November 1979 to February 1989
IT WAS AS MALL RIOT in a year of upheavals, a passing thunderclap disgorged by racing skies.
When the mob broke in, William Putscher, a thirty-two-year-old American government auditor, was eating a hot dog. He had decided to lunch in the club by the swimming pool of the serene thirty-two-acre United States embassy compound in Islamabad, Pakistan. The embassy employed about 150 diplomats, spies, aid workers, communications specialists, assorted administrators, and a handful of U.S. Marines. “Carter dog!” the rioters shouted, referring to the American president Jimmy Carter. “Kill the Americans!” Putscher abandoned his meal and hid in a small office until the choking fumes of smoke and gasoline drove him out. A raging protestor threw a brick in his face as he emerged. Another hit him on the back of his head with a pipe. They stole two rings and his wallet, hustled him into a vehicle, and took him three miles away to concrete dormitories at Quaid-I-Azam University. There, student leaders of Pakistan’s elite graduate school, fired by visions of a truer Islamic society, announced that Putscher would be tried for crimes “against the Islamic movement.” It seemed to Putscher that he “was accused of just being an American.”1
It was November 21, 1979. As the riot erupted in Pakistan, forty-nine Americans sat imprisoned in the United States embassy in Tehran, trapped by Islamic radical students and Iranian revolutionary militia who announced that day a plan to murder the hostages by suicide explosions if any attempt was made to rescue them. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city in the Islamic world, Saudi national guardsmen encircled the Grand Mosque in pursuit of a failed theology student who had announced that he was the Mahdi, or Savior, dispatched to Earth by Allah as forecast in the Koran. To demonstrate their faith, the aspiring Mahdi’s followers had opened fire on worshipers with automatic weapons. Just outside Washington, President Jimmy Carter prepared for Thanksgiving at Camp David. By day’s end he would have endured the first death by hostile fire of an American soldier during his presidency.2
Inside the CIA station on the clean and carpeted third floor of the Islamabad embassy, the deputy chief of station, Bob Lessard, and a young case officer, Gary Schroen, checked the station’s incinerator and prepared to burn classified documents. For situations like this, in addition to shredders, the station was equipped with a small gas-fed incinerator with its own chimney. Lessard sorted through case files and other classified materials, preparing if necessary to begin a burn.
Lessard and Schroen were both Persian-speaking veterans of service in Iran during the 1970s. Schroen, who had grown up in East St. Louis, the son of a union electrician, was the first member of his family to attend college. He had enlisted in the army in 1959 and was discharged honorably as a private. “I have a problem with authority,” he told friends by way of explanation of his final rank. He kicked around odd jobs before joining the CIA in 1969, an agency full of people who had problems with authority. As deputy chief of station, Bob Lessard was Schroen’s boss, but they dealt with each other as colleagues. Lessard was a tall, athletic, handsome man with thinning hair and long sideburns. He had arrived at the Islamabad station feeling as if his career was in the doghouse. He had been transferred from Kabul, where an operation to recruit a Soviet agent had gone sour. An intermediary in the operation had been turned into a double agent without Lessard’s knowledge, and the recruitment had been blown. Lessard had been forced to leave Afghanistan, and while the busted operation hadn’t been his fault, he had landed in Islamabad believing he needed to redeem himself.
Life undercover forced CIA case officers into friendships with one another. These were the only safe relationships—bound by membership in a private society, unencumbered by the constant need for secrecy. When officers spoke the same foreign languages and served in the same area divisions, as Lessard and Schroen did, they were brought into extraordinarily close contact. To stay fit, Lessard and Schroen ran together through the barren chaparral of the hills and canyons around Islamabad. In the embassy they worked in the same office suite. Watching television and reading classified cables, they had monitored with amazement and dismay the takeover of the American embassy in Iran a few weeks earlier. Together they had tracked rumors of a similar impending attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. That Wednesday morning they had driven together into the Pakistani capital to check for gathering crowds, and they had seen nothing to alarm them.
Now, suddenly, young Pakistani rioters began to pour across the embassy’s walls.
The Islamabad CIA station chief, John Reagan, had gone home for lunch, as had the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arthur Hummel. They missed the action inside the embassy that afternoon but soon began to rally support from a command post at the British embassy next door.
Looking out windows, Schroen and Lessard could see buses pulling up before the main gate. Hundreds of rioters streamed out and jumped over sections of the embassy’s perimeter protected by metal bars. One gang threw ropes over the bars and began to pull down the entire wall.
