The United States Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, is attacked by a mob and set on fire.
On 21 November 1979, Pakistani people, enraged by a radio report claiming that the United States had bombed the Masjid al-Haram, Islam’s holy site at Mecca, stormed the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, and burned it to the ground. The Grand Mosque had suffered a terrorist attack, but the U.S. was not involved. The U.S. diplomats survived by hiding in a reinforced area, although Marine Security Guard Corporal Steven Crowley, 20, Army Warrant Officer Bryan Ellis, 30, and two Pakistan staff members were killed in the attack.
On 20 November 1979, a Saudi Arabian Islamic zealot group had led a takeover of the Mosque in Mecca. The group’s demands included calling for the cutoff of oil exports to the United States and the expulsion of all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arabian Peninsula. However, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini allegedly claimed that Americans were behind the attack on Islam’s holiest place. This claim was repeated in media reports the morning of 21 November.
The event started as a small, peaceful protest against U.S. policies in Cambodia, as well as suspected U.S. involvement surrounding the military coup d’état of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977. The protesters shouted anti-American slogans. At first glance the event seemed to be a small protest outside the embassy’s walls. Later, buses filled with Jamaat-i-Islami supporters began arriving in front of the main gate. Hundreds of people began climbing over the walls and trying to pull the walls down using ropes. According to an American investigation, the protesters opened fire after a bullet fired at the gate’s lock by one rioter ricocheted and struck other protesters. Who actually fired first has not been determined. Twenty-year-old Marine Steve Crowley was struck by a bullet and transported to the embassy’s secure communication vault along with the rest of personnel serving in the embassy. Locked behind steel-reinforced doors the Americans waited for help to come and rescue them from the smoke-filled building.
After nightfall a Marine unit was able to sneak out a back exit from the vault as the front door was too damaged to open. Finding the embassy empty they led the rest of the 140 people from the vault out into the courtyard.