THE SIEGE OF MECCA: THE FORGOTTEN UPRISING IN ISLAM’S HOLIEST SHRINE AND THE BIRTH OF AL QAEDA by Yaroslav Trofimov (Doubleday), 301 pages, $34 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Sandblasted from history by the humiliated leaders of a dysfunctional desert monarchy and long forgotten by a world that has moved on to the anxieties of other atrocities are the cataclysmic events that took place in Mecca nearly three decades ago.
For two weeks beginning in mid-November 1979, a heavily armed and well-trained cult aiming to purify Islam in Saudi Arabia held the Grand Mosque and hundreds of pilgrims hostage in a showdown with the Saudi royal family.
Those tension-filled days are grippingly recounted in Yaroslav Trofimov’s book The Siege Of Mecca. In a narrative rich in action and insight, he takes the reader deep into the stinking, sweating catacombs beneath the mosque where the rebels fought and nearly defeated the forces of the kingdom.
Unfolding soon after the capture of the American embassy in Tehran in the early days of the Iranian revolution, the bloody takeover of the Grand Mosque had Washington convinced the entire Middle East was on the brink.
To appease radical clerics and get their blessing for the use of military force against the zealots in the mosque, the Saudi royal family agreed to their demands for stricter enforcement of Islamic law and, in the process, bred a new generation of anti-Western extremists.
And when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan just a few weeks after the end of the siege in Mecca, Saudi Arabia exported its radicals to fight with the mujahedeen. Among those joining the jihad was a shy young man named Osama bin Laden.
Those few weeks at the end of 1979 were the beginning of a nightmare from which much of the world has still not awoken.