A group of hardcore student protestors carried Lee Enfield rifles and a few pistols on the lawns fronting the embassy’s redbrick facade. One rioter tried to imitate Hollywood films by shooting an embassy gate lock with a pistol. As the American side later reconstructed events, the bullet ricocheted and struck protestors in the crowd. The rioters now believed they were being fired upon by U.S. Marines posted on the roof. They began to shoot. Under their rules of engagement, the six Marine guards at the embassy that day could only fire their weapons to save lives. They were overwhelmed quickly and outnumbered massively.
The Marines had always considered Islamabad a quiet posting. From the embassy’s roof they could watch cows grazing in nearby fields. Master Gunnery Sergeant Lloyd Miller, a powerfully built Vietnam veteran who was the only member of his family to leave his small hometown in California, had seen nothing since his arrival in Pakistan a year earlier that even remotely compared to the battlefields around Danang. In July there had been a protest, but it wasn’t much of one: “They sang a few songs and chucked a few rocks. Then they went away.” To pass the time, Miller and the Marines under his command drilled regularly. They practiced keeping modest-sized crowds out of the embassy compound and even rehearsed what would happen if one or two intruders found their way inside the building. But they had no way of preparing for what they now faced: wave upon wave of armed rioters charging directly toward their post in the lobby. Miller could see bus after bus pulling up near what was left of the front gates, but with only two security cameras on the grounds, he could not assess just how pervasive the riot had become. He sent two of his Marines to the roof to find out.
Inside the embassy hallways only minutes later, shouts went up: “They shot a Marine!” In the CIA station Lessard and Schroen grabbed a medical kit and ran up the back stairway near the embassy’s communications section. On the roof a cluster of embassy personnel knelt over the prone six-foot-six-inch figure of blond twenty-year-old Corporal Stephen Crowley of Port Jefferson Station, Long Island, New York, a chess enthusiast and cross-country runner who had enlisted in the Marines two years before. Miller organized a makeshift stretcher from a slab of plywood lying close by. Crouched down low to avoid bullets that whizzed overhead, they lifted Crowley onto the plywood and scampered toward the stairs. The CIA men held Crowley’s head. The wound was life-threatening, but he might still be saved if they could get him out of the embassy and into a hospital. The stretcher bearers reached the third floor and headed toward the embassy’s secure communications vault where the State Department and the CIA each had adjoining secure code rooms to send cables and messages to Washington and Langley. Emergency procedures dictated that in a case like this embassy personnel should lock themselves behind the communications vault’s steel-reinforced doors to wait for Pakistani police or army troops to clear the grounds of attackers. It was now around one o’clock in the afternoon. The riot had been raging for nearly an hour. Surely Pakistani reinforcements would not be long coming.3
QUAID-I-AZAM UNIVERSITY’S campus lay in a shaded vale about three miles from the American embassy. A four-cornered arch at the entrance pointed to a bucolic expanse of low-slung hostels, classrooms, and small mosques along University Road. A planned, isolated, prosperous city laid out on geometrical grids, Islamabad radiated none of Pakistan’s exuberant chaos. A Greek architect and Pakistani commissioners had combined to design the capital during the 1960s, inflicting a vision of shiny white modernity on a government hungry for recognition as a rising nation. Within Islamabad’s antiseptic isolation, Quaid-I-Azam University was more isolated still. It had been named after the affectionate title bestowed on Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the “Father of the Nation.” Its students plied walkways shaded by weeping trees beneath the dry, picturesque Margalla Hills, several miles from Islamabad’s few shops and restaurants. During much of the 1970s the university’s culture had been Western in many of its leanings. Women could be seen in blue jeans, men in the latest sunglasses and leather jackets. Partly this reflected Pakistan’s seeming comfort in an era of growing international crosscurrents. Partly, too, it reflected the open, decorative cultural styles of Pakistan’s dominant ethnic Punjabis. In Lahore and Rawalpindi, hotels and offices festooned in electric lights winked at passersby. Weddings rocked wildly through the night with music and dance. While the ethnic mix was different, in coastal Karachi social mores were perhaps even more secular, especially among the country’s business elites. For the most part, Quaid-I-Azam’s students expressed the fashion-conscious edges of this loose, slightly licentious stew of Islamic tradition and subcontinental flair.
