Late 1979 was the scariest period since the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the well-remembered landmarks being the Iranian hostage seizure on November 4, 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas. But the most bizarre and foreboding event came in between: on November 20, 1979 the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the absolute center of the Islamic religion, was seized and held for a bloody week against Saudi military assaults by ... a bunch of guys you had never ever heard of.
Who were they? Wikipedia explains:
The seizure was led by Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Otaibi, who belonged to a powerful family of Najd. He declared his brother-in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, whose coming at endtimes is foretold in many of the hadiths of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His followers took that the fact that Al-Qahtani's name and his father's name are identical to Muhammad's name and that of his father, and the saying ("His and his father's names were the same as Muhammad's and his father's, and he had come to Mecca from the north") to justify their belief. Furthermore, the date of the attack, 20 November 1979, was the first day of the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar, which was stated by another hadith as the day that the Mahdi would reveal himself.
Well, that clears that up.
Unsurprisingly, Muslims in a half-dozen countries responded with anti-American riots, burning American embassies in Pakistan and Libya.
Oddly enough, a third of a century later, the Saudi royal family is still going strong. In fact that's turned out to be a pretty good rule of thumb over my lifetime: whatever craziness happens, no matter how many predictions you read of imminent overthrow of the Saudi rulers, the Saudi royal family comes out okay. Of course, some day that will presumably stop being true, but in the meantime, it almost seems like the royals benefit from stuff like this happening.