

At the time, the Grand Mosque was being renovated by the Saudi Binladin Group.[16] An employee of the organization was able to report the seizure to the outside world before the insurgents cut the telephone lines.

The insurgents released most of the hostages and locked the remainder in the sanctuary. They took defensive positions in the upper levels of the mosque, and sniper positions in the minarets, from which they commanded the grounds. No one outside the mosque knew how many hostages remained, how many militants were in the mosque and what sort of preparations they had made.

At the time of the event, Crown Prince Fahd was in Tunisia for a meeting of the Arab Summit and then commander of National Guard Prince Abdullah was in Morocco for an official visit. Therefore, King Khalid assigned the responsibility to Prince Sultan, then Minister of Defense and Prince Nayef, then Minister of Interior, to deal with the incident.[17]


The surviving insurgents under custody of Saudi Authorities. c. 1980.

Soon after the rebel seizure, about a hundred security officers of the Ministry of Interior attempted to retake the mosque, and were decisively turned back with heavy casualties. The survivors were quickly joined by units of the Saudi Arabian Army and Saudi Arabian National Guard.

By the evening, the entire city of Mecca had been evacuated. Prince Sultan appointed Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, then head of the Al Mukhabaraat Al 'Aammah (Saudi Intelligence), to take over the forward command post several hundred metres from the mosque, where Prince Turki would remain for the next several weeks. However, the first order of business was to seek the approval of the ulema, which was led by Abdul Aziz bin Baz. Islam forbids any violence within the Grand Mosque, to the extent that plants cannot be uprooted without explicit religious sanction. Ibn Baaz found himself in a delicate situation, especially as he had previously taught al-Otaybi in Medina. Regardless, the ulema issued a fatwa allowing deadly force to be used in retaking the mosque.[18]

With religious approval granted, Saudi forces launched frontal assaults on three of the main gates. The assaulting force was repulsed, and never even got close to breaking through the insurgents' defences. Snipers continued to pick off soldiers who showed themselves. The mosque's public address system was used to broadcast the insurgents' message throughout the streets of Mecca.

The insurgents aired their demands from the mosque's loudspeakers, calling for the cutoff of oil exports to the United States and the expulsion of all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arabian Peninsula.[19] On 25 November, the Arab Socialist Action Party – Arabian Peninsula issued a statement from Beirut alleging to clarify the demands of the insurgents. The party, however, denied any involvement of its own in the seizure.[20]

Officially, the Saudi government took the position of not aggressively taking the mosque, but rather to starve the militants. Nevertheless, several unsuccessful assaults were undertaken, at least one of them through the underground tunnels in and around the mosque.[21]

According to Lawrence Wright in the book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,

A team of three French commandos from the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) arrived in Mecca. Because of the prohibition against non-Muslims entering the holy city, they converted to Islam in a brief, formal ceremony. The commandos pumped gas into the underground chambers, but perhaps because the rooms were so bafflingly interconnected, the gas failed and the resistance continued. With casualties climbing, Saudi forces drilled holes into the courtyard and dropped grenades into the rooms below, indiscriminately killing many hostages but driving the remaining rebels into more open areas where they could be picked off by sharpshooters. More than two weeks after the assault began, the surviving rebels finally surrendered.[22] [23][24]

According to another source, it was not non-Muslim French but Muslim Pakistani authorities who were called in to help.[25] A plan was devised to launch Pakistani Special Forces, soon after the reception of demands from insurgents, Pakistanis went into the action, Pakistan's elite special forces the Special Services Group Commandos loaded in Saudi Chinooks were brought into the area. The Pakistani High Command directed the Saudis to flood all the premises of Sacred Mosque with water and unleash current through high voltage naked wires, as soon as Pakistanis came over, the current was unleashed leaving insurgents seriously shocked and then withdrawn. The Pakistanis Commandos then dropped from Helicopters launched frontal assaults and after hours of heavy fighting gained nearly all the Mosque.

By 27 November, most of the mosque had been retaken by the combined forces of Pakistani Special Services Group, Saudi National Guard and the Army, though they suffered heavy casualties in the assault. In the catacombs under the mosque, however, several militants continued to resist and tear gas was used to force them out.[26] Several of the top militants escaped the siege[27] and days later sporadic fighting erupted in other parts of the city as authorities tried to capture them.

