Some 2 million people are gathering in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites. The hajj is often called the largest single gathering of human beings on the planet and as such, it poses a host of security challenges. This year, amid the war on terror and worldwide alarm over the spread of a new strain of bird flu, the stakes are particularly high. RFE/RL correspondents Breffni O'Rourke and Charles Recknagel report.
Prague, 29 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As this year's hajj gets under way, Saudi authorities are trying to show in highly public ways that they are prepared for any terrorist attacks.
Yesterday, some 1,000 troops in Mecca -- including squads of snipers, bomb disposal experts, and border-guard units supported by helicopters -- paraded in a show of military might. As the soldiers marched in review, they displayed banners vowing to sacrifice themselves if need be for the pilgrims' safety. Some of the banners read "No to Terrorism" and "Our Souls Are a Cheap Price to Pay for the Nation's Well-Being."
Interior Minister Prince Nayef, speaking yesterday in the nearby port city of Jeddah, told reporters that the Saudi security forces would crush any attempt to disrupt the pilgrimage. "Islam is far from terrorism and rejects terrorism completely, and because Saudi Arabia is ruled by Islam and the people of Saudi Arabia are Muslim, Saudi Arabia rejects becoming a center or a passage for terrorists," he said. "Reality rejects this completely."
The Saudi government's security concerns are particularly high this year because the current hajj is the first since a series of suicide bombings killed more than 50 people in Riyadh in May and November. The pilgrimage occurs as Saudi forces continue a crackdown on militant groups that in recent months has seen the seizure of 23 tons of explosives across the kingdom along with at least one surface-to-air missile.
As the Saudi authorities highlight their readiness to deal with attacks, it remains highly uncertain whether any militant groups might actually want to target the hajj as a way to strike against the royal family. Some observers have argued that attacks are not likely because, while a successful attack might show the monarchy cannot protect the public, it also would severely diminish any sympathy for the groups themselves. Saudi militant groups -- often accused by Riyadh of having links with Al-Qaeda -- espouse overthrowing the monarchy and replacing it with a utopian society based on Islamic egalitarianism.
Professor Abdel Halim, director of the Islamic Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says that no terrorists, if they are Muslim, will come anywhere near the hajj. "No Muslim will take this opportunity because there is an emphasis in the Koran about the safety and peace of Mecca and all the area where the hajj takes place, and I do not believe they would [commit any act of terrorism] because it would be a tremendous propaganda blow against themselves," he said.
But some security analysts disagree. Shahram Chubin, research director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, says he does not believe terrorists would shrink from acts of violence because of the religious nature of the occasion. "These people -- [the terrorists] in general in the Muslim world -- are not guided by a particularly hard interpretation of the scriptures, of the Koran," Chubin said. "They interpret it in terms of their interests, and they say if this is a corrupt regime, it should be got rid of, and we have every right under the Koran to do it."
Other security concerns at the hajj include the possibility that some foreign pilgrims might stage anti-U.S. rallies over Washington's occupation of Iraq. Saudi authorities have long discouraged political rallies at the hajj and banned meetings or the raising of political slogans during the pilgrimage. That ban came after clashes between security forces and Iranian pilgrims protesting against Israel and the United States in 1987 left at least 400 people dead.
In addition to security threats, the hajj this year also presents unusually high health concerns due to the outbreak of a new strain of bird flu in Asia. Many pilgrims come from Pakistan and Indonesia, both countries where chickens have been infected with the virus. So far, the flu has claimed no known human victims in those countries but has killed at least eight people in Vietnam and two in Thailand.
It is not known yet whether people who catch the flu virus from poultry or wild birds can pass the disease on to other humans. But anxiety over the disease is reported to be prompting some pilgrims at the hajj to wear protective gauze masks over their faces.
To cope with health problems of all kinds, Saudi officials routinely keep large medical staffs on hand throughout the hajj. This year, the medical resources dedicated to the pilgrimage include 20 hospitals, 188 health centers, and 155 ambulances. The French news agency AFP reported that more than 100 medical specialists and nurses from Britain have also been brought in to supplement some 10,000 local doctors, nurses, and health administrators.
The health facilities are extensive because pilgrims participating in the hajj are of all ages and conditions. Heart attacks, exhaustion, illness, as well as traffic accidents, all take their toll as the masses of pilgrims move through the hajj's complex and sometimes physically demanding stages. The hajj reaches a climax this 31 January as the pilgrims ascend a hill known as Mount Arafat to stand in witness to their readiness to be judged by God.
A Saudi newspaper, "The Saudi Gazette," reported earlier this week that 113 pilgrims, mostly from Southeast Asia, had died since coming to Mecca for this year's hajj.
So far, there have been no mass accidents of the kind that in past years have sometimes claimed hundreds of lives. Among the most notorious of these was a stampede in 1990 that killed almost 1,500 people. Another was a fire fueled by high winds that swept through a tent city for pilgrims in 1997, killing more than 340.
Saudi officials yesterday released figures suggesting that the final number of pilgrims participating in this year's hajj may be less than an earlier predicted number of 2 million.
Immigration chief Abdul Aziz bin Jamil Sajini said yesterday 1.39 million pilgrims had arrived from abroad. Officials have said they will be joined by some "250,000 pilgrims from inside the kingdom, in addition to faithful from among Mecca residents."
To regulate the huge numbers of pilgrims coming to Mecca for each year's hajj, the Saudis apply a formula under which each Muslim country is allowed to send 0.01 percent of its Muslim population.