By Mohammed Al-Sulami Mohammed
September 12, 2018
Smoke rises during fighting on Nov. 20, 1979, after a group seized the
Holy Mosque. Right: The mastermind of the attack, Juhayman Al-Otaibi. (AFP)
It has been 40 years since Saudi Arabia
first experienced a terror attack, which shocked all Muslims worldwide. It took
place at their most sacred place where the Kaaba has been located for
centuries. The rise of extremism in the Kingdom began on Muharram 1, 1400 —
corresponding to Nov. 20, 1979 — when a deviant group stormed the Holy Mosque
of Makkah. The incident, which lasted two weeks, claimed the lives of more than
It was the 1st of Muharram, the first month
of the Islamic calendar. Hundreds of worshippers were circling the Holy Kaaba,
in spirituality and peace, performing the dawn prayer. It was nearly 5:25 a.m.
All of a sudden, the attendants started to hear sounds of bullets that turned
the most peaceful place into a stage for killers, who targeted ordinary,
innocent people and rescuers.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said
that extremism started after 1979. He has pledged a return to a moderate past.
“We are returning to what we were before —
a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” he
told the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last year.
“We will not spend the next 30 years of our
lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” he added.
The Saudi authorities had to either
immediately crush the aggressors or call on them to lay down their arms. The
government sent the attackers a warning through a megaphone stressing that what
the deviant group inside the Holy Mosque was doing was in complete
contradiction to the teachings of Islam. The warning, in the name of
government of the late King Khaled, also included the following Qur’anic verse
to remind the attackers of their heinous acts: “Whoever intends a deviant deed
at the Holy Mosque, in religion, or wrongdoing, We will make him taste a
painful punishment,” and “Do they not then see that We have made a sanctuary
secure, and that men are being snatched away from all around them? Then, do
they believe in that which is vain, and reject the Grace of Allah?”
However, all calls on the attackers to
surrender were fruitless. From the high minarets of the sacred mosque,
snipers started gunning down innocent
people outside the Grand Mosque.
King Khaled gathered the country’s senior
ulema (scholars) to discuss the matter with them. They all agreed that the
aggressors were, from an Islamic point of view, considered apostates, as a
Muslim never kills innocent people. Doing that inside the holy mosque was even
more atrocious. The ulema issued a fatwa (religious edict) to kill them in
accordance with the instructions of the Islamic Shariah. The king ordered an
assault. However, he said the lives of the innocent people seized by the
attackers should be preserved. He also demanded that the Holy Kaaba and the
soldiers be unharmed. And he directed the forces to arrest the offenders alive
Filled with enthusiasm to liberate their
sacred mosque, the Saudi soldiers received the orders to free it from the
criminals’ control. The attack to free the mosque began with the Saudi soldiers
showing skills in hunting the offenders according to a well-studied plan until
they succeeded in taking control of the whole mosque.
When captured, the members of the group
were treated mercifully and gently. In this regard, the former head of the
Special Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al-Nufaie, told a satellite TV
channel that when the mastermind of the attack, Juhayman Al-Otaibi, was caught,
a security member grabbed him by his beard. “When a royal saw that, he angrily
ordered the soldier to remove his hand from the man’s beard,” Al-Nufaie
Al-Nufaie said Prince Saud Al-Faisal
approached Juhayman and asked him why he had committed these acts. “Juhayman
replied: ‘It was Satan.’ The prince also humanely asked him if he was
complaining about anything or if he wanted anything. Juhayman pointed to a
little wound on his leg and asked for water,” the retired major-general, who
was present, said.
Al-Nufaie added that they were all very
happy with the liberation of the Grand Mosque: “It was a true rejoicing after a
two-week period of professional work. We were thrilled to bring the atmosphere
of the mosque back to its normal serenity and tranquility.”