More recently, however, an Islamist counterforce had begun to rise at the university. By late 1979 the student wing of a conservative Islamic political party, Jamaat-e-Islami (the Islamic Group or, alternatively, the Islamic Society) had taken control of Quaid-I-Azam’s student union.4 The Jamaat student activists, while a minority, intimidated secular-minded professors and students, and shamed women who adopted Western styles or declined to wear the veil. Like their elder political leaders, Jamaat students campaigned for a moral transformation of Pakistani society through the application of Islamic law. Their announced aim was a pure Islamic government in Pakistan. The party had been founded in 1941 by the prominent Islamic radical writer Maulana Abu Ala Maududi, who advocated a Leninist revolutionary approach to Islamic politics, and whose first book, published in the late 1920s, was titled Jihad in Islam. Despite its leaders’ calls to arms, Jamaat had mainly languished on the fringes of Pakistani politics and society, unable to attract many votes when elections were held and unable to command much influence during periods of military rule, either. Maududi had died just weeks earlier, in September 1979, his dream of an Islamic state in Pakistan unrealized. Yet at the hour of his passing, his influence had reached a new peak and his followers were on the march. The causes were both international and local.
Because it had long cultivated ties to informal Islamic networks in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, Jamaat-e-Islami found itself afloat during the 1970s on a swelling tide of what the French scholar Gilles Kepel would later term “petro dollar Islam,” a vast infusion of proselytizing wealth from Saudi Arabia arising from the 1973 oil boycott staged by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The boycott sent global oil prices soaring. As angry Americans pumped their Chevrolets with dollar-a-gallon gasoline, they filled Saudi and other Persian Gulf treasuries with sudden and unimagined riches. Saudi Arabia’s government consisted of an uneasy alliance between its royal family and its conservative, semi-independent religious clergy. The Saudi clergy followed an unusual, puritanical doctrine of Islam often referred to as “Wahhabism,” after its founder, Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, an eighteenth-century desert preacher who regarded all forms of adornment and modernity as blasphemous. Wahhabism’s insistent severity stood in opposition to many of the artistic and cultural traditions of past Islamic civilizations. But it was a determined faith, and now overnight an extraordinarily wealthy one. Saudi charities and proselytizing organizations such as the Jedda-based Muslim World League began printing Korans by the millions as the oil money gushed. They endowed mosque construction across the world and forged connections with like-minded conservative Islamic groups from southeast Asia to the Maghreb, distributing Wahhabi-oriented Islamic texts and sponsoring education in their creed.
In Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami proved a natural and enthusiastic ally for the Wahhabis. Maududi’s writings, while more antiestablishment than Saudi Arabia’s self-protecting monarchy might tolerate at home, nonetheless promoted many of the Islamic moral and social transformations sought by Saudi clergy.
By the end of the 1970s Islamic parties like Jamaat had begun to assert themselves across the Muslim world as the corrupt, failing reigns of leftist Arab nationalists led youthful populations to seek a new cleansing politics. Clandestine, informal, transnational religious networks such as the Muslim Brotherhood reinforced the gathering strength of old-line religious parties such as Jamaat. This was especially true on university campuses, where radical Islamic student wings competed for influence from Cairo to Amman to Kuala Lumpur.5 When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and forced the American-backed monarch Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to flee early in 1979, his fire-breathing triumph jolted these parties and their youth wings, igniting campuses in fevered agitation. Khomeini’s minority Shiite creed was anathema to many conservative Sunni Islamists, especially those in Saudi Arabia, but his audacious achievements inspired Muslims everywhere.
On November 5, 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, sacked its offices, and captured hostages. The next morning in Islamabad’s serene diplomatic quarter near the university, local Iranians draped their embassy with provocative banners denouncing the United States and calling for a global Islamic revolution against the superpowers. The student leaders of Jamaat were enthusiastic volunteers. Although the party’s older leaders had always focused their wrath on India—motivated by memories of the religious violence that accompanied Pakistan’s birth—the new generation had its sights on a more distant target: the United States. Secular leftist students on campus also denounced America. Kicking the American big dog was an easy way to unite Islamist believers and nonbelievers alike.
