The Dream That Became A Nightmare

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The place: The courtyard of the Holy Mosque in Mecca. The time: the dawn of the first of Muharram 1400 A.H, 20 November 1979. The scene: Thousands of worshippers entering the Mosque, as they usually did every day, to perform the morning prayers, in one of the holiest spots on Earth. Dozens of mourners carrying coffins of the dead on their shoulders. Both the worshippers and the guards of the Mosque were overwhelmed by such a large number of dead people. But they thought nothing about it. They were accustomed to seeing coffins at the Holy Mosque. Many of those living near Mecca wished for the large number of worshipers at the Mosque to pray for their loved ones. However, this time there was something different.

The coffins were filled with firearms and ammunition, which the (God Trusting Salafist Group), led by Juhayman al-Otaibi, had prepared for this day. Juhayman al-Otaibi and his brother- in- law, Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani, who claimed to be the Mahdi, stood before the worshipers in the Holy Mosque and announced to the people the news of the Mahdi, his flight from the "enemies of Allah". They told the people that he was ready to receive their pledge of allegiance between Hijr Ismael (a place at the Holy Mosque) and the Maqam (the stone in which Ibrahim stood while he was building the Kaaba) under the shadow of the Kaaba.

Juhayman was not babbling. He was not insane. He was seeking to achieve his dream of leadership, which Qahtani, had told him he would achieve. He told Juhayman so when he confided in him that he had seen in his dreams that he, Qahtani,  was the Mahdi! And that he will liberate the Arabian Peninsula and the whole world from evil-doers.

Juhayman was obsessed with the idea of salvation when he decided to pledge allegiance to Qahtani at Hijr Ismael (a place at the Holy Mosque). He recalled some of the sayings of the Muslim prophet that confirmed that the siege will not last more than three days, and that the army which they will be fighting will come from Tabuk (a province in north western Saudi Arabia). But God will order the earth to swallow up the attacking army and a number of miracles will occur confirming that Mohammed al-Qahtani is really the Mahdi. Consequentially, millions of people would start pouring into Mecca to pledge allegiance to the Mahdi.

Juhayman was so enraptured with these thoughts that he made every possible effort to turn this illusion into reality. He was determined to do so even of it meant facing the whole world. In front of this Juhaymani determination the Saudi security forces had nothing to do except besiege the Holy Mosque, which Juhayman and his followers seized, for seventeen days. This was not what Juhayman and his followers had expected. They though that their mission would be an easy one. That only three days would pass before their leader's promise was fulfilled. The earth would swallow the security forces.

But three days passed without anything happening to the security forces. No harm was done to them, and they were not swallowed by the earth. Juhayman and his followers fell into despair. They lost all of hope. And, after Qahtani killed himself, any dreams they might have had, started to vanish. Juhayman did not find a way to control his followers except by threatening to kill anyone who thought of disobeying him or even mentioning the death of the Mahdi. Juhayman could not bear the thought of losing his dream.

He started spreading rumours that the Mahdi was trapped in the (basement), and that he would come out soon. But as they say, "a lie never lasts". It quickly became clear to everyone that Juhayman was lying.  He lost control over his followers and did not know what to do. In the end, he surrendered with what remained of his followers in the basement of the Holy Mosque, after abandoning their posts at the top of the Mosque's minarets. The Saudi television broadcast was interrupted, and Nayef bin Abdul Aziz appeared on the screen. His face showed signs of fatigue accompanied by a hint of gladness. He announced that the basement of the Holy Mosque had been purified of all rebellious elements, drawing the curtain at the most difficult stages in the modern history of Saudi Arabia.

The handful of perpetrators who profaned the sanctity of the ancient house were tried. King Khalid bin Abdul Aziz issued order No. 4207 / 2 stipulating the execution of the arrested members of Juhayman's gang who were involved in the seizure of the Holy Mosque. His orders included carrying out their execution in a number of different provinces, to make an example of them. On the same day 63 of those involved in the attack were executed: 15 in Mecca, 7 in Medina, 10 in Riyadh, 7 in Dammam, 7 in Buraidah, 5 in Hail, 7 Abha, 5 Tabuk. Juhayman was one of those who received a death sentence. He was executed on 9 January 1980.

Juhaymen’s death closed the file of the first incident of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia led by the infamous Juhayman. He never expected his fate to end this way. Juhayman, who was born in 1936, and was known as Abu Mohammed, began his career as an ordinary employee at the Saudi National Guard for eighteen years. He stayed in his post from 1955 to 1973, until he finally left the army.

He then moved to Medina, where he studied at the Islamic University and met with Muhammad ibn Abdullah Al-Qahtani, his future brother in-law. Juhayman's life went through a dramatic change after he met with Al-Qahtani. He started spreading their shared ideas in some small mosques in Medina. These ideas of salvation were positively received by some people. The group founded by Juhayman started to grow, until its members grew to the thousands.

The Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz's gave his blessings for the foundation of the group in mid 1960s. The group at first was centrally controlled by a council that consisted of Nasser Bin Hussein, Suleiman Bin Shteiwi, Saad Tamimi, and Juhayman Al-Otaibi. But Juhayman's devoutness to preaching, the internal power that he felt, and his aspiriation for leadership, made him become the driving force of the group. He considered the massage of the group to be his own personal message. He believed that he alone had the right to be its leader. So he did not hesitate to drive his car to roam the villages in the eastern parts of Medina, preaching his message.

Being obsessed with the idea of leadership, he suddenly transformed by anger. It was then, in 1978, that Juhayman and the members of the group were wanted, for the first time, by the Saudi authorities. Their contentious talk about revenging the Sebla brothers had become problematic. In the meantime, he was working on releasing several letters, and most importantly "the seven letters". These letters were concerned with principality, allegiance, obedience, exposing how the rulers of the Islamic world deceived scholars and common people - the later was a letter that he wrote defending the brothers who were in the army of the founder King - and lifting the confusion. These letters were printed in Kuwait. The leftist Kuwaiti magazine "Taleaa" issued a cheap edition of the books of Juhayman, which were smuggled across the northern border of the Kingdom by his followers, who disguised themselves as shepherds and hid the books under dry bread.

Many, to this date, doubt that Juhayman had the intellectual capacity to write those infamous letters. But with his execution, his secrets were buried with him. What remains on Juhaymen is the memory of the event he created, and the impact that still endures in Saudi Society.


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