Who Held the Grand Mosque Hostage?

The Saudi Arabian authorities some time ago released official figures on lives lost in November’s startling insurgent occupation of Mecca’s Grand Mosque: 60 dead among goverment troops, 75 rebels killed. According to official reports, some 175 guerrillas were arrested after protracted fighting, most of them wounded. (As of this writing there were reports that the captured rebels were due to be executed in groups).

The fighting in and around the Grand Mosque lasted for no less than two weeks. The rebels first occupied the upper stories and minarets of the sprawling complex, thus dominating important parts of the city of Mecca and the surrounding mountains. Government troops later drove them down into the underground passageways beneath the mosque, where they held out for more than a week. The rebels reportedly had women and children with them. Previously they had smuggled weapons and munitions into the mosque and hidden them, a fact which indicates that they had local helpers. They also had supplies of food at the site, mostly dates.

During the first days there were apparently not enough troops on the scene to seal off the mosque effectively from the surrounding parts of the city. Only when reinforcements arrived was it possible to surround the mosque completely, penetrate the courtyard with armored personnel carriers, and drive the rebels from the galleries and minarets. The underground fighting was apparently carried out with tear gas and smoke bombs.

At the time of this writing the Saudi authorities have revealed nothing of the background of the occupation or the motives of the insurgents. They confined their information to the statement that most of the guerrillas were Saudis but that some Yemenites, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Pakistanis had also participated in the action. Observers in Mecca estimated the number of armed rebels at about 500, though some say there were as many as 800. Most of them were Bedouins from the Qahtan and Oteiba tribes of central Arabia.

The Oteiba are a Wahhabite tribe which has been involved in a number of earlier rebellions, notably that of 1930, when the still young rule of the Saudi clan was nearly ended. The Saudi dynasty itself is a product of the puritanical Wahhabi reform movement within Islam. The earlier rebellions broke out after the Saudis had conquered all of Arabia and were in the process of instituting a government administration, to which the Wahhabite warrior tribes did not wish to submit themselves.

It remains unclear to what extent the occupation of the Grand Mosque involved a “secular” protest movement and to what extent it was a religiously motivated action. The likeliest explanation is that the Bedouins and their foreign helpers, doubtless recruited from the ranks of Saudi Arabia’s millions of imported laborers, were giving expression to their dissatisfaction with existing conditions by mounting an act of “religious warfare” of a kind which is not uncommon in the Islamic world. Religious motivation does yield the cohesiveness and courage in the face of death which …

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