Jamaat’s student union leaders enjoyed an additional pedigree: They had lately emerged as favored political protégés of Pakistan’s new military dictator, General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq. The general had seized power in July 1977 from the socialist politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of future prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Despite personal appeals for clemency from President Carter and many other world leaders, Zia sent Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows in April 1979. Around the same time American intelligence analysts announced that Pakistan had undertaken a secret program to acquire nuclear weapons. Zia canceled elections and tried to quell domestic dissent. Shunned abroad and shaky at home, he began to preach political religion fervently, strengthening Jamaat in an effort to develop a grassroots political base in Pakistan. In the years to come, engorged by funds from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf emirates, Jamaat would become a vanguard of Pakistan’s official and clandestine Islamist agendas in Afghanistan and, later, Kashmir.
On October 21, 1979, Zia announced that he intended to establish “a genuine Islamic order” in Pakistan. Earlier in the year he had approved Islamic punishments such as amputations for thieves and floggings for adulterers. These turned out to be largely symbolic announcements since the punishments were hardly ever implemented. Still, they signaled a new and forceful direction for Pakistan’s politics. Conveniently, since he had just aborted national polls, Zia noted that “in Islam there is no provision for Western-type elections.”6 Jamaat’s leaders defended him, and its student wing, an eye cocked at the celebrated violence of Iranian student radicals, prepared to demonstrate its potency.
IN THIS INCENDIARY SEASON arrived a parade of apparent mourners wearing red handbands and shouldering coffins at Mecca’s holy Grand Mosque, in the western deserts of Saudi Arabia. The picture they presented to fellow worshipers at dawn on Tuesday, November 20, was not an uncommon one because the mosque was a popular place to bless the dead. There would soon be more to bless. The mourners set their coffins down, opened the lids, and unpacked an arsenal of assault rifles and grenades.
Their conspiracy was born from an Islamic study group at Saudi Arabia’s University of Medina during the early 1970s. The group’s leader, Juhayman al-Utaybi, had been discharged from the Saudi national guard. He persuaded several hundred followers—many of them Yemenis and Egyptians who had been living in Saudi Arabia for years—that his Saudi brother-in-law, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, who had once studied theology, was the Savior returned to Earth to save all Muslims from their depredations. Juhayman attacked the Saudi royal family. Oil-addled royal princes had “seized land” and “squandered the state’s money,” he proclaimed. Some princes were “drunkards” who “led a dissolute life in luxurious palaces.” He had his facts right, but his prescriptions were extreme. The purpose of the Mahdi’s return to Earth was “the purification of Islam” and the liberation of Saudi Arabia from the royal family. Signaling a pattern of future Saudi dissent, Juhayman was more puritan than even Saudi Arabia’s officially sanctioned puritans. He sought bans on radio, television, and soccer. That November morning, impatient with traditional proselytizing, he chained shut the gates to the Grand Mosque, locking tens of thousands of stunned worshipers inside. The mosque’s imam declined to ratify the new savior. Juhayman and his gang began shooting. Dozens of innocent pilgrims fell dead.7
Saudi Arabia did little in the early hours of this bizarre uprising to clarify for the Islamic world who was behind the assault. Every devout Muslim worldwide faced Mecca’s black, cube-shaped Kaaba five times a day to pray. Now it had been captured by usurping invaders. But who were they, and what did they want? Saudi Arabia’s government was disinclined to publicize its crises. Saudi officials were themselves uncertain initially about who had sponsored the attack. Fragmented eyewitness accounts and galloping rumors leaped from country to country, continent to continent. In Washington, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance dispatched an overnight cable to U.S. embassies worldwide on that Tuesday night, urging them to take precautions as the Mecca crisis unfolded. The State Department had painfully learned only weeks earlier about the vulnerability of its compounds and the speed at which American diplomats could face mobs inflamed by grievances real and imagined.
Ambassador Hummel in Islamabad sorted through these cabled cautions the next morning. He did not regard Islamic radicalism as a significant threat to Americans in Pakistan. It never had been before. Still, the Islamabad CIA station had weeks earlier picked up indications from its sources that students at Quaid-I-Azam might be planning demonstrations at the embassy in support of the Iranian hostage takers in Tehran. As a result, Hummel had requested and received a small contingent of about two dozen armed Pakistani police, over and above the embassy’s normal security force.
