The Hajj is the pilgrimage all Muslims strive to make at least once in their lives to their holiest site, the Kaaba: a plain cuboid building in the great courtyard of the Masjid al Haram in Mecca. The Grand Mosque’s courtyard holds 300 000 people who, in the ritual Tawaf all circulate in unison anti-clockwise round the sacred Kaaba seven times, creating a great swirl of humanity in motion.
In the Islamic calendar it was New Year’s Eve of the year 1400, the last day of Hajj, and tens of thousands of pilgrims were milling around the Grand Mosque courtyard. Several hundred among them suddenly donned red headbands and produced automatic weapons. Proclaiming their leader was the new Mahdi (Messiah), they denounced the Saudi monarchy for ‘betraying Islamic principles’. The sacrilege stunned Saudi guards into inaction: religious law prevents them committing acts of violence inside the Mosque without direct authorization. In a few seconds the terrorists shot or disarmed them and began herding hostages by the hundred into the hallowed Kaaba itself.
A two-week running battle involved tanks, artillery and rockets; an eye-witness suggested that ‘probably well over a thousand’ died. Thousands – soldiers, hostages and terrorists alike – shared a bloodbath in the secret labyrinth of hundreds of hermits’ chambers, hidden beneath the shrine. Here the terrorists had prepared themselves for the long haul by amassing a hoard of weapons and supplies, ingeniously (and profanely) smuggled into the mosque in coffins.
By the time the carnage ended (after Saudi forces were given a blueprint of the labyrinth by none other than Osama bin Laden’s billionaire father), the Islamic world was inflamed with fury.
Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran blamed the US and Israel; US installations from Bangladesh to Turkey were stoned, and two US personnel were killed when rioters bured the embassy in Pakistan.
But the unthinkable truth was actually that Muslim was battling Muslim for ultimate control of their religious creed.
When: November 20 1979
Where: Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque), Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Death toll: Officially, Saudi security forces suffered 127 dead and 451 wounded. No figure was given for hostages, but it is thought to have been hundreds. Of the terrorists, 117 died in the siege and a further 63 were later publicly beheaded by the sword simultaneously in eight Saudi cities.
You should know: The siege was a disaster for Islam, it was the first time Wahhabi zealots from Saudi Arabia had found common cause with jihadi extremists from Egypt’s Islam Brotherhood. Later, that same combination of fanatics would become known as al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, the attack and its suppression served to nurture growing aspirations among disaffected Islamic sects everywhere.