Had there been no 11/20/79, there might never have been a 9/11/01: 20-20 hindsight meets solid journalistic and storytelling skills in this latest work by sometime Wall Street Journal correspondent Trofimov (Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu, 2005).
At the dawn of the 15th century, by the Islamic calendar, an armed gang led by radical Islamist Juhayman al Uteybi seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca, one of Islam’s most sacred sites, to protest the Saudi government’s corruption and illegitimacy as an ally of the West. The new year’s celebration was a day on which natives of the city mingled with foreign visitors, allowing the conspirators, among them Saudis, Pakistanis, Indians, Egyptians, Burmese, Afghans and even one American, fairly easy access into the holy precinct. There they holed up and battled a succession of Saudi military assaults, “a drawn-out battle that would drench Mecca in blood, marking a watershed moment for the Islamic world and the West.” These events were overshadowed by the seizure in Iran of the U.S. embassy, but it did not escape watchful militants in the Islamic world that the siege was finally broken when French special forces commandos entered Mecca—supposedly off-limits to infidels—and restored order. Saudis formerly loyal to the House of Saud were so shocked at the intervention that they became radicalized opponents of the regime; one such convert was Osama bin Laden, whose family was closely allied with the royals. These newly forged militants were also emboldened by the decision, under the Carter administration, to reduce the formal American presence in the Muslim world after Tehran and Mecca. Juhayman’s Islamist message, writes Trofimov, was in great degree the one Al Qaeda and its allies espouse today—and, as today, though Sunni in origin, that message is also turning Shiites to the cause of anti-Western jihad.
It has taken nearly 30 years to comprehend these events in their proper context, and Trofimov does excellent work in narrating them in that light.