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Jihad comes home to roost

Jihad comes home to roost

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: Sunday Pioneer
Date: April 29, 2007

In his fascinating book *The Looming Tower*, which takes you deep into the gloomy, cheerless and depressing world of radical Islamism, Lawrence Wright recreates with remarkable precision the first *jihadi* strike in modern times that signalled events leading up to 9/11 and beyond. Ironically, the banner of radical Islam was unfolded, with disastrous immediate consequences, not on the land of non-believers or atop a church, a synagogue or a temple, but on Islam's holiest land and atop Islam's holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

"That morning (November 20, 1979) at dawn, the aged *imam* of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, had been preparing to lead the prayers of fifty thousand Muslims gathere for the final day of Haj. As he approached the microphone, he was shoved aside, and a burst of gunfire echoed in the holy sanctuary. A ragged band of insurgents standing among the worshippers suddenly pulled rifles from under their robes. They chained the gates closed, trapping the pilgrims inside, and killed several policemen. 'Your attention, O Muslims!' a rough-looking man with an untrimmed beard cried. '*Allahu Akbar*! The Mahdi has appeared'!"

That's how Wright begins his account of the siege of the Grand Mosque by radical Islamists. For more than a fortnight, the *jihadi*s, led by Juhayman al-Oteibi, a fanatical preacher who had served time in jail on charges of sedition, held their position, inflicting severe losses on Saudi security forces who didn't have a clue about how to tackle armed rebellion. In those days, there were Byzantine tunnels beneath the Grand Mosque and the *jihadi*s took shelter there. The security forces, such as they were, ill-armed and ill-trained, could do precious little: There was neither any building plan of the mosque nor a map of the underground tunnels and caves.

Folklore has it, or so I was told by a friend in Jeddah, that the Americans advised the House of Saud to flood the cavernous underbelly of the mosque. After much deliberation, the Saudis came to the conclusion that this was not a good idea because, as Prince Turki, then Interior Minister, was to tell his men, "You would need the entire Red Sea to fill it." Just as the Saudi establishment had begun to despair, a builder of roads came to their rescue. That man was Mohammed bin Laden, who sent in his eldest son to sketch the layout of the mosque. Armed with those sketches, Saudi security forces moved in, and the siege ended with Oteibi and his men surrendering. His *jihadi*bravado gone, Oteibi begged for mercy; "Forgiveness? Ask forgiveness of god," Prince Turki retorted.

Oteibi and 62 of his disciples were divided among eight different cities where they were beheaded in public squares on January 9, 1980. It was, and remains, the largest execution in Saudi Arabia's history. Meanwhile, as the dust settled down, Mohammed bin Laden moved up by more than a few notches in the esteem of the House of Saud. His younger son, Osama bin Laden, had by then begun to be viewed with suspicion (he was jailed during the siege) and was later to be stripped of his Saudi nationality. All that is history which is well-known.

Twenty-eight years later, on Friday, Saudi authorities picked up 172 terrorists, the largest haul of *jihadi*s in that country - or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world - on a single day. They were ostensibly planning to carry out attacks similar to those of 9/11, using aircraft to blow up oil installations, apart from killing public officials and raiding prisons to free fellow *jihadi*s. A huge cache of deadly arms and explosives has been found from a hole in a desolate patch of Saudi Arabia's vasts desert, enough to create mayhem. Since mentioning Al Qaeda by name is considered as offensive as using a four-letter word in Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative society, those arrested have been described as members of a "deviant group".

Gen Mansour al-Turki, spokesman of the Interior Ministry, announcing the crackdown, said, "It's still a war going on". According to him, the arrests were part of the "kingdom's battle against an entrenched ideology" that promotes terrorism and seeks to recruit young people. The official statement refers to "*takfir* ideology" - many of Saudi Arabia's Wahaabi clergy would argue that this does not clash with Islam which allows a "true Muslim" to declare another "an apostate and then kill him or her".

The House of Saud, which has pandered to Wahaabism for decades and many of whose charities have lavishly funded, and continue to fund, organisations promoting "*takfir* ideology" abroad, should know better than anybody else that unlike the sword of Islam, this one is a double-edged weapon. Since 9/11, when 19 hijackers - 15 of whom were Saudi nationals - woke up the world to the terrible face of *jihadi* terror, Saudi Arabia has witnessed several attacks by Islamists, especially on foreigners and including a daring raid on the American Consulate in Jeddah, leaving a death trail unthinkable earlier.

Yet, there is an element of denial in the Saudi response to the gathering gloom over the kingdom. *The New York Times* quotes Abdul Aziz al-Qassim, a retired Saudi judge and moderate Islamic activist, saying, "It is the beginning of *jihadi* operations leaking out of Iraq. It is clear that this is some of the effects of what is happening in Iraq, in terms of training and in terms of learning from the Iraqi experience." That's balderdash. The fact is that it is the beginning of jihad coming home to roost. The men who were arrested on Friday were trained in Somalia and Afghanistan, both places which have been used in the past to train *mujahideen* for the Afghan campaign with the blessings and patronage of the Saudi royal family and its many branches. There is reason to believe that Saudis have been funding, if not arming, the Sunni insurgents of Iraq to ward off a Shia takeover. What has been flowing out, has now begun to flow in, carried by the placid Red Sea.

Between the realisation that is believed to have dawned upon the House of Saud that it is as vulnerable as any other ruling family in Arabia after the siege of 1979 and the emergence of King Abdullah as a 'modernising' force, little has changed in the land from where the Prophet crafted and gifted the world a new religion, based on 'revelations' as contained in the Quran. It is one thing to try and seize the leadership of West Asia, fast slipping into the hands of Shia Iran, for King Abdullah to come up with what Arabs would consider a radical peace offer to end the Israel-Palestine conflict. But it is quite another to cut Saudi Arabia loose from the asphyxiating hold of Wahaabi dogma and fanaticism that lie at the core of the Islam it promotes.


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