Trofimov, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, meticulously reconstructs the events surrounding the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in a book that reads like a nonfiction thriller. The book presents the attack as "the first jihad operation of modern times" and postulates that "Saudi reaction to the uprising in Mecca set in motion the forces that produced the attacks of 9/11."
Repercussions from the siege ranged from attacks on U.S. embassies in several countries (a result of rumors that "Zionists and imperialists" had orchestrated the takeover) to simultaneous Shi'i uprisings in oil-rich areas of Saudi Arabia that threatened to destabilize the kingdom.
Trofimov exposes the tottering and duplicitous Saudi power structure and its dependence on the West. The political influence of the fundamentalist clerics is highlighted by the Saudi leaders' need to obtain a fatwa to storm the mosque, resulting in the retraction of the small gains made by women, more freedom to spread and teach extremist views both in the kingdom and abroad, and a crackdown on activities perceived as un-Islamic, which extended to Westerners resident in the country. In 2004, Prince Khalid al-Faisal admitted: "We have eliminated the individuals who committed the Juhayan [the name of the takeover's leader] crime but we have overlooked the ideology which was behind the crime."
Trofimov faults Western policymakers who downplayed the significance of the siege by attributing it to "a small group of religious fanatics" while mistakenly assuming that the Sunnis were their allies by default. Due to a deliberate campaign of disinformation, Western governments were unaware of the seriousness of the uprising and were led to believe it had been quelled even as it continued. Many Sunnis were sympathetic to the perpetrators of the uprising, which lead the Saudi rulers to compromise with the fundamentalist clergy on whose approval they depended to avoid being toppled.
The Siege of Mecca depicts how America's evacuation of its embassies in the wake of the siege emboldened Islamists, despite warnings from U.S. government officials that in hindsight were prescient. One such warning was articulated by Paul Henze, a Middle East scholar and former CIA station chief, who said that America should hold its ground because "we are well on our way to being cast as anti–Islamic … in most of the Muslim world. Local demagogues appetites are whetted … every time we look weak … If we do not stem this process, the Carter administration will have left its successors a legacy that will require many years to eliminate." Trofimov explores the consequences of not having heeded Henze's advice.