Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca

The Saudi government’s hard-fought recovery of the Grand Mosque of Mecca intensified internal repression and bolstered conservative forces abroad.

Summary of Event

The year 1979 meant soul-searching in the world of Islam. The communist regime in Afghanistan was persecuting Muslim leaders and was receiving heavy military support from the Soviet Union. The Yemen Arab Republic was seeking arms from the latter. Moreover, Islam itself had internal problems. The Shiite regime in Iran was speaking about supporting its “oppressed” brethren in Sunni-controlled countries such as Bahrain, perhaps also offering support in Saudi Arabia. Executions;Saudi Arabia
Grand Mosque (Mecca)
Saudi Arabia;executions
[kw]Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca (Jan. 9, 1980)
[kw]Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Jan. 9, 1980)
[kw]Attack on Mecca, Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for (Jan. 9, 1980)
[kw]Mecca, Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on (Jan. 9, 1980)
Executions;Saudi Arabia
Grand Mosque (Mecca)
Saudi Arabia;executions
[g]Middle East;Jan. 9, 1980: Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca[04030]
[g]Saudi Arabia;Jan. 9, 1980: Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca[04030]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 9, 1980: Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca[04030]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Jan. 9, 1980: Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca[04030]
[c]Human rights;Jan. 9, 1980: Saudi Arabia Beheads Sixty-Three Persons for Attack on Mecca[04030]
Utaibi, Juhayman al-
Qahtani, Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-
Ibn Baz, ՙAbd al-ՙAziz ibn ՙAbd Allah
Aziz, Khalid ibn Abdul
Aziz, Sultan ibn Abdul

On the other hand, 1979 represented optimism for the Islamic people. November 20, New Year’s Day in the Islamic calendar, marked the first day of the Islamic year 1400 and signified the beginning of the fifteenth century since Muhammad had been forced to leave his native Mecca for the welcoming embrace of Yathrib (which was renamed Medina in his honor). Thus November 20 called for prayer at the Grand Mosque at Mecca, the city that Muhammad eventually cleansed of its iniquity.

An event on November 20, 1979, would convulse all of Islam. At 5:20 a.m., the aged, venerable imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Subayyal, used the microphone to lead the dawn prayers. Then he was pushed aside, two shots were fired, and an acolyte was slain. The shooter was Juhayman al-Utaibi. The microphone was seized by Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Qahtani, who shouted that he was the expected Mahdi (the “divinely guided one”). He claimed that he and his followers sought shelter and protection in the Grand Mosque because they were persecuted in all other places.

Juhayman was the mastermind of the takeover of the Grand Mosque. In the 1970’s, Juhayman had turned to religion and attended informal discussions at the Prophet Muḥammad’s mosque in Medina. These were organized byՙAbd al-ՙAziz ibn ՙAbd Allah ibn Baz, a blind theologian who asserted Earth’s flatness. Juhayman lived in charitable hostels in Mecca and Medina, where he gained followers among various religious drifters.

Juhayman’s ideas reflected those of the Ikhwan, a group formerly powerful in his native region. Once staunch allies of Ibn Saՙūd, creator of Saudi Arabia, they turned on him when he advocated certain types of modernization. The illiterate Juhayman took an Ikhwan name and imitated their long beards and shin-length robes. As they castigated innovations like the radio, he condemned television. He blasted the House of Saՙūd for allowing such sacrilege, having relations with non-Muslim countries, and allowing non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia. He despised the Saudi theologians for their unholy alliance with the “corrupt” Saudi dynasty.

Juhayman preached that the regeneration of Saudi Arabia, indeed of Islam itself, would proceed from the coming of the Mahdi. Juhayman thus emphasized a doctrine that was scorned overwhelmingly in Sunnism, the orthodox wing of Islam, but yet appealed to the popular mind, especially in troubled times. The Mahdi would appear to restore the pristine faith of Islam just prior to the resurrection of all humanity. Like the original Ikhwan, Juhayman believed that the Mahdi would be revealed at the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Juhayman gained a following. Some were Saudis who were disenchanted with their government’s drift into materialism and moral laxity. Foreigners augmented the indigenous ranks: Egyptians chagrined by Anwar el-Sadat’s understanding with Israel, Kuwaitis angered by their monarchical family’s Westernization, Yemenis upset with their government’s ties with the atheistic Soviet Union, Pakistanis disillusioned with their regime’s refusal to give full support to the freedom fighters of Afghanistan, and Americans fed up with racial discrimination. A number of these believed they would join the Mahdi in triumph at Mecca because an army sent against them from Syria would be swallowed up in the desert between Medina and Mecca.