The battle had lasted for more than two weeks, and had officially left "255 pilgrims, troops and fanatics" killed and "another 560 injured ... although diplomats suggested the toll was higher."[28] Military casualties were 127 dead and 451 injured.[29]


In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini told radio listeners, "It is not beyond guessing that this is the work of criminal American imperialism and international Zionism."[30][31]

Anti-American demonstrations followed in the Philippines, Turkey, Bangladesh, eastern Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.[32] Anger fueled by these rumours peaked within hours in Islamabad, Pakistan, and on 21 November 1979, the day following the takeover, the U.S. embassy in that city was overrun by a mob, who then burned the embassy to the ground. A week later, this anger swept to the streets of Tripoli, Libya, where a mob attacked and burned the U.S. embassy there on 2 December 1979.[33]

Sandra Mackey, author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, said that "[i]n choosing the Grand Mosque as the point of attack, the rebels seized the symbol of the theocracy presided over by the House of Saud. But by failing the attack, the rebels sealed their own fate and gave the al-Sauds carte blanche to carry out public executions for religious transgressions that were in reality crimes of politics."[34] The rebels' leader, Juhayman, was captured, and he and 67 of his fellow rebels – "all the surviving males" – were tried secretly, convicted and publicly beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities.[7] In fact, 63 rebels were executed on 9 January 1980 in eight Saudi cities.[35] The executions were decreed by King Khalid after the edict issued by ulemas.[35] The cities and towns included Buraidah, Dammam, Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, Abha, Ha'il and Tabuk. Mackey said that the eight cities and towns "were carefully chosen not only to give maximum exposure but, one suspects, to reach other potential nests of discontent."[34]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Attack on Kaba Complete Video". YouTube. 23 July 2011. Retrieved 8 June 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Da Lage, Olivier (2006). Géopolitique de l'Arabie Saoudite (in French). Complexe. p. 34. ISBN 2804801217. 
  3. ^ Riyadh (10 January 1980). "63 Zealots beheaded for seizing Mosque". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  4. ^ Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror (2002) p. 90
  5. ^ Wright, Sacred Rage, (2001), p. 155
  6. ^ Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror, (2002) p. 90
  7. ^ a b c d Mecca – 1979 Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Otaibi, Global Security
  8. ^ a b Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. p. 31. 
  9. ^ Wright, Sacred Rage, (2001), p. 152
  10. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p.88–9
  11. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 103 – softcover
  12. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 102 – softcover
  13. ^ Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror, (2002), p. 90
  14. ^ a b Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 104 – softcover
  15. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 101 – softcover
  16. ^ 1979 Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca: The Attack and the Siege That Inspired Osama bin Laden. Retrieved January 15, 2014.
  17. ^ Astal, Kamal M. (2002). "Three case studies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq". Pakistan Journal of Applied Sciences 2 (3): 308–319. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  18. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), pp. 103–104 – softcover
  19. ^ Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p.92
  20. ^ Saudi Opposition Group Lists Insurgents' Demands in MERIP Reports, No. 85. (February 1980), pp. 16–17.
  21. ^ US embassy cable of 22 November
  22. ^ Tristam, Pierre. "1979 Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca The Attack and the Siege That Inspired Osama bin Laden". Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  23. ^ see also Trofimov, Yaroslav (2007). The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine. Random House. p. 193. 
  24. ^ see also: Wright, Robin B., 1948| Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam| Simon & Schuster| c 2001, p. 148
  25. ^ Husain, Irfan. Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. ARC Manor. p. 129. 
  26. ^ US embassy cable of 27 November
  27. ^ US embassy cable of 1 December.
  28. ^ Wright, Robin B., 1948| Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam| Simon & Schuster| c 2001, p. 148
  29. ^ "Pierre Tristam, "1979 Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca",". Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  30. ^ On This Day, 21 November, BBC
  31. ^ "Khomeini Accuses U.S. and Israel of Attempt to Take Over Mosques", by John Kifner, New York Times, 25 November 1979
  32. ^ Wright, Robin B., 1948. Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam. Simon & Schuster, c 2001, p. 149
  33. ^ EMBASSY OF THE U.S. IN LIBYA IS STORMED BY A CROWD OF 2,000; Fires Damage the Building but All Americans Escape – Attack Draws a Strong Protest Relations Have Been Cool Escaped without Harm 2,000 Libyan Demonstrators Storm the U.S. Embassy Stringent Security Measures Official Involvement Uncertain, New York Times, 3 December 1979
  34. ^ a b Mackey, p. 234.
  35. ^ a b "Saudis behead zealots". The Victoria Advocate. AP. 10 January 1980. Retrieved 7 August 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

Coordinates: 21°25′19″N 39°49′33″E / 21.42194°N 39.82583°E / 21.42194; 39.82583