Military history



The Rise of Radical Islam





Tehran, Mecca, Islamabad, and Kabul, November 4–December 24, 1979

THE TRANSITION FROM politically motivated to religiously motivated insurgency—from leftist to Islamist extremism—was the product of decades, even centuries, of development. It could be traced back to the writings of the Egyptian agitator Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s–1960s; to the activities of Hassan al-Banna, who founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1928; to the proselytizing of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who in the eighteenth century created the puritanical movement that would one day become the official theology of Saudi Arabia; even to Ibn Taymiyya, the fourteenth-century theologian who laid the foundation for declaring fellow Muslims to be takfir (apostates) and thus subject to attack; and to the seventh-century Kharijites who believed that only the most fundamentalist Muslims were fit to rule.1 But the epochal consequences of their ideas—which were to consign more-secular Muslim revolutionaries such as Yasser Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to growing irrelevance—did not seize the world’s attention until the fateful fall of 1979.

The fifty days that shook the world began on November 4, 1979. That morning, amid a light rain, protesters began scaling the brick walls of the U.S. embassy compound on Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue in Tehran. Iranian police charged with protecting the embassy did nothing to stop them. The shah of shahs, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a stalwart American ally, had been driven out of office earlier that year. But the nature of the post-shah government remained far from settled. Islamist supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who wanted to set up a theocratic dictatorship (velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist”) were jostling for influence with secular leftists and liberals. Many of the moderates were eager to continue their country’s alliance with the United States; Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan had just traveled to Algiers along with his foreign minister to meet with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the American national security adviser.

The embassy takeover had been organized by radical university students, including the future president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wanted to strike a blow not only against the “Great Satan” but also against Mehdi Bazargan and other secularists. Thousands of students had been mobilized to overrun the embassy grounds and provided with placards, identification badges, bolt cutters, even strips of cloth to bind their captives. With Marine guards ordered to hold their fire, it did not take them long to overwhelm the skeletal embassy staff. As the blindfolded hostages were led out of the chancery building, a vast throng shouted ecstatically God is Great! and Death to America! Khomeini had not known in advance of the takeover, but seeing that popular sentiment was behind the students he embraced their cause in order to consolidate his power. Bazargan resigned in protest, thus removing a major obstacle to the Supreme Leader’s accretion of absolute power.

President Jimmy Carter, good-natured to a fault, at first tried to be conciliatory and then ordered a hostage-rescue mission, which ended on April 25, 1980, in a fiery explosion at a rendezvous point in Iran code-named Desert One that killed eight American servicemen. The fifty-two hostages would not be freed until January 20, 1981, the very day that Carter left office and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Their 444-day, media-hyped ordeal would reveal America as a crippled giant, helpless to defend its own diplomats. Khomeini crowed, “Americans cannot do a damn thing.” He was thus encouraged to make anti-Americanism, along with anti-Zionism, the centerpiece of his attempts to mobilize the Iranian people behind his leadership and to spread the Iranian revolution abroad.2

Iran was not the only American ally to feel the wrath of the Islamists that fall. Saudi Arabia was also targeted. Unlike the shah, a secular Westernizer, the Saudi royals were already Muslim fundamentalists—but not fundamentalist enough for the most extreme Salafists, who harked back to an early version of Islam practiced by their “pious predecessors.” Hoping to spark a revolt that would overthrow the monarchy, hundreds of militants at daybreak on November 20, 1979, took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca—the holiest shrine in Islam—with rifles and automatic weapons they had smuggled inside coffins. Their leader was Juhayman al Uteybi, a bearded and volatile veteran of the Saudi National Guard who denounced the Saudi princes as “dissolute . . . drunkards” and castigated them for allowing “cinemas, clubs, and art shows” into the kingdom. Juhayman claimed that his brother-in-law, who also participated in the mosque takeover, was the Mahdi (messiah) who would usher in the Day of Judgment. Juhayman and his heavily armed followers bloodily repulsed initial attempts to retake the mosque. It would take two weeks and cost as many as a thousand lives for the Saudi security forces, with the help of French advisers, to end the uprising. Rebels who were not killed outright were tortured and executed.

In order to win the support of their religious establishment to fight in the holy of holies, the royals had to roll back the liberalization that had occurred in the 1960s–1970s. Women’s pictures were banished from newspapers, theaters closed, goon squads from the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice unleashed to crack down on any hints of sexuality in public. Even dog food was removed from supermarkets because dogs were considered unclean by pious Muslims. More menacingly, the Saudis increasingly resorted to what has been labeled “riyalpolitik” to safeguard their position. This meant increased spending to spread their harsh Wahhabi doctrine around the world: the very same doctrine that would one day inspire Osama bin Laden and his followers to turn on the Saudi monarchy and its backers in the West.3

The Saudis were so embarrassed at the seizure of the Mecca mosque that they tried, with some success, in the last pre-Internet decade, to black out all news about the incident, leading to wild speculation that the culprits were either Iranian agents or, alternatively, Jews and Americans. The latter theory spread like a raging wildfire through Pakistan.

On November 21, 1979, just one day after Juhayman had captured the Grand Mosque, mobs shouting “Death to American dogs!” converged on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. As in Tehran a few weeks earlier, the demonstrators overran the compound with relatively little resistance. The Pakistani army and police were just as disinclined to intervene as their Iranian counterparts had been. President Mohammed Zia ul-Huq was moving his country in a more Islamist direction, and he had no desire to alienate the radicals by fighting them. The embassy personnel avoided disaster only because the Pakistani protesters were not as well organized or as determined as the Iranian students. Flinging Molotov cocktails, they burned the embassy’s six buildings, but a hundred staff members took refuge in the secure-communications vault on the chancery’s third floor. Although the vault’s floor tiles cracked and buckled from the fires raging below, the Americans managed to hold out until nightfall when they emerged to find the mob gone. Only four embassy employees died—two Americans, two Pakistanis—along with two protesters. The outcome could have been worse, but the incident was bad enough: an ominous indicator of growing radicalization in the world’s second-most populous Muslim state.4

Islamists were by no means the only significant insurgents of the turn of the millennium. The post–Cold War period had also seen the reemergence of ethnic and tribal conflict, principally in Africa and the Balkans. Those wars of race were characterized by at least as much savagery as the wars of religion, and their body count has been even greater. They were, however, of limited interest to the West and then primarily as a humanitarian matter. The jihadists, by contrast, were of great concern to the West whether they were seen as a strategic ally (the Afghan mujahideen) or a threat (Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in Iraq). This section will look at all of these groups, whose full trajectory is not yet clear but which have already shown an ability to humble superpowers—whether in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan or in the rubble of the U. S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the World Trade Center in New York.

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