A Missing Link in Terror's Chain
A reporter pierces Saudi secrecy about a seminal event in the evolution of radical Islam.

Reviewed by Thomas W. Lippman
Sunday, October 21, 2007


The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine And the Birth of Al Qaeda

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Doubleday. 301 pp. $26

The subtitle of Yaroslav Trofimov's fascinating and important book about the 1979 takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca by heavily armed fanatics refers to that event as "the forgotten uprising." Perhaps it has been forgotten here but not in the Muslim Middle East, where it was a seminal event of the region's most traumatic year in modern times.

That year began with the Iranian revolution and ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In between, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, radicalizing the Palestinians. Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq. And the former prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by the general who overthrew him, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq -- the leader who would turn the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan into a religious war that inspired zealots such as Osama bin Laden.

As Trofimov notes, the struggle over the mosque in Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and of Islam itself, is the least known event in that sequence because most of the radicals who seized the shrine were executed and just about everyone else involved, including senior officials of the Saudi Arabian government, long refused to talk about it.

The mosque's seizure humiliated the Saudi regime, which bases its legitimacy on its role as upholder of Islam and keeper of the faith's holy places; the kingdom's leaders at first refused to acknowledge that it had happened and later tried to minimize its importance.

Now, in a remarkable feat of reporting, Trofimov, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, has pierced that veil of secrecy. He found and interviewed Saudis who wished to stay unknown, persuaded French adventurers to talk, and used the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose U.S. documents, including the diary of the ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, John C. West. It is clear throughout Trofimov's brisk narrative that he got a lot of help from Prince Turki al-Faisal, the longtime chief of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador in Washington.

Trofimov tells the story in straightforward language that caters to readers with short attention spans; there are 31 chapters and an epilogue in 255 pages of text. Anyone can read The Siege of Mecca, and everyone should. Nonspecialists may struggle with the first few chapters, which trace the history of Islam and of Saudi Arabia and the origins of contemporary Muslim extremism, but Trofimov keeps this section brief, and the material provides useful context for understanding the significance of the mosque takeover.

Trofimov unearths many new details about the uprising, including the reasons the Saudis spurned offers of help from neighboring Jordan and turned instead to France, as well as the exact role played by French commandos in ending the siege and capturing the rebels -- but the book's value goes well beyond these findings. It establishes two points essential to understanding the turbulence in today's Middle East and the rise of al-Qaeda:

First, the Islamic extremists who seized the mosque on Nov. 20, 1979, and their leader, Juhayman al Uteybi, represented a crucial link in an unbroken chain of radical Islamic violence that runs from the fundamentalist warriors who helped Abdul Aziz ibn Saud take over the Arabian peninsula and create Saudi Arabia early in the 20th century, through the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the group that assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat after he made peace with Israel, to the Taliban in Afghanistan and, finally, to al-Qaeda and today's terrorists. None was an isolated phenomenon; all are part of the same movement. Their tactics differ, but their aspirations are the same: a return to what they imagine as a pure, pre-modern Muslim society as the Prophet Muhammad would have run it, untainted by Western ideas and Western materialism.

Second, Uteybi and his surviving companions, who were publicly beheaded after French commandos helped Saudi authorities retake the mosque, may have lost the battle, but they won their war. Saudi rulers, terrified by what Uteybi represented, essentially gave in to his demands that the country's drift toward liberalization be reversed. Women were taken off television, theaters were closed, and huge amounts of cash were disbursed to the country's most xenophobic, reactionary preachers and teachers. Therein lie the roots of the terrorism that arose from Saudi Arabia two decades later and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

"At the time," Trofimov explains, "such an embrace of the Wahhabi orthodoxy seemed like a wise survival policy for the House of Saud. It was only after decades of this indoctrination produced a new generation of al Qaeda radicals that some senior princes realized the extent of the folly."

As for the errors of the United States, Trofimov is equally blunt. Policymakers in Washington completely misunderstood what Juhayman represented -- he was a home-grown Sunni Muslim, but they thought he was a Shiite agent of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini -- and drew the wrong conclusions. Trofimov is especially critical of Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, who envisioned the rise of violence-prone Muslim zealotry as a tool that could be useful in combatting Soviet communism rather than as a threat to the West.

In a relatively brief narrative that can be read in a weekend, Trofimov manages to explain who the radicals were, what they wanted, how they smuggled their weapons into the mosque, why the takeover traumatized the Saudi royal family and why the story still matters. Many works of far greater length are less illuminating. *

Thomas W. Lippman, a former Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post, is the author of "Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership With Saudi Arabia."

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