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Rochester doc recalls being in Saudi Arabia during attack at holy site

ROCHESTER — This November marks the 30th anniversary of the armed siege of the Grand Mosque at Mecca by fundamentalist insurgents, a two-week-long affair in Saudi Arabia that Dr. Terry Bennett witnessed firsthand.

Bennett, a general practitioner at the city's Clinic on the Common, said the siege was, to say the least, interesting — not to mention a little frightening — to witness through television news reports as he watched from Jeddah, a city on the coast of the Red Sea that serves as a gateway to Mecca some 40 miles away.

Bennett could not have gone to Mecca even if he had wanted to. Saudi law prohibits entry into Mecca by non-Muslims. Saudis referred to Bennett as a "Howaja," or irreligious foreigner. Bennett identifies himself as atheist. He did, however, break down some barriers in his time in the Middle East, he said — he believes he is the only non-Muslim, non-Middle Eastern physician to possess a private practice Saudi medical license.

He practiced medicine in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s and early 1980s. Originally hired to be a practitioner for a weapons technology company, he later opened his own clinic that served influential Saudi families like the bin Ladens, the Ali Rezas and the Zahids. He said the clinic was a success, providing health care to about 150 people a day, including the common folk who had no access to "useful health care."

Bennett's life in Saudi Arabia wasn't all work. An experienced scuba diver who had worked as a lifeguard before college, he made frequent trips to the coast, often to dive and spear fish with the affluent families.

He was on one such excursion on Nov. 20, 1979 when the Saudi Coast Guard approached his boat in an "ominous" hovercraft with guards carrying automatic weapons. Bennett said the Coast Guard asked him and his companion what they were doing, and eventually let them on their way. They gave no indication that a violent hostage situation was unfolding in Mecca at the Al-Masjid al-Haram, the world's largest mosque and the holiest site in the Islamic religion.

Only when they returned from their day trip and turned on the television did they find out about the attack. Bennett said the news reports were "out of this world" — images of intense violence juxtaposed with sterile reports from government-run news agencies with reporters in "gowns" providing "detail-starved" reports against a white backdrop.

One of the more vivid broadcast images was of a Saudi general who thought the siege was the work of a "pack of pranksters," Bennett said. He walked inside the mosque's walls and was shot dead, a moment broadcast to those watching the reports.

"Then they decided it was serious," Bennett said.

During the siege, the violence "killed a hell of a lot of people," Bennett said. The surviving men held responsible for the incident were eventually publicly beheaded. But Bennett said the United States — who some Saudi propagandists blamed for the event — did not learn a valuable lesson from what unfolded at the mosque.

"They never did get that they were teaching terrorism in the school," Bennett said. "I'm still not sure we have figured out what happened on that day."

He blames terrorist attacks on the Wahhabi sect, which he said holds to a strict interpretation of the Koran and believes in death to dissenters. He said while they are not mainstream, they are well financed and preach an enticing message to impressionable youths.

"If you believed in Heaven, and could get there by walking into a crowd of innocents with a bomb, would you?" Bennett asked.

A study published by the nonprofit Freedom House says Wahhabis condemn all non-Muslims as "infidels."

Bennett said that using the money America spends on the war on terror could alternatively be used to create quality schools to compete with the Wahhabi.

He described Osama bin Laden, who he does not know if he ever saw as a doctor, as the family outcast. He believes the Wahhabi schools taught bin Laden a hatred of the West and a narrow view of the Koran, though scholars disagree about his affiliation with the sect.

Until the fight against terrorism focuses on education, and until America becomes independent from Middle East oil, Bennett believes terrorism will continue to be a major problem in the Middle East.

"We didn't learn anything (from the Mecca siege) and again, I'm not sure we have (post 9-11)," he said.

Posted August 21, 2009, Fosters