That squad was in place on Wednesday morning when rumors began to circulate in Islamabad, and later on local radio stations, that the United States and Israel stood behind the attack at the Grand Mosque. The rumor held that Washington and Tel Aviv had decided to seize a citadel of Islamic faith in order to neutralize the Muslim world. Absurd on its face, the rumor was nonetheless received as utterly plausible by thousands if not millions of Pakistanis. The Voice of America reported that as the riot in Mecca raged, President Carter had ordered U.S. Navy ships to the Indian Ocean as a show of force against the hostage takers in Tehran. With a little imagination it wasn’t hard to link the two news items. As the students at Quaid-I-Azam made their protest plans, The Muslim, an Islamabad daily, published a special edition that referred to the “two hostile actions against the Muslim world . . . by the Imperialists and their stooges.”8
General Zia had plans that day to promote civic advancement through Islamic values. He had decided to spend most of the afternoon in teeming Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, riding about on a bicycle. Zia intended to hand out Islamic pamphlets and advertise by example the simple virtues of self-propelled transport. And, of course, where the military dictator went, so went most of Pakistan’s military and security establishment.When the first distress calls went out from the U.S. embassy later that day, much of Pakistan’s army brass was unavailable. They were pedaling behind the boss on their bicycles.
GARY SCHROEN stood by the window of his office preparing to close the curtains when a Pakistani rioter below raised a shotgun at him and blasted out the plate glass. He and a young Marine beside him had spotted the shooter just early enough to leap like movie stuntmen beyond the line of fire. The shotgun pellets smashed into the CIA station’s plaster walls. They had no time now to destroy classified documents. Schroen and Lessard locked their case files and disguise materials in the station suite behind a vault door, grabbed a pair of pump-action Winchester 1200 shotguns from a Marine gun case, and headed to the third-floor code room vault.
By about 2 P.M., 139 embassy personnel and Pakistani employees had herded themselves inside, hoping for shelter from the mob. Within the vault a young political officer had cleared off a desk and was busy writing by hand the FLASH cable that would announce the attack to Washington. As he wrote, embassy communications officers destroyed cryptography packages one by one to prevent them from falling into the hands of rioters. The vault echoed with the sound of a sledgehammer rhythmically descending on CIA code equipment.
The wounded Marine, Stephen Crowley, lay unconscious and bleeding on the floor, tended by an embassy nurse. He was breathing with help from an oxygen tank. Crowley had been shot in the riot’s early moments, and by now the protestors had swollen in number and anger, and had begun to rampage through every corner of the compound. They hurled Molotov cocktails into the chancery’s lower offices, setting files and furniture on fire. Entire wings of the building leaped in flames, particularly the paper-laden budget and finance section located directly underneath the communications vault, which began to cook like a pot on a bonfire. Onlookers at the British embassy estimated that at the height of the action, fifteen thousand Pakistani rioters swarmed the grounds.
Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant Miller—or the Gunney, as he was called—directed the defense from his post in the lobby. There he watched as rioters rushed through the now mangled front door no more than fifteen feet away. They scurried into the lobby carrying bundles of wood, buckets of gasoline, and matches. Miller repeatedly requested permission for his men to fire on the arsonists, but each time the embassy’s administrative counselor, David Fields, denied the request on the grounds that shooting would only further incite the riot. Miller had to content himself with rolling out more tear gas canisters as fire engulfed the building he was sworn to protect.
When the lobby had completely filled with smoke, the Marines retreated upstairs to join the rest of the embassy staff in the third-floor vault. Just before going in, they dropped a few final tear gas canisters down each of the stairwells in the hope that would dissuade the rioters from climbing to the embassy’s last remaining refuge.
Outside at the motor pool the rioters poured gasoline into embassy cars and set them burning one after another; in all, more than sixty embassy vehicles would go up in flames. Some rioters attacked the embassy residences, a cluster of modest brick town houses that were home to midlevel American personnel and their families. Quaid-I-Azam University student leaders rounded up a group of hostages from these quarters and announced their intention to drive them to the campus to put them on trial as American spies. An enterprising Pakistani police lieutenant, one of the few guards who had refused to surrender his weapon to the mob in the riot’s earliest moments, pretended to go along with the students’ plan, loaded the hostages into a truck, and promptly drove them off to safety. He was not the only Pakistani to risk himself for the Americans. At the American School in Islamabad several miles away from the embassy, a retired army colonel armed an impromptu squad of Pakistani guards with cricket bats and broomsticks. They successfully beat off rioters who attacked the school while children lay cowering in locked rooms. Although these and other individuals acted heroically, Pakistan’s government did not. Despite dozens of pleas from Arthur Hummel, the ambassador, and John Reagan, the CIA station chief, hour after hour passed and still no Pakistani troops or police arrived to clear the rioters. By midafternoon enormous black clouds of gasoline-scented smoke poured out from the American compound, visible from miles away.
