The Hajj: Challenges and Opportunities
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
More than 2 million Muslims from around the world are expected to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, that annual pilgrimage to Mecca that runs this year Dec. 18-21.
Because of the history of violence during the Hajj -- some of it extreme -- Saudi officials step up security during the period, and last week they concluded what they called the country's largest-ever anti-terrorism security sweep -- an operation that resulted in the arrest of more than 200 suspected al Qaeda militants. Riyadh said the operation was intended as a warning to militants who would seek to abuse the event and disturb the pilgrims. Because of past debacles during the Hajj, the Saudi government nowadays can be expected to deal with any militant activity quickly and harshly.
The Hajj brings Muslims from all the branches of Islam together in one city -- a city controlled by the Saudi government, which rigorously follows the conservative and strict interpretation of the Wahhabi branch of the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence. Sometimes this mixture makes for volatile confrontations, such as during the 1987 Hajj, when Saudi forces took action to suppress an anti-U.S. demonstration by Iranian pilgrims. The resulting confrontation between the security forces and protesters left more than 400 pilgrims dead and hundreds wounded. Following the incident, the Saudi government severely limited the number of Iranians allowed to attend the Hajj. Two bombings during the 1989 Hajj are believed to have been carried out in reaction to this anti-Iranian policy, and the Saudi government executed 16 Kuwaiti Shia found responsible for the attacks.
Perhaps the most dramatic incident related to the Hajj occurred Nov. 20, 1979, when, shortly after the end of the Hajj, hundreds of heavily armed militants led by Juhaiman al-Utaibi seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, taking several hundred lingering pilgrims hostage. Al-Utaibi, a former officer in the Saudi Arabian National Guard, condemned the Saudi government as corrupt and said that his brother-in-law, Mohammed al-Qahtani, was the Mehdi, the long-awaited redeemer of Islam foretold in Islamic holy writings. The mosque's seizure led to a two-week siege that resulted in the death of hundreds of pilgrims and militants, though the actual number of casualties is unknown, given Riyadh's reluctance to reveal details of the embarrassing event. In addition to the casualties inside the mosque, reports suggest that some 127 military personnel were killed and more than 400 wounded in the operation. The militants who survived the siege were tried and executed by the Saudi government.
The violence in Mecca that year had widespread repercussions. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini blamed the United States for the seizure of the mosque and, on Nov. 21, 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad was burned to the ground by an angry mob. On Dec. 2 of that year, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, was attacked and burned, resulting in the withdrawal of all U.S. government officials from the country until 2004.
Due to the sheer number of people involved in Hajj activities, many mishaps also have occurred over the years, including people being trampled, accidentally pushed off overpasses and killed in accidents involving cooking fires. During that last Hajj, 345 people were killed in a stampede during the ceremonial "stoning of the devil" and 76 people died when a hostel in Mecca collapsed in a narrow street. During the 1987 Hajj, 340 people were killed in the tent city in Mina when a cooking fire got out of control and raged through the crowded tents.
Although the Saudi government focused on the militant element during its recent security sweep, it would be a huge public relations risk for al Qaeda or other jihadist groups to use the Hajj as an occasion to conduct violent actions, given that the Muslim public would take a dim view of the disturbance of such an important ritual. Indeed, most of the past disturbances and violence during the Hajj have been instigated by Shiite actors, who operate from a different calculus. Even al-Utaibi waited until after the Hajj had officially ended to seize the Grand Mosque.
The Hajj, however, offers a number of unprecedented opportunities for militants to conduct a range of nonviolent activities.
The Saudi government requires special visas for people who wish to participate in the Hajj and attempts to screen out militants and other potential troublemakers. These efforts, however, are plagued by the same problems that afflict the screening systems of other governments, such as translation issues, problems in intelligence-sharing and document and identity fraud. In addition, it is difficult to verify the identity of an individual from an area that keeps no official records, or where records have been destroyed during war. For example, it is next to impossible to determine the true identity of an Iraqi, Palestinian, Somalian or Afghan tribesman, yet thousands of pilgrims have been granted visas to travel to Saudi Arabia from these locations.
This problem of vetting applicants is also significant in cases in which the government issuing identification documents might also have militant ties, such as Iran and the Hamas-controlled Palestinian authority in the Gaza Strip. Hamas representatives have told the media that they smuggled 2,200 passports out of Gaza via a tunnel this year, and that the passports were taken to the Saudi Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, for Hajj visas. The flood of visas issued by Riyadh as a result of this smuggling operation prompted the Egyptian government to open its border with Gaza on Dec. 3. The border had been sealed since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June, meaning travelers going from Gaza to Egypt had to pass through Israeli territory -- under the watchful eyes of Israeli officials. The opening of the border for the Hajj presents an unprecedented opportunity for Hamas to get operatives in and out of Gaza free from Israeli scrutiny.
Once pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government carefully controls their travel and, due to past events, makes special efforts to monitor those from places such as Iran. However, the sheer volume of people attending the Hajj makes it physically impossible to closely monitor the activities of the vast majority of the pilgrims. Furthermore, due to the closed nature of Saudi society and the fact that non-Muslims are forbidden to enter Mecca, it will be very difficult for intelligence and security officers from other countries to follow terrorism suspects to the Hajj or to monitor their activities once they are in Mecca.
This means that in addition to viewing the Hajj as a potential opportunity to stage attacks, militant operatives also can use the vast crowds as an ideal setting to conduct meetings or pass documents or messages via courier. For an organization such as al Qaeda, the pilgrimage to Mecca is an opportunity for representatives from all of its regional and affiliated groups to meet -- with very little chance of being monitored. Such a feat would be difficult at any other time and place.
The importance of meetings during the Hajj season has been highlighted in several biographies of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, including one on the PBS Frontline Web site. According to that biography, which purportedly was authored by an anonymous source close to bin Laden, the wealthy bin Laden family hosted hundreds of foreign pilgrims at their many homes during the Hajj season. The pilgrims who stayed in the bin Laden family homes while Osama was growing up reportedly included prominent Muslim politicians, jurists, theologians and militant leaders -- individuals who appear to have had a profound influence on the emerging world view of the young bin Laden.
Obviously, al Qaeda is not the only militant group that could take advantage of the Hajj gathering to meet. A group such as Hamas that has been largely isolated from the outside world also could use the Hajj as a chance to meet with operatives and supporters from the United States and Europe.
Militant groups may also use the Hajj as an excuse to relocate operatives for future operations. The Israelis undoubtedly will be watching very closely to see how many of the 2,200 pilgrims Hamas sent from the Gaza Strip do not return. It will perhaps be even more interesting for the Israelis to learn where these individuals go from Mecca. The travel patterns of Moroccan, Egyptian, Algerian and other militants leaving the Hajj will be likewise interesting to the United States and other concerned governments.
The Hajj also opens up the opportunity for militant groups to engage in fundraising. In addition to the well-documented use of donations to Muslim charities to finance militant groups, for many years now intelligence reports have indicated that wealthy donors from Saudi Arabia and other countries literally provide bags of cash to representatives of militant groups. This method of receiving large cash donations from wealthy and sympathetic Muslims has become even more important in the post-9/11 world, in which bank transactions and charities increasingly are scrutinized. Such cash can then be sent out of the country using the unofficial hawala system, or physically carried by a courier. During a time of such heavy travel and heightened weapons checks, a nondescript bag containing cash easily can be passed through an X-ray machine and carried onto a plane.