In his gathering, Juhayman concluded, Allah had placed the Mahdi: Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Qahtani, a young student at the Islamic University of Riyadh. He possessed all the qualifications laid down in the Sunni traditions: the name and patronymic of the prophet of Islam, descent from the Quraish, the tribe of the Prophet Muḥammad; and appearance in a time of disorder. This period had begun when the people accepted Ibn Saՙūd, who had proclaimed himself king of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Juhayman meticulously prepared for the takeover of the Grand Mosque. A young, rich convert provided money for weapons. The Ikhwan purchased seven truckloads of Eastern European and Soviet arms from dealers in the Yemens and among Saudi bedouins. Coffins, allegedly made to hold bodies for ritual washing near the Grand Mosque, concealed automatic rifles. Food—rice and dates—was secreted in the mosque’s cellars.

The Ikhwan easily seized the Grand Mosque on November 20, 1979. Consternation gripped the Saudi authorities. Recovering from indecisiveness, King Khalid ibn Abdul Aziz consulted the senior theologians, including Ibn Baz. They ruled favorably on the legality of clearing the Grand Mosque by force. The elite Saudi troops faced fierce resistance. Juhayman proved a competent commander of the Ikhwan. He was helped by the opposition’s restraint, caused by their fear of harming the hostages taken by the Ikhwan. The latter were helped by finding refuge in the labyrinthine passages deep below the mosque’s courtyard. The Saudi forces, however, were rallied by the Saudi chief of external intelligence. Moreover, the Ikhwan were running out of ammunition. They suffered greatly from exhaustion and thirst. A terrible blow to their morale was the death of the expected Mahdi. Saudi newspapers claimed that Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Qahtani was killed in the early fighting in the Grand Mosque’s basement. Another report claimed that the deeply despairing Juhayman killed the man he had proclaimed as the Mahdi.

At 1:30 a.m. on December 5, 1979, two weeks after his takeover of the Grand Mosque, Juhayman surrendered his force, which had been reduced to 170 from an original total of about 400. The prisoners presented a pathetic sight. Disheveled, weeping, incoherent, and stumbling, they passed by their conquerors, who spat on them and hurled invective. One prisoner inquired about “the army of the north” (the opposing force, according to one tradition, that the earth would swallow up between Medina and Mecca).

Retribution followed swiftly for the prisoners. Secret trials resulted in consignment to a welfare center for the thirteen boys involved, two years’ imprisonment for the twenty-three women who had helped the Ikhwan in the Grand Mosque, suspended sentences for nineteen men who had supplied arms for the uprising, acquittal of thirty-eight men, and beheading for sixty-three men. The latter included forty-one Saudis, ten Egyptians, six South Yemenis, three Kuwaitis, one Iraqi, one North Yemeni, and one Sudanese.

On January 9, 1980, the sixty-three condemned were divided into groups of about half a dozen. They were dispatched for public beheading to Abha, Buraydah, Ad Dammām, H ā՚il, Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, and Tabūk. This dispersion was intended to spread the message of godly retribution widely and effectively. The event marked the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia’s modern history.


Significant repercussions followed Juhayman’s temporary seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Crown Prince Fahd ibn ՙAbd al-ՙAziz anticipated a reaction. To counteract Juhayman’s charge that the government repudiated sharia Sharia (Islamic law), Fahd decreed its increased enforcement. There ensued rigid application of laws prohibiting women from traveling alone, working with men or non-Muslim foreigners, dressing immodestly, wearing crosses openly, or holding hands in public. Scholarships for women to attend foreign universities ceased. Newspapers were forbidden to publish pictures of women without blackening out their faces.

Further repression came. Swimming pools were drained to prevent mixed bathing. Police cracked down on shopkeepers who did not close for the five daily calls to prayer. Supermarkets could not sell dog food, because Islam judges dogs to be unclean. Shops were forced to discard dolls and teddy bears, which were considered idolatrous. Restrictions regarding possession of alcoholic beverages and behavior of foreign residents underwent stricter enforcement. Overall, Fahd expanded the theologians’ authority in supervising the country’s puritanical Muslim character. This also meant more religious programs on the radio and television.

Fahd recognized that his reactionary policy outraged the intelligentsia. Therefore, he also sought to promote innovation. In January, 1980, he stated that the long-promised national consultative council would be formed within two months, in accordance with two hundred basic provisions derived from sharia; however, the council was not established. The government also proposed that regional administrations be reorganized and that some members of these new local governments be elected.

Another impact of the incident at the Grand Mosque was noteworthy. Fahd concluded that the inordinate time (two weeks) to rout the rebels and the heavy government casualties (127 dead and 478 injured in a total force of 3,000) exposed inefficiency in the government and the armed forces. Fahd announced plans for a crackdown on corruption within the ruling elite, through the preparation of new laws and regulations “to counter the widespread image of many Saudi princes and officials as playboys who get huge commissions on government contracts and squander huge sums on high living.”

Fahd decided that the inglorious recovery of the Grand Mosque dictated changes in high positions. He secured the resignation of the governor of Mecca, his half brother Fawwaz, a reputed heavy drinker. Fahd replaced the army chief of staff, the commanders of the land and air forces, the director of military operations, and the chief of the Frontier Guard. Most important was the dismissal of the director of public security. His replacement was a member of the al-Sheikh family, which, along with the royal Saud family, formed the dominant element in the country’s religious establishment. The religious authorities thus increased their power and felt confident in resisting pleas for liberal change in Saudi Arabia.

The Grand Mosque episode also influenced Saudi Arabia’s international outlook. To compensate for the Mecca incident’s undermining of its image of stability and its Islamic credentials, the Saudi regime sought to lead Islamic opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Saudi government worked to strengthen relations with the other conservative states of the Persian Gulf and with Iraq. At the outset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Saudi Arabia exulted in Iraq’s initial successes and offered safe haven to its forces. Moreover, Saudi Arabia thought it necessary to distance itself from the United States as much as possible. At the Arab League summit at Tunis, which coincided with the rebels’ seizure of the Grand Mosque, Fahd supported resolutions strongly condemning the United States for its Camp David Accords Camp David Peace Accords (1978) and hinting at future sanctions against that country. Furthermore, the Saudi government sought to lessen dependence on American weapons by shopping in Western Europe. Executions;Saudi Arabia
Grand Mosque (Mecca)
Saudi Arabia;executions

Further Reading

  • Abir, Mordechai. Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era: Regime and Elites, Conflict and Collaboration. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. Excellent in placing the Grand Mosque incident within the framework of Saudi political, economic, social, and religious life. Shows that incident as a significant element within the power struggle involving modernization and reaction. Includes first-rate bibliography and index.
  • Dekmejian, R. Hrair. Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995. Includes a readable account of the Grand Mosque episode from the standpoint of fundamentalist Muslim militancy. Provides a good description of Juhayman al-Utaibi, the origins of his movement, his program, and his support. Includes bibliography and glossary of Islamic terms.
  • Faksh, Mahmud A. The Future of Islam in the Middle East: Fundamentalism in Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Scholarly assessment of Islamic fundamentalism as a political and social movement, with a chapter on Saudi Arabia. Argues that factors inherent in Islamic fundamentalism limit its potential for political success. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Fandy, Mamoun. Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Explores the history of Saudi Islamic activism. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • Lacey, Robert. The Kingdom. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. Comprehensive, well-written history of Saudi Arabia. Sympathetic to the Saudi dynasty but fair to Juhayman al-Utaibi and his uprising. Includes useful notes and genealogical matter, extensive bibliography, and index, as well as maps, charts, and illustrations.
  • Safran, Nadav. Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1985. Detailed examination of Saudi Arabia’s clinging sense of insecurity. Uses numerous tables to prove the author’s thesis. Situates the Grand Mosque takeover in the overall picture of the state’s pursuit of security. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Vasilev, A. M. The History of Saudi Arabia. New York: New York University Press, 2000. This comprehensive history of Saudi Arabia from 1745 through the 1990’s focuses on the social and political factors that shaped the country. Includes useful tables, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Wright, Robin. Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Provides an incisive portrayal of the upsurge of Muslim crusading. Describes how the Grand Mosque incident had international repercussions and claims that the event caused great fear in the United States of losing Saudi Arabia. Depicts the impact of the Grand Mosque episode on Saudi royalty. Includes glossary, illustrations, bibliography, and index.

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