Many of the rioters joined the melee spontaneously, but as the rampage unfolded, it also revealed evidence of substantial coordinated planning. On the embassy grounds CIA personnel spotted what appeared to be riot organizers wearing distinctive sweater vests and carrying weapons. Some were Arabs, likely members of the sizable Palestinian population at Quaid-I-Azam. The speed with which so many rioters descended on the embassy also suggested advanced preparation. Thousands arrived in government-owned Punjab Transport Corporation buses. Rioters turned up nearly at once at multiple American locations: the embassy compound, the American School, American information centers in Rawalpindi and Lahore, and several American businesses in Islamabad. Professors at Quaid-I-Azam later reported that some students had burst into classrooms very early in the morning, before the rumor about American involvement in the Grand Mosque uprising had spread very far, shouting that students should attack the embassy to take vengeance in the name of Islam.
Around 4 P.M. Pakistani army headquarters finally dispatched a helicopter to survey the scene. It flew directly above the embassy, its whirring rotors fanning flames that raked the building. Then the helicopter flew away. Zia’s spokesmen later said the smoke had been too thick to make a visual assessment. The CIA reported that its sources in Zia’s circle told a different story. When the helicopter returned to base, the crew advised Zia that the fire in the embassy was so hot and so pervasive that there was no way the American personnel inside could have survived. Since it seemed certain that the Americans had all been killed, there was no sense in risking further bloodshed—and a possible domestic political cataclysm—by sending army troops to forcibly confront the Islamist rioters. According to the CIA’s later reports, Zia decided that since he couldn’t save the Americans inside the embassy anyway, he might as well just let the riot burn itself out.9
By this time the Americans and Pakistanis in the vault were nearing the end of their tolerance. They had been inside for more than two hours, and there was no rescue in sight. In the State Department’s chamber they lay drenched with sweat and breathing shallowly through wet paper towels. Tear gas had blown back to the third floor, and some were gagging and vomiting. Temperatures rose as fires in the offices below burned hotter. Carpet seams burst from the heat. Floor tiles blistered and warped.
In the adjacent CIA code room, Miller, Schroen, Lessard, and a crew of CIA officers and Marine guards stared at a bolted hatch in the ceiling that led up to the roof. They wondered if they should try to force the hatch open and lead everyone to the fresh air above. A previous Islamabad station chief had installed the hatch for just this purpose. But about an hour into the attack, the rioters had discovered the passageway. They pounded relentlessly on the iron lid with pieces of a brick wall they had torn apart, hoping to break in. Some rioters poked their rifles into nearby ventilation shafts and shot. The sound of bullets crashing down from above was occasionally punctuated by even more jolting explosions as the fire crept up on oxygen tanks stored elsewhere in the building.
The group in the code room listened to the metallic clanging on the hatch for about an hour. Then one of the CIA communications specialists, an engineer of sorts, came up with a plan to wire a heavy-duty extension cord into the iron cover. “Those guys up there, I’m going to electrocute them!” he announced gleefully, as Gary Schroen later recalled it. He stripped to the waist and began to sweat as he attached large alligator clips to the hatch. “Now I’m going to plug this baby in, and the electricity’s going to kill them.” He was filthy and covered with bits of shredded documents. He thrust the plug into the wall. Four hundred volts of current seemed to fly up to the hatch, bounce off, and fly right back into the wall, where it exploded in sparks and smoke. “Goddamn it! The resistance is too much!”
The idea had seemed dubious from the beginning—the device wasn’t even grounded properly—and there was laughter for the first time all afternoon when it failed. But what other options did they have? The heat had grown unbearable inside the vault. “What are we going to do?” they asked. “They’re up there. What are we going to do?”
Another hour passed. Slowly the hatch bent under the rioters’ bricks. The concrete around it began to crumble into the code room. The CIA officers and Marines estimated they had about thirty minutes before the cover collapsed. But suddenly the banging stopped and the voices on the roof quieted. After a few minutes of silence the Gunney decided: “Let’s open the hatch and we’ll face what happens,” he said. The ambassador had given them the go-ahead to fire first to maintain security in the vault, and they had enough weaponry to make it a battle if it came to that.
Lessard and Schroen climbed ladders and popped the hatch halfway off. Half a dozen colleagues crouched below, shotguns primed, as Schroen recalled it, ready to shoot as soon as the rioters poured in.
“Guys, guys! When we open the hatch, if somebody’s up there, we’re going to drop down. Then shoot! Don’t shoot first!” They worked out a plan for sequential firing.
Schroen looked across the ladder at Lessard. “We’re going to die here if anybody—”
“Yeah, I think so, Gary.”
But they couldn’t open the hatch. They beat on the bolt, but the contraption was now so bent and warped that it wouldn’t pop. They pushed and pushed, but there was nothing they could do.
The sun set on Islamabad, and the noises outside began to drift off into the chilly November air. It was now about 6:30 P.M. Maybe the rioters were gone, or maybe they were lying in wait for the Americans to try to escape. David Fields, the administrative counselor, decided it was time to find out. He ordered the Gunney to lead an expedition out the third-floor hallway and up onto the roof. Fields told them they had the authority to fire on any rioters who got in their way.
Miller and his team of five sneaked out of the vault and into a hallway thick with smoke. They ran their hands along the curved hallway wall to keep track of their position and felt their way to the end where a staircase led to the roof. The locked metal door normally guarding access to the stairs had been torn off its hinges. The rioters had already been here.
With shotguns and revolvers locked and loaded, Miller cautiously guided his team up the stairs. As he poked his head out onto the roof, he fully expected a shoot-out. Instead, he saw a single Pakistani running toward him with hands raised high in the air and yelling, “Friend! Friend!” Miller gave the man a quick pat-down and found a copy of Who’s Who in the CIA stuffed in one of his pockets, suggesting that student leaders had planned, Tehran-style, to arrest their own nest of spies. Miller took the book and told the straggler to get lost. The Gunney would not fire his weapon that day, nor would any of the Marines under his command.10 The riot had finally dissipated. During the last hour it had degenerated gradually into a smoky, sporadic carnival of looting.
A few minutes after the expedition party set out, those still inside the vault heard the sound of the hatch being wrenched from above. An enormous U.S. Marine with hands like mallets ripped it off its moorings. Soon everyone from the CIA code room was up on the roof and staring over the chancery walls. Through the halo of smoke that ringed the building they looked across the embassy grounds and saw bright leaping flames where some of their homes had once stood. All of the embassy compound’s six buildings, constructed at a cost of $20 million, had been torched beyond repair.
Using bicycle racks stacked end to end, the Marines set up makeshift ladders and led the large group huddled in the vault to safety. It was now dark and cold, and the footing was precarious. Vehicle lights and embers from fires illuminated the ground in a soft glow. Some Pakistani army troops had finally arrived. They were standing around inside the compound, mostly watching.
When the last of those in the vault had been helped down, the Gunney turned to climb the ladder. The CIA men asked where he was going. “I’ve got to go get Steve,” he said. “I’m not going to leave my man up there.”
Minutes later he emerged with Crowley’s inert form wrapped in a blanket, slung across his shoulder. Crowley had died when the oxygen supply in the vault ran out. In flickering light the Gunney carried the body down the ladder to the ground.
“ALL REPORTS INDICATE all of the people in the compound have been removed and taken to safety thanks to the Pakistani troops,” State Department spokesman Hodding Carter told reporters in Washington later that day. In a telephone call, President Carter thanked Zia for his assistance, and Zia expressed regret about the loss of life. The Pakistani ambassador in Washington accepted the Americans’ gratitude and noted that Pakistani army troops had reacted “promptly, with dispatch.” Secretary of State Cyrus Vance hurriedly summoned ambassadors from thirty Islamic countries to discuss the Pakistan embassy attack and its context. Asked about the recent wave of Islamic militancy abroad, Vance said, “It’s hard to say at this point whether a pattern is developing.”11
It took a day or two to sort out the dead and missing. Putscher, the kidnapped auditor, was released by the students at Quaid-I-Azam around mid-night. They had called him “an imperialist pig” and found America guilty “of the trouble in Mecca and all the world’s problems,” but they decided in the end that he was personally innocent. He wandered back to the embassy, wounded and shaken.
Rescue workers found two Pakistani employees of the embassy in a first-floor office. They had died of apparent asphyxiation, and their bodies had been badly burned. In the compound’s residential section, workers found an American airman, Brian Ellis, twenty-nine, lying dead on the floor of his fire-gutted apartment. A golf club lay beside him; he had apparently been beaten unconscious and left to burn.
On Friday, a Pan American Airlines jumbo jet evacuated 309 nonessential personnel, dependents, and other Americans from Pakistan and back to the United States.
Saudi Arabian soldiers and French commandos routed the armed attackers at the Grand Mosque on Saturday in a bloody gun battle. The Saudis never provided an accounting of the final death toll. Most estimates placed it in the hundreds. Saudi interior minister Prince Naif downplayed the uprising’s significance, calling the Saudi renegades “no more than a criminal deviation” who were “far from having any political essence.” Surviving followers of the Mahdi, who had been shot dead, fled to the mosque’s intricate network of basements and underground tunnels. They were flushed out by Saudi troops after a further week of fighting. The building contractor who had originally reconstructed the mosque for the Saudi royal family reportedly supplied blueprints that helped security forces in this final phase of the battle. The Bin Laden Brothers for Contracting and Industry were, after all, one of the kingdom’s most loyal and prosperous private companies.12
The American treasury secretary, William Miller, flew into the kingdom amid the turmoil. He hoped to reassure Saudi investors, who had about $30 billion on deposit in U.S. banks, that America would remain a faithful ally. He also urged the Saudi royal family to use their influence with OPEC to hold oil prices in check.13 Rising gasoline prices had stoked debilitating inflation and demoralized the American people.
Saudi princes feared the Mecca uprising reflected popular anxiety about small Westernizing trends that had been permitted in the kingdom during recent years. They soon banned women’s hairdressing salons and dismissed female announcers from state television programs. New rules stopped Saudi girls from continuing their education abroad. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief, concluded that the Mecca uprising was a protest against the conduct of all Saudis—the sheikhs, the government, and the people in general. There should be no future danger or conflict between social progress and traditional religious practices, Turki told visitors, as long as the Saudi royal family reduced corruption and created economic opportunities for the public.
In Tehran, the Ayatollah Khomeini said it was “a great joy for us to learn about the uprising in Pakistan against the U.S.A. It is good news for our oppressed nation. Borders should not separate hearts.” Khomeini theorized that “because of propaganda, people are afraid of superpowers, and they think that the superpowers cannot be touched.” This, he predicted, would be proven false.14
The riot had sketched a pattern that would recur for years. For reasons of his own, the Pakistani dictator, General Zia, had sponsored and strengthened a radical Islamic partner—in this case, Jamaat and its student wing—that had a virulently anti-American outlook. This Islamist partner had veered out of control. By attacking the American embassy, Jamaat had far exceeded Zia’s brief. Yet Zia felt he could not afford to repudiate his religious ally. And the Americans felt they could not afford to dwell on the issue. There were larger stakes in the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. In a crisis-laden, impoverished Islamic nation like Pakistan, on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, there always seemed to be larger strategic issues for the United States to worry about than the vague, seemingly manageable dangers of political religion.
On the night of the embassy’s sacking, Zia gently chided the rioters in a nationally broadcast speech. “I understand that the anger and grief over this incident were quite natural,” he said, referring to the uprising in Mecca, “but the way in which they were expressed is not in keeping with the lofty Islamic traditions of discipline and forbearance.”15 As the years passed, Zia’s partnership with Jamaat would only deepen.
The CIA and State Department personnel left behind in Islamabad felt deeply embittered. They and more than one hundred of their colleagues had been left to die in the embassy vault; it had taken Pakistani troops more than five hours to make what was at maximum a thirty-minute drive from army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Had events taken a slight turn for the worse, the riot would have produced one of the most catastrophic losses of American life in U.S. diplomatic history.
The CIA’s Islamabad station now lacked vehicles in which to meet its agents. The cars had all been burned by mobs. Gary Schroen found a Quaid-I-Azam University jeep parked near the embassy, a vehicle apparently left behind by the rioters. Schroen hot-wired it so that he could continue to drive out at night for clandestine meetings with his reporting agents. Soon university officials turned up at the embassy to ask after the missing jeep—the university now wanted it back. Schroen decided that he couldn’t afford to drive around Islamabad in a vehicle that was more or less reported as stolen. He drove the jeep one night to a lake on Islamabad’s outskirts. There he got out and rolled it under the water. Small satisfaction, but something.