The Siege of Mecca

By Yaroslav Trofimov

“Until 1980, the U.S. military footprint in what is today commonly called the Greater Middle East was so light as to be almost invisible. Thirty years later it is massive, seemingly permanent, and overshadows in importance the American military presence anywhere else in the world.” – Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules

Why? Short answer: because of the Carter Doctrine, announced in that president’s State of the Union address in January 1980 where he declared the entire Persian Gulf region to be in the vital interests of the U.S. and therefore under its protection/domination.

Shorter answer: oil.

And why at this time? Because at the end of 1979 there had been an Islamic awakening that had challenged the authority of the Great Powers. On November 4, 1979 the American embassy in Tehran had been stormed. On Christmas Day of the same year the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan. Between these two events, on November 20, a group of fundamentalist terrorists occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for almost two weeks.

Yaroslav Trofimov’s gripping account of the siege of the mosque tells an important story that I suspect few people today know anything about, and helpfully plugs it into the larger context of militant Islamic radicalism.

Few people even at the time knew what was going on. A news and information blackout, of a kind impossible to imagine today, was enforced by Saudi authorities, to the extent that the different branches of the police and military that were directly involved only had a shaky idea themselves as to what they were up against. This, along with poor training and lack of cooperation, prolonged the siege and led to significant loss of life.

As for the larger political context, in terms of both its geographical and historical importance Trofimov may be guilty of overstating things. While there were foreign elements in the terrorist gang and the Saudi government did need to import some Western talent to advise them on the final assault, the takeover of the mosque was — unlike the Iranian revolution and capture of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — a domestic story. Saudi Arabia was then, as it remains today, a mess. The tension between its government and religious establishment, which has been papered over for a century with a free flow of oil dollars, may be unresolvable.

In hindsight, what makes the story of the siege seem so important is the immediate U.S. response: the massive increase in America’s footprint in the Middle East that would in turn lead to ever greater forms of backlash. It’s curious that this is how it played out. Unallied and even antagonistic Islamic groups reacted against foreign (Western and Russian) imperialism, leading to a far greater involvement, or doubling-down of those same foreign powers, which in turn created an even more violent reaction. As Trofimov puts it, “The process leading to massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf – a presence that would motivate droves of jihadis to join al Qaeda in following decades – was set in motion” by the siege. This then became a negative cycle, or spiral of violence, with subsequent generations becoming ever more radical while at the same time being inspired by and borrowing from the rhetoric and political ideas of fringe groups whose earlier apocalyptic imaginings they saw being validated.

This sort of escalation is an old story, and I think we need to start thinking of better options. Carrying a bigger stick into the region hasn’t helped.

Review first published online July 10, 2017.