Gen Chishti was of the opinion that after Bhutto’s hanging and his own refusal to return to democracy, Gen Zia had become hostage to some sycophants. He had already begun distributing money and rations among some army families; later he took to visiting people’s business places without security. Some flatterers advised him to use a bicycle for travelling within the city as it would earn him popularity as a “people’s General”. In the beginning he rode a bicycle to his office from his residence, covering a distance of 500 yards; later he planned to travel on a bicycle to Rawalpindi and that too to Raja Bazaar. A large number of soldiers had to peddle bicycles alongside him in plain clothes to ensure the General’s security, while the event was given wide publicity by the official media.

While this show of cycling was taking place, on the morning of Nov 20, 1979 the people of Pakistan woke up to the news regarding the capture of Khana-i-Kaaba by some Saudi militants. With no independent source to confirm or deny the report, the people resorted to calling newspaper offices to seek information.

A sizeable crowd started to move towards the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad. At Fawara Chowk, it came across General Ziaul Haq riding a bicycle. According to General Chishti, on a question about the Kaaba situation Gen Zia replied, “… according to some international radio transmissions, the Americans had inspired the attack on Khana-i-Kaaba”. On hearing this, the crowd began chanting slogans such as “Down with America” and “Ziaul Haq zindabad”.

While putting on a show for the public, Gen Zia finds himself presiding over a major crisis

The Islamabad administration tried to stop the crowd from moving towards the US embassy where they planned to stage a protest. The foreign office was trying to get the ambassador to Saudi Arabia on the phone; on contact it was informed that the defence attaché had gone to Riyadh to assess the position.

According to Gen Chishti, at about 3.00pm Gen Zia contacted him on phone and said that something must be done before the protesting crowd that had reached the US embassy caused any damage. His voice was shaky and it appeared that he was quite disturbed. On Gen Chishti’s reply that, as Sub Martial Law Administrator, it was Gen Sawar Khan’s duty, Gen Zia told him that all had failed and it was only he who could do something. “Murshid, American embassy is burning,” pleaded Zia. After some persuasion Chishti agreed to take the responsibility and immediately sent a contingent of soldiers to the embassy before himself rushing to the site.

When the troops reached the embassy at 4.00 pm, the fire had been blazing for the last seven hours. There were around 90 people including Pakistani staff in the building; one Marine had died of suffocation, while the rest, who were trying to find a way out, were rescued by the troops. In the evening President Carter telephoned Zia to thank him for his help. Zia pledged that Pakistan government would bear the loss to the embassy building and later paid Rs250 million for the repairs.

The rebels, while giving conditions for ending the siege, demanded cessation of oil supply to the US and the expulsion of all foreign military men and civilians from the Arabian Peninsula.

It was a dilemma how the mishandling of a radio news report became a source of great trouble for the people of Pakistan.

The news of the occupation of the Kaaba was shocking for the whole Muslim world. It was undertaken by a few radicals of the Otaibah tribe in Saudi Arabia, which is said to have helped King Abdul Aziz to seize the control of Saudi Arabia in 1902. The Nov 20, 1979 siege was led by the Bedouin preacher Juhayman bin Saiful Otaybi and his brother-in-law, Mohammad Abdullah al-Qahtani, who was proclaimed to be the Mahdi. Juhayman, the leader of the rebels was from a family of Najd.

The radicals’ justification for their action was that the Al-Saud family had lost its legitimacy due to corruption, ostentation and mindless imitation of the West, and was promoting heresy. Early in the year these rebels smuggled arms into Saudi Arabia by trucks belonging to Bin Laden family. On Nov 20, 1979 about 500 rebels took control of the Khana-i-Kaaba . They included radicals from Egypt, Pakistan and America but the majority were Saudis of the Otaibah tribe. A number of rebels were unemployed graduates of the Medina University.

The rebels, while giving conditions for ending the siege, demanded cessation of oil supply to the US and the expulsion of all foreign military men and civilians from the Arabian Peninsula. Since crown prince Fahd was in Tunisia to attend the Arab Summit, King Khalid assigned the responsibility to Prince Sultan (then Minister of Defence) and Prince Naef (the Minister of Interior). Turki bin Faisal Al-Saud, head of Saudi Intelligence, took over the mission and set up a post a few hundred yards from the rebel site.

The rebels had amassed food and arms in the nine minarets; initially, they occupied the underground chambers called “Qaboo” which have rooms and gateways. With stocks for a long fight, the siege continued for a week.

Failing to make a breakthrough the Saudi government requested the United States, France and Pakistan for assistance. Gen Zia reportedly sent a contingent of the SSG, while France sent Lt Paul Borrid, a commander with experience in such situation, who proposed the use of CS gas — a chemical used for crowd disposal.

After many detailed discussions it was agreed that troops storm the buildings but at first the joint action could not succeed. After a long wait a final assault was undertaken and the rebel siege was broken. Hundreds of rebels were killed and the rest were sent to jails and executed later. A number of Saudi troops were also killed. The final figures for the losses stood at 127 killed, 451 wounded and 63 beheaded.

Two scholars later undertook a complete study of the event. Ziauddin Sardar who at that time was in Jeddah on a research plan came out with a book titled The Battle at Islam’s Heart gives some details.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 19th, 2015

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