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Born 28 September 1935
Died 9 January 1980
Status Executed

Muhammad bin abd Allah al-Qahtani (28 September 1935 – 9 January 1980) was best known for claiming to be the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam, and helping lead his followers along with his brother-in-law, Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaibi, to seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site on 20 November 1979.[1]


Muhammad bin abd Allah al-Qahtani's brother-in-law Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaibi belonged to a powerful family of Najd, who declared him to be the Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, whose coming at endtimes is foretold in many ahaadith of The Prophet Muhammad S.A.W.. However, the fanatics overlooked this by relying on the fact that Al-Qahtani's name and his father's name are identical to the Prophet's name and father, and they used one of the Prophet's sayings "His and his father's names were the same as Muhammad's and his father's, and he had come to Mecca from the north" to justify their opinion. Furthermore, the date of the attack, November 20, 1979, was the first day of the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar, which according to another hadith, was the day that the Mahdi would reveal himself.[2]

Otaibi and Qahtani had met while being imprisoned together for sedition, when Otaibi claimed to have a vision sent by God telling him that Qahtani was the Mahdi. Their declared goal was to institute a theocracy in preparation for the imminent apocalypse. Many of their followers were drawn from theology students at the Islamic University in Medina. Other followers came from Yemen, Kuwait, and Egypt and also included some black African Muslims. The followers preached their radical message in different mosques in Saudi Arabia without being arrested.[3] The government was reluctant to confront religious extremists. Members of the ulema cross-examined Otaibi and Qahtani for heresy, but they were subsequently released as being traditionalists harkening back to the Ikhwan, like Otaibi's grandfather, and not a threat.[4]

Because of donations from wealthy followers, the group was well-armed and trained. Some members, like Otaibi, were members of the National Guard.[5] Some National Guard troops sympathetic to the insurgents infiltrated weapons, ammunition, gas masks, and provisions into the mosque compound over a period of weeks before the new year.[6] Automatic weapons were stolen from National Guard armories, and the supplies were hidden in the hundreds of tiny underground rooms under the mosque that were used as hermitages.[7]

Grand Mosque Seizure

File:Officers Juhayman al-Otaibi-1.jpg

Juhayman's Officers

In the early morning of 20th November 1979 — the first day of the Islamic year 1400, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Mohammed al-Subayil, was preparing to lead the prayers for the fifty thousand worshipers who had gathered for the first prayer of the Islamic year.

He was interrupted by insurgents who produced weapons from under their robes, chained the gates shut and killed two policemen who were armed with only wooden clubs for disciplining unruly pilgrims.[8] The number of insurgents were a well-organized group given as "at least 500"[9] and "four to five hundred" under al-Otaibi's leadership, which included several women and children who had joined Otaibi's movement.[7]

At the time, the Grand Mosque was being renovated by the Saudi Binladin Group in what was the most prestigious construction contract in the Islamic world. An employee of the organization was able to report the seizure to corporate headquarters before the insurgents cut the telephone lines. A representative of the Binladin Group was thus the first to notify King Khalid.[4]

The insurgents released most of the hostages and locked the remainder in the sanctuary. They took defensive positions in the upper levels of the mosque, and sniper positions in the minarets, from which they commanded the grounds. No one outside the mosque knew how many hostages remained, how many militants were in the mosque and what sort of preparations they had made.

Grand Mosque Siege

File:Officers Juhayman al-Otaibi-1.jpg

The surviving insurgents under custody of Saudi Authorities. c. 1980.

The Grand Mosque Seizure lasted three weeks, soon after the seizure, about a hundred security officers of the Interior Ministry attempted to retake the mosque, and were decisively turned back with heavy casualties. The survivors were quickly joined by units of the Saudi Arabian Army and Saudi Arabian National Guard.