A witness, Hizam Al-Mastouri, 75, told Arab
News that he was a soldier who participated in the operation against the
“We entered the Grand Mosque in a military
vehicle to transport our colleagues inside the Masa’a area, near the Mount
Al-Marwa. The shooting was extensive, coming from everywhere toward us,” he
He added that the companions of Juhayman
were hiding in the many corners of the Masa’a. “They could see us, while we
were not able to see them. With time, the security leadership made changes in
their plans in a way that suited the situation,” Al-Mastouri said.
The former Editor in Chief of Arab News,
Khaled Almaeena, pointed out that it was a cool morning and he had gone to
Makkah to visit a cousin when he was told there was a disturbance around the
Grand Mosque. “I did not pay any attention at that time because what I came to
know later was unimaginable,” he said.
Crowds of people had gathered and there was
a lot of commotion. “Rumors were flying of the Holy Kaaba being seized by
‘foreigners’. Some were telling different stories. I came back to Jeddah and
watched the Saudi Television channel, the only one we could see in those days,”
“I was working in Saudia (Saudi Arabian
Airlines) but in the evening would go to work part-time at the English station
of Radio Jeddah. Even there, reports were sketchy. We had to use the transistor
radio to get news from outside stations like the BBC, VOA and Monte Carlo.”
He added that he decided to see for himself
and “on the fourth, fifth and sixth morning I would go in my car and off to
Makkah. I parked my car at a distance and observed the Holy Mosque,” he said.
“It was a sad sight to see the holiest
place in Islam empty. There were no visitors streaming toward the gates. In
fact, there was firing from the minarets and I could see the puff of smoke from
the different minarets. There was a smell of gunpowder and smoke.”
Almaeena said that an occasional helicopter
would hover high in the sky, keeping far away from the perimeter of the Grand
Mosque. “The attack and seizure of the mosque took everyone by surprise. And it
took time for all of us, including the security forces, to take stock of what
was truly an alarming situation,” he said.
Days passed and no calls for prayers were
heard, he continued. “However, after days this band of zealots was overpowered
and their leader Juhayman Al-Otaibi was captured. Around the world, there was
more satisfaction in the Muslim world,” he said.
The veteran journalist said he had to
report on the incident for the radio, which he did by recording on an old tape
recorder and then broadcasting it from Jeddah.
“The capture of the zealots and their
leaders was filmed and we had to broadcast it ‘live.’ The available technology
did not help. Three people were entrusted with the task. The late Badr Kurayem,
one of Saudi Arabia’s leading radio and television broadcasters; Dr. Hashem
Abdo Hashem, who later became editor in chief of Okaz; and myself,” he said.
“So here was Dr. Abdo writing the script in
his long, flowing handwriting, Badr Kurayem reading the Arabic script and me
doing an impromptu live translation, struggling with some of the adjectives
that Dr. Abdo was using.” He noted that it was not an easy task but they were
able to do it. “Those were dark days but luckily the siege ended,” he added.
Almaeena said that although there was no
social media or instant reporting and journalism was a slow process in those
days, the coverage by the Saudi press was professional.
Another prominent journalist, Mohammed
Al-Nawsani, said that he was the first media personality to circle the Kaaba
after the offenders were arrested.
“You can’t imagine how difficult those days
were, as the Kaaba is Qibla of all Muslims. Much though I was shocked to know
that the Grand Mosque was captured, I was even much more overjoyed and proud of
our security men and their professionalism in dealing with the incident,” he
Like Father Is Not Like Son
Hathal bin Juhayman Al-Otaibi, the son of
the extremist who seized the Holy Mosque in 1979, has overshadowed his father’s
radical legacy and was recently promoted to the position of colonel in Saudi
Arabia’s National Guards. Hathal was only one year old when his father attacked
the Grand Mosque.
Many Saudis on social media described the
news of the promotion as an example of “fairness” by Saudi Arabia. They lauded
the fact that the son of someone who initiated extremism in the country has now
become an integral part of the security apparatus.