This is both an excellent read and a genuine contribution to the history of contemporary neo-jihadism.
I had had a vague sense that the 1979 seizure of Mecca's Grand Mosque was the work of an otherwise irrelevant sect of apocalyptic crazies; Trofimov shows that it was, in fact, the first overt manifestation of the same coalition between superheated Wahhabist fundamentalists native to Saudi Arabia and darkling Muslim Brotherhood Islamists native to Egypt that forms the structure of al Qaeda now. The demented apocalyptic expectations of the besiegers of Mecca--that is, that their Mahdi, or Muslim Messiah, would initiate the return of Jesus, his destruction of Christianity and Judaism (those arrogant and unworthy rivals of Islam) and facilitate the world's entrance into a state of undisturbed enjoyment of Islamic justice--these expectations were, Trofimov demonstrates, appendages to their original and most immediate concern: the forcible return of Saudi Arabia itself to proper piety after its unchecked drift into sin and forgetfulness under the materialistic Saudi regime.
There seem to be two major tendencies in the West in accounting for current Islamic terrorism: 1) that it is only apparently religious, but is actually political; and "political" in this context usually has a rather narrower meaning than it usually does, namely "merely responsive to the aggressions of American foreign policy," and 2) that it is, in actual fact, primarily religious in motivation and outlook.
Trofimov's book makes it clear that the latter is the case: Islam is not just a vocabulary, or way of speaking, for this insurgency, but is its content and its lifeblood. Because Islam itself is beyond criticism, and the Muslim ummah or community is assured in the Quran that it is the world's best, there is a tendency among at least some Muslims to blame external enemies for any internal dysfunctions (Bernard Lewis has repeatedly, and as far as I can tell, accurately made this claim). So it was here: as soon as news of the ongoing attack of Muslim upon Muslim leaked out, there followed a rash of more or less spontaneous assaults on US embassies throughout the Muslim world, in imitation of the then recent embassy takeover in Iran.
An important point about defeating this kind of terrorism emerges, I think, from Trofimov's narrative. For Muslims, unlike Christians, a dead messiah is worthless. His value lies in what he can accomplish on earth--namely, the setting right of the historical wrongs Muslims have suffered, from their own point of view (the establishment of Israel, for example, or the loss of al Andalus (one of bin Laden's complaints), and in general, their present weakness and relative lack of prestige). The besiegers of Mecca were militarily defeated, finally, but the fight only really went out of them when they all knew that their Mahdi had died. If this had been widely known earlier, the fight might have been shorter and less intense that it was.
Al Qaeda or other neo-jihadist movements aren't now, as far as I know, supporting the claims of any particular Mahdi, but something apocalyptically hopeful remains in their overall outlook. If it becomes clear to Muslims generally that this enterprise isn't actually leading to a world-historical correction in the shape of a new Islamic ascendancy, but is off on some historically irrelevant tangent, we will have gone a long way toward defeating it. If its Mahdi can't be killed, its charisma doubtless can be.
I was living in Germany going to college at the time and remember how the end of 1979 was chaos in the Middle East. The author gives an excellent account how the siege of Mecca was the trigger for much of this.
The author describes very well the story of the Ikhwan (brothers) in Saudi Arabia. This group of Sunni extremists was used by the House of Saud in order to take over Saudi Arabia around the 1920's. The Ikhwan were such bigots, aside from considering non-Sunni heretics, that they would not even say hello to other Sunni who did not belong to their brand of religion, what we all now refer to as the Wahhabis. This attitude of the Ikhwan, by the way, is very similar to the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. I lived there before and just try to say hello to American Jews when you hear them in the market. they switch to Hebrew and then ignore you. (I merely mention this comparison as the settlers are the same problem as the Ikhwan).
The Ikhwan had to be crushed as they turned against the House of Saud when the latter refused to expand into areas occupied by Britain or France. The Ikhwan declared war on the House of Saud and were then defeated. How this ties in to the siege is that the father of the leader of the siege (Juhayman) was at the last battle of the Ikhwan. It was just a matter of time.
The author shows how the House of Saud was so paranoid regarding the ramifications of the siege that they blacked out all reporting. While falsely stating all was under control, they had to turn to the French for help in putting it down. It was really touch and go for all. The author shows the devil's bargain the House of Saud had to make with the Saudi clerics in order to call Juhayman and his followers apostates. To fight in Mecca was a sin and this was some bargain. Saudi Arabia became very backwards instead of progressive as they were at the time as a direct result.
The takeover of the American embassy in Tehran and attacks on American embassies in the Middle East showed how inept the Carter Administration was in dealing with this new Islamic threat. The Soviets were also inept, as the siege precipitated their own invasion of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia was able to get rid of the Juhayman followers by sending them to Afghanistan to fight the godless communists as a sign of piety.
Many authors like to point to certain past events as being the catalyst for Al Qaeda. They are all right to a certain degree, but this author shows how the siege in 1979 had significant unintended consequences.