By the evening, the entire city of Mecca had been evacuated. Prince Sultan, then-Minister of Defense, rushed to the city to set up a field command. Sultan appointed his nephew Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, head of the Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah (Saudi Intelligence), to take over the forward command post several hundred meters from the mosque, where Turki would remain for the next several weeks. However, the first order of business was to seek the approval of the ulema, which was led by Abdul Aziz bin Baz. Islam forbids any violence within the Grand Mosque, to the extent that plants cannot be uprooted without explicit religious sanction. Ibn Baaz found himself in a delicate situation, especially as he had previously taught Otaibi in Medina. Regardless, the ulema issued a fatwa allowing deadly force to be used in retaking the mosque.[10]

With religious approval granted, Saudi forces launched frontal assaults on three of the main gates, preceded by an artillery barrage. They used tanks to ram the doors of the mosque in an attempt to bring them down. The assaulting force was repulsed, and never even got close to breaking through the insurgents' defenses. The attempt to knock out the doors with tanks also failed, as the doors proved too strong. Snipers continued to pick off soldiers who showed themselves. The mosque's public address system was used to broadcast the insurgents' message throughout the streets of Mecca. Confusion reigned at the field command, where several senior princes, the heads of the armed forces and military attachés from France and Pakistan gave contradictory advice. Pakistani SSG commandos were rushed to Makkah on Saudi Government's request.

In the middle of the day, Saudi troops abseiled from helicopters directly into the courtyard in the center of the mosque. The soldiers were picked off by insurgents holding superior positions. At this point, King Khalid appointed Turki head of the operation.[11]

The insurgents broadcast their demands from the mosque loudspeakers, calling for the cutoff of oil exports to the United States and expulsion of all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arabian peninsula.[12] On November 25, the Arab Socialist Action Party - Arabian Peninsula issued a statement from Beirut alleging to clarify the demands of the insurgents. The party, however, denied any involvement of its own in the seizure.[13]

Three commandos from the French Special Forces GIGN led by thirty-three year old Lieutenant Paul Barril nominally converted to Islam so that they would be allowed into Mecca to aid the Saudi police and military and their Pakistani attaches in planning the retaking of the mosque – as non-Muslims cannot enter the city of Mecca. Their identities were concealed by the Saudi government so as to avoid the appearance of being too closely allied with non-Muslim nations and parties, as was frequently the accusation leveled by the propaganda services of Ayatollah Khomeini against The House of Saud.[14]

Saudi Special Forces attempted to break into the Mosque. They employed many methods to break down the doors of the Mosque, including tanks, but failed in the end due to the doors' strength. The Pakistanis asked for permission to end the siege by flooding the mosque and then dropping a high-voltage electric cable to electrocute all present. This suggestion was deemed unacceptable by Saudi authorities. The Pakistani Commandos then resorted to spraying the mosque with non-lethal gases in order to subdue the occupiers, and dropped grenades into the chambers through holes drilled in the mosque courtyard. The Pakistani commandos stormed the mosque, and used the least amount of force possible to avoid damage to the mosque. Upon entering the mosque, it was full of dead bodies and waste, they killed most of the insurgents, and managed to force the surrender of the survivors. The fleeing rebels tried to escape through water tunnels around the mosque, which however were then flushed with water to bring the rebels out.[15]

The battle had lasted more than two weeks ending on 4th December 1979, and had officially left "255 pilgrims, troops and fanatics" killed "another 560 injured ... although diplomats suggested the toll was higher." Military casualties were 127 dead and 451 injured.[16]


When Juhayman was arrested he refused to speak to anyone until a group of scholars from Medina who were his teachers, led by Shaykh Muhammad al-Ameen ash-Shanqeetee visited him in prison and embraced him and wept severely and asked him for his justification. Juhayman replied that he was motivated by the turmoil of that time and that he hoped that if they called on Allah and asked for forgiveness so that perhaps Allah would forgive them.[citation needed]

The rebels' leader, Juhayman, was captured, and he and 67 of his fellow rebels and members of his group—"all the surviving males"—were tried secretly, convicted and subsequently publicly beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities by the Saudi Government.[17]

See also


  2. Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror, (2002) p.90
  3. Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p.88-9
  4. 4.0 4.1 Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 103 - softcover
  5. Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 102 - softcover
  6. Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror, (2002), p.90
  7. 7.0 7.1 Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 104 - softcover
  8. Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 101 - softcover
  9. Mecca - 1979 Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba,
  10. Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), pp. 103-104 - softcover
  11. Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), pp. 104-105 - softcover
  12. Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p.92
  13. Saudi Opposition Group Lists Insurgents' Demands in MERIP Reports, No. 85. (Feb., 1980), pp. 16-17.
  14. Yaroslav Trofimov (9 September 2008). The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine. Anchor Books. pp. 188–. ISBN 9780307277732. Retrieved 2 September 2010.
  15. Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 93
  16. Wright, Sacred Rage, (2001), p. 148
  17. Mecca - 1979 Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba

External links

Further reading


ar:محمد بن عبد الله القحطاني

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