Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the official in charge of security at the Grand Mosque, Major-General Yahya Al-Zahrani, about the challenges he and his men face, their plans for dealing with the influx of pilgrims while the site is being redevelopment, and the tools they have to do their job.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What strategies are involved in ensuring the security of the Mosque?
Major-General Yahya Al-Zahrani: The procedures this year are completely different from past years because of projects being implemented inside and outside of the Grand Mosque, specifically in the courtyard of circumambulation and the outer areas. State Security took an interest in these matters. Meetings and workshops were held to address relevant security issues, and to arrange how to enter and exit the Mosque. There was also coordination with the Department for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques in this regard.
Q: Did these preparations differ from those of previous years?
The fact of the matter is that Mecca has no periodic seasons. It cannot be said that this or that season witnesses a decrease in the number of pilgrims or visitors to the Grand Mosque, especially because the amra has become open and not seasonal. Furthermore, many make the pilgrimage during the season of domestic vacations. Nor can we forget the month of Ramadan and the Hajj season, which means that the work of the mosque security forces is around the clock and around the calendar in the Grand Mosque. Our preparations differ as these periods differ.
Q: How has your approach changed?
For example, during this period we have plans that take into account the realities on the ground. They differ entirely from the procedures for Fridays, which are always particularly crowded due to the vast numbers who come to perform Friday prayers in the Grand Mosque. The overarching approach adapts to the changes happening on the ground. Therefore, we rely on strategic back-up plans when crowds begin to gather within the Grand Mosque.
Q: Have any security lapses been recorded to date?
No, none, despite the projects. The integrated plans that adapt to the facts on the grounds have helped in this regard. This was the case despite the fact that we have had to increase our crowd control measures this year while equipment enters and exits the Grand Mosque, which necessitated its monitoring for the safety and security of the pilgrims.
Q: Is the season of Ramadan the most complex regarding surveillance?
The coming months will be critical in that large numbers of pilgrims and visitors will come to the Grand Mosque coinciding with the vacation at the end of the academic year. However these matters have all been taken into account and we have developed procedures to monitor and confront any problem that may arise. Furthermore, the kingdom’s leadership gives its utmost attention to serving the guests of God’s Holy House. Our work is not limited to security matters: the security personnel of the Grand Mosque help to organize and regulate the areas in and around the Mosque, in addition to humanitarian work.
Q: How do you deal with the surge in the number of pilgrims during the last ten days of Ramadan?
There are separate plans for each of the final ten nights, the nights of witr prayer, the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, and the khatam al-quran prayer. In implementing them, we rely on the security personnel of the Holy Mosque and the involvement of forces from State Security, Hajj and Amra personnel, and emergency personnel. We are aware that the Custodian of the Two Holy Places and all of the leaders are present in Mecca during this time to observe the progress of the works. Places that experience heavy congestion are overseen from the moment a pilgrim arrives at one of the public transportation hubs so that a surge in the number of pilgrims can be contained for a given time period in case the Grand Mosque and surrounding areas fill up.
Q: How does the surveillance process work?
We have an operations room which is outfitted with the most advanced technology which relay receives feeds of what is happening in and around the Mosque from 363 of 775 cameras. The presence of some projects have forced some of the cameras to be relocated. This has necessitated that new cameras be added and the organizational and security status of these areas be monitored in a addition to the crowds gathering therein.
Q: How are individuals dealt with in the event that any violation is observed?
All members of the security forces for the Grand Mosque are equipped with the latest technology. If the cameras spot any violations or surges in crowd density in and around the Mosque, individuals stationed throughout are notified via wireless devices. We act very swiftly if these developments are a security concern, or if it involves moving crowds to a less congested area.
Q: How many security personnel are there at the mosque?
There are about 1,800 security personnel and 29 officers in and around the Grand Mosque. The number of workers present on a work shift per day, whether internal patrols, guards, or those monitoring the premises, is about 400, with an officer for each site in addition to an officer with a leadership rank as the shift commander. The leadership is present around the clock.
Q: What is the area supervised by the Mosque’s security forces?
The force specialized in the security of the Grand Mosque is responsible for all of the entrances to the mosque and all of its floors, in addition to the surrounding areas, or what is named the first axis and the second axis. The force observes everything in this area.
Q: What are the most prominent points of the Hajj plan?
The Hajj plan differs from the rest of the seasons. There is no heavy presence in the mosque because the people are spread throughout the holy sites, and they differ in their rituals. There are those who circumambulate the Kaaba, those who ritually walk between the hills of Safa and Marwa, and those who throw rocks at the Jamarat. It reduces the constant presence inside the Grand Mosque, and there is no congestion within the mosque at prayer time, however the congestion is clear in the circumambulating and the ritual walking between the hills. This is the opposite of Ramadan, in which there is a constant presence in the mosque from after afternoon prayer until the end of taraweeh prayer. The congestion persists during the final ten days, so there are crowds in every place inside and outside the Mosque.
Q: How are incidents of theft detected, and are they frequent occurrences?
We do not deny the existence of incidents of theft or pick-pocketing, but the number is very low and not in the manner that has been circulated among the public. These incidents are dealt with directly and swiftly. No strange incidents have been observed that disturb the sanctity of the pilgrimage, and what has been observed are normal incidents of no real significance contrary to what has been reported elsewhere.
Q: So how do we explain the stories circulating about the loss of possessions from some pilgrims?
Some of the pilgrims believe that they have been exposed to incidents of theft, and the truth is that they lost their things during the performance of rituals and did not search for them or even inform the relevant authorities to confirm that they were stolen or fell from them and were held at the department of lost property. This lost and found contains large sums of cash, cameras, and cell phones. They fall from people during the circumambulation or during the ritual walking between the hills.
Q: How is this lost property dealt with?
We communicate through the employees at the department of lost property with the owner of the lost property if a number at which the dispossessed person can be contacted is found. A lot of possessions are returned to their owners if we can confirm that they are in fact the owners’ possessions. This takes place at the department of lost property. I hope that anyone who has lost something will immediately go to the office of lost property to recollect the money or the possessions that they have lost while performing the amra.
Q: What is the mechanism for dealing with this lost property if the owner cannot be identified?
In the event that there is no communication with the owners of the lost property and there is difficulty in reaching them during a specified time period, and the lost property is an official document, like a personal identity card, driver’s license, or passport, they are sent directly to the departments from which the documents were issued. Passports however are sent to their corresponding consulates. As for to missing valuables or cash, and after the specified time has passed, the specialized committee for that meets and decides the fate of this money, or the office of lost property submits it to the head of The Department for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques which has procedures with which it deals with the money in cases like this.
Q: What are some of the most striking observations that have been monitored inside the Mosque?
We in the leadership of the security forces for the mosque are proud of caring for and serving the pilgrims and visitors to the Grand Mosque, and we sincerely hope that there is cooperation with security personnel by the pilgrims from all cultures and nationalities, especially in the periods in which the Grand Mosque witnesses high concentrations of people. We work for their comfort, and thus it is not right for others to obstruct pilgrims in performing their rituals, when performing prayers in the hallways, in the courtyard of circumambulation, and in the area between the two hills.