Eschatology within Sunni Jihadism and more specifically the ideology of the Islamic State can be traced back a Saudi movement that came to prominence in the late 1970’s. On 20th November 1979, a Saudi group named al-Jama’a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba (JSM) took control of the grand mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of people were killed, and thousands more held hostage in the siege until the Saudi security forces eventually broke through and captured many of the assailants, including the movements’ leader Juhayman al-Otaybi. Juhayman proclaimed one of his companions, Muhammad al-Qahtani as Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islam. The group were convinced that their consecration of The Mahdi in Mecca would precipitate the apocalypse.
Raziq describes the operation here, in an article for Harry’s place:
For weeks Juhayman and his followers loitered inside and outside Mecca. They then started filling up coffins with ammunition and carrying them in to the holy precincts. Onlookers simply thought they were empty coffins being prepared for future deaths. On November 20, 1979, Juhayman and his followers moved into the Grand Mosque of Mecca and locked the gates. The Mosque was now seized by him and a well-organized group of 1,300 to 1,500 men under his leadership. He also declared his son in law to be the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam. Thousands were still inside the Mosque when it was seized. Juhayman gave an address through the Mosque microphone, which could be heard all across the city. He made it clear that he had “liberated” Mecca and now wanted all Muslims to rise against the Saudi Kings.
When Juhayman was arrested he refused to speak to anyone until a group of scholars, who had taught him in Medina, visited him in prison. His teachers embraced him and wept severely and asked him for his justification. Juhayman replied that he was motivated by the turmoil of that time and that he hoped that if they called on Allah and asked for forgiveness that perhaps Allah would forgive them. The Saudi government however was in no mood for reconciliation and Juhayman was beheaded along with 67 members of his group on the 9th January 1980.
Whilst the wider implications of the group’s behaviour are subject to differing interpretations, there is little doubt that Juhayman himself was absolutely convinced of the messianic purpose of his mission. Indeed, the group only took enough food into the mosque to last one week; they packed dried milk, dates and bread into the Mosque’s basement before the operation, something which further suggests they believed that their actions would contribute to the bringing about of the apocalypse , and that they wouldn’t need to hold out for so long. The timing of the attack was also notable, as 20th November 1979 was the first day of the 15th century of the Islamic calendar, a date which coincided with the Sunni belief tradition Renewer of the Century, which prophesies the arrival of a great scholar at the beginning of each century. In this case, the scholar was to be Juhayman’s anointed Mahdi.
This is significant in understanding the intellectual genealogy of the Islamic State as, whilst Osama Bin Laden and Aymen Al-Zawahiri weren’t particularly influenced by the actions or writings of Juhayman, Abu Muhammed Al-Maqdisi has been. Whilst Maqdisi is now opposed to ISIS following the unamicable split between the group and Al-Qaeda, his works are still of critical influence when it comes to their theology. Indeed, some of their online pamphlets and publications are no more than lengthy quotes from Maqdisi himself. Before adopting his violent Jihadists positions, Maqdisi had been a member of Juhayman’s group in Kuwait, and to this day hosts a website called Tawheed which has been described as “al-Qa`ida’s main online library” . The website host a whole section dedicated to Juhayman and his ideas. Indeed Maqdisi’s writings have been described by Hegghammer and Lacroix as “being heavily influenced by Juhayman’s ideology”. As Cole Bunzel states “he [Maqdisi] read Juhayman, liked Juhayman and defended Juhayman’s writings”.
The apocalyptic influence of Juhayman is further visible in other forms in ISIS today. ISIS’ Mufti, Turki al-Binali, a Bahraini who formerly studied under Al-Maqdisi, quotes frequently from Juhayman’s work. In one piece of writing he asserts, “May god accept him among the martyrs” when referring to the siege led by Juhayman in 1979, something described as by Cole Bunzel as “uncritical judgement of the 1979 apocalyptic siege”. The names Juhayman and al-Otyabi also feature frequently in the nom-de-geurres adopted by ISIS fighters, particularly on social media – a form of homage. His name and photograph are also repeatedly tweeted by pro ISIS accounts.
All that being said, ISIS have thus far not appointed a Mahdi as did Juhayman, nor have they attempted any sort of exercise to capture the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Both of which would be huge moves. It would likely be extremely damaging for them to attempt to do either of these and fail – a case of the boy crying wolf, if you like. We know this because the apocalyptic chain of thought dominated the then Islamic State in Iraq’s (ISI) rationale in late 2006/2007. This period is when the group was undoubtedly at its weakest, and whilst other important factors contributed to this weakening, notably the U.S surge and the tribal Sahwa, the apocalyptic vision and failure to fulfil such prophesies was a serious cause for dispute in senior Al-Qaeda and ISI leadership circles.
The apocalypse does however remain fundamental to understanding the group’s actions, it is the only means by which we can rationalise some of their most inexplicable actions – the notable example here being their devotion to capturing and holding the unstrategic village of Dabiq. A study of Juhayman’s group, and an appreciation of his theological lessons may leave us better suited to dealing with the contemporary challenge of ISIS. As Jean-Pierre Filiu observes, “there is nothing in the least theoretical about this exercise … it is meant as a guide for action”.
If ISIS were to launch any sort of operation on Mecca or anoint a Mahdi, those wishing to see the downfall of the group would be wise to counter immediately – it would be an unprecedented opportunity to undermine the group’s theological credentials.
Bunzel, Cole. From Paper State To Caliphate: The Ideology Of The Islamic State. 1st ed. Brookings Institution, 2016.
Bunzel, Cole. From Apocalypse Now To Caliphate Now: Revisiting Juhayman Al-‘Utaybi’s Siege Of Mecca In 1979″”. 2015.
Hegghammer, Thomas, and Stéphane Lacroix. “REJECTIONIST ISLAMISM IN SAUDI ARABIA: THE STORY OF JUHAYMAN AL-‘UTAYBI REVISITED”. International Journal of Middle East Studies 39.01 (2007): 122a.
Hegghammer, Thomas, and Stéphane Lacroix. The Meccan Rebellion. Bristol, England: Amal Press, 2011.
McCants, William. The ISIS Apocalypse. 2016