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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Egyptian Extremist Sect Linked To 1979 Terrorist Attack On Mecca

State Department Documents Reveal Takfir Wal Hijra Role In Watershed Saudi Event

By J.M. Berger

An Islamic extremist sect with deep links to al Qaeda was suspected of playing a role in the November 1979 assault on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, according to State Department documents obtained by INTELWIRE.

New! The Siege At Mecca: An INTELWIRE Sourcebook

Evidence implicating Takfir Wal Hijra members in the Mecca attack was discovered in November 1981, shortly after the Oct. 6 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, according to a State Department cable obtained by INTELWIRE through the Freedom of Information Act.

"(Egyptian) security authorities claim that evidence has been uncovered linking some of the apprehended extremists with the 1979 occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca," stated the Nov. 23, 1981, cable from the U.S. embassy in Cairo to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C.

Read the State Department Cables: Takfir Wal Hijra, 10/23/81 and 11/23/81

Takfir Wal Hijra is an Islamic sect sometimes affiliated with al Qaeda. Members of the sect believe that Muslims who are judged to have failed in their religious obligations may deemed infidels and killed. At the same time, however, the organization allows members to disregard Islamic law for the purpose of infiltrating Western societies.

Takfiris, as they are known, are influential within al Qaeda, and some top members of the terror network are believed to be Takfiris, although the working relationship has not always been smooth. Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman Al-Zawahiri has been strongly influenced by Takfiri theology and may be an adherent of the sect.

The group originated in Egypt, where it was subjected to periodic crackdowns by the government. After an especially difficult episode that saw more than 200 members of the group arrested, several members of the group fled Egypt for Saudi Arabia.

Some of the members became associated with a radical sect called the Brotherhood (Ikhwan) Group, a Wahabbi splinter sect led by a Saudi Bedouin named Juhayman al-Oteibi. He believed that he had discovered the "madhi," an Islamic messiah figure.

Oteibi led his designated madhi and a group of followers to seize the Grand Mosque on the first day of the new century according to the Islamic calendar. Nov. 20, 1979. The timing aimed to fulfill one interpretation of a prophecy concerning the madhi.

"It was widely assumed that some took refuge in Saudi Arabia and later participated with Juhayman al-Utaybi's 'Ikhwan' Group in the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca," said an Oct. 23, 1981 State Department cable obtained by INTELWIRE.

"We recall that the Saudi authorities admitted that several foreigners, including Egyptians, actively participated in the Mecca incident; Juhayman's writings and beliefs appear to bear considerable resemblance to 'Takfir Wal Hijra's' tenets," the cable stated.

The exact number of Egyptians involved in the siege is unknown. At least 300 militants took control of the mosque; reports conflict, but the total number of militants was likely over 500 and may even have been as high as 1,000, according to dozens of cables obtained by INTELWIRE.

Many of the militants were killed during the siege, others escaped. About 70 people were executed by the Saudi government. Of those, 10 were Egyptians, according to a Jan. 1, 1980 State Department cable.

State Department Cable, List of Executed Mecca Militants, 1/1/80

Interestingly, "two black Muslims from the U.S. were somehow involved," according to a Feb. 4, 1980 cable, which added that "one of them was killed during the fighting." The fate of the other American is not addressed in any of the documents released to INTELWIRE. Other known participants came from North and South Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq and the Sudan.

In addition to the Takfiri connection, another tantalizing hint of an al Qaeda link appears in the newly released State Department cables.

State Department Cable: Writings of Juhayman al-Oteibi, 2/6/80

A pamphlet of Oteibi's writings was obtained and reviewed by U.S. officials. The pamphlet "set forth a very fundamentalist version of Islam and called for a return to the true path," the cable states.

The pamphlet condemned Saudi use of Western garb and consumption of Western media, complained that the educational system in Saudi Arabia was not sufficiently Islamic, and condemned association with non-Muslims. It also accused the Saudi royal family of having abandoned true Islam.

"A young member of a prominent Jeddah family financed the publication," the cable states. The charges laid out in the pamphlet were remarkably similar to those later levied against the Saudi government by Osama bin Laden, who lived in Jeddah with other members of the bin Laden family at the time.

Bin Laden and his brother, Mahrous bin Laden, were arrested during the 1979 siege, according to Lawrence Wright's book, The Looming Tower.

Media accounts, which could not immediately be verified with independent documentation, have alleged that Mahrous bin Laden was a member of Oteibi's sect and that he helped the militants obtain floor plans to the mosque, which had been renovated by the bin Laden family a few years earlier.

While never using the actual word "madhi," Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have repeatedly and deliberately provided cues that invite comparison to specific prophecies concerning the Islamic messiah figure, whose coming is believed to herald an apocalyptic global war for Islamic domination.

INTELWIRE has obtained hundreds of pages of previously classified documents related to the siege of Mecca, including a host of new details and a unique "as it happened" perspective on this important historical event. Inquiries from media outlets are welcome. Click here for information on how to contact J.M. Berger. Additional stories are planned, and the full collection of documents will be released to the public.

Documents linked in this story were obtained by INTELWIRE through the Freedom of Information Act. If you believe public records should be free to the public, please consider a donation to help support future document purchases